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Until 1987, the fight for racial and economic justice had been a story of oppressive institutions andpersonal prejudice. Civil rights had become a narrow competition for resources among groups – the rightto take a fair firefighter’s exam, to get into medical school, to be charged the same rent as everyone else.We had moved from Martin Luther King’s sublime dream of brotherhood on the Red Hills of Georgia tosibling rivalry over scraps on a table in a courtroom.At a time when the crowds were silenced,Toxic Wastes and Racesaid that the rocks and stonesthemselves could sing of justice and of injustice. That even when “the man” wasn’t troubling ourdoorstep, the rough tumble of racism could as soon come at us on the air we breathe, the water we drink,and the land we stand on.
90Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 19872007When we can hear the earth’s cry for justice, how much more carefully do we hear our own! The deepand clear teaching of environmental justice in 1987 as today is that these cries are one and the same.When you see a river that is polluted, you see a community that is oppressed. When you see youngpeople incarcerated, you find their parks and yards contaminated. When the people are brown, all toooften, so is the air. In short, environmental justice reminds us, in language for our times, that an injusticeanywhere is an injustice everywhere, an injustice to anything is an injustice to every thing, and everybeing.The UCC report helped prepare us for the times of war and economic hardship that we face today.Environmental justice made it clear that from the oil beneath the Middle East to the grape orchards ofNorthern California, mastery over nature is inextricably tied to mastery over people. The environmentaljustice movement showed once and for all that justice means not fragmentation but connection, notindividualism but community, not smokestacks but ecosystems.These insights are the foundation for a road to peace, justice, and planetary prosperity. Two words,together, tell the story of our survival and of our deepest contentment: environmental justice. If we canachieve environmental justice, if we can live right with the earth and with each other, then we will haveachieved the dreams of so many before us and made possible those of so many who come after.Toxic Wastes and Raceand the movement it has sparked make the solution so plain: justice will not bereduced to a courtroom and a written proof. Rather, it will be prosecuted in the air and on the ground, forpeople and for the earth, and, as has been true since long before 1987, environmental justice will set usfree._________Michel Gelobter is the President of Redefining Progress, the country’s leading policy institute for smarteconomics—policies that help people protect the environment.