Shannon Williams

At the end of the day, it is not enough for African-Americans to fight for equality for our race without fighting for the survival of the human race.

It won’t matter whether we can live in any neighborhood in America we choose if mankind has to find another planet to live on.

In other words, we must take care of our planet, Mother Earth. If we don’t protect our environment, we could find ourselves struggling for the very survival of humanity. 

Fortunately, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) recognizes what many people are facing. The Indiana Conference of the NAACP, along with the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus and the Twin City Ministerial Alliance, will be hosting the Protecting the Urban Environment Symposium on March 31 at the IU McKinney School of Law, 530 W. New York St. in Indianapolis.

The event will address the ongoing environmental problems that come with the “legacy of lead” in some of the state’s cities and how lead contamination can devastate communities. 

In one example, residents of East Chicago’s West Calumet Housing Complex were recently told about high levels of lead and arsenic around their homes. They were ordered by the mayor to evacuate. In other areas of the city, some residents received letters from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) informing them of contamination around their homes. 

Residents of East Chicago, a city where African-Americans and Latinos make up more than half of the population, have faced the possibility of an environmental crisis such as the one that took place in Flint, Michigan, in 2015. That city infamously made headlines after its water supply became contaminated with lead, which can cause a variety of health problems.

“The residents, homeowners, churches and businesses, too, have all been negatively impacted,” said Barbara Bolling-Williams, president of the Indiana NAACP State Conference. “We want to see justice not just for some, but for all who find themselves victims of the toxic environment.” 

Fortunately, several steps have been taken to correct the problem. East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland has asked the state for $50 million to fund a massive cleanup that includes the replacement of lead pipes, and Gov. Eric Holcomb, recognizing the urgency of the challenge, extended a state disaster declaration covering East Chicago’s lead contamination problem for another 30 days. 

The EPA has declared areas of the city as part of the USS Lead Superfund site, which enables the agency to demolish contaminated buildings and remove debris and soil that contain lead. According to the EPA, more than $16 million used for the cleanup has been funded by a settlement between angry residents and industrial companies largely held responsible for the contamination.

I would strongly encourage everyone to attend next week’s symposium hosted by the NAACP, because environmental issues form part of the new frontier of the battle for civil rights, along with the legal system, economics, education and health care.

The event also offers us an opportunity to support affected residents by donating water filters, bottled water and osmosis systems. 

Unfortunately, there are many people who do not share the NAACP’s concern for environmental justice, including many of the nation’s elected officials. 

Attorneys general from 17 states have sent a letter to the EPA calling on the agency to stop its “federal overreach,” or direct involvement in local environmental cases that can be otherwise handled by state officials. They have also accused the agency of operating illegally during the Obama administration.

Among those who signed the letter for a reduction of the EPA’s power is Indiana Attorney General Curtis Hill, who, like the others, is a Republican flatly opposed to any policies left over from the Obama years.

Some archconservative Republicans believe the EPA is inefficient and that its very existence is unconstitutional. They want to see the financial plug pulled on the agency. 

However, where will that leave residents such as those in East Chicago? If funding and enforcement powers of the EPA are reduced, how will they receive justice when they are placed at risk for lead poisoning through no fault of their own?

It is important that they remember that it was a Republican president, Teddy Roosevelt, who led the development of America’s parks system and strongly encouraged environmental conservation. It was also a Republican president, Richard Nixon, who strengthened the EPA’s powers during the early 1970s. Many Republicans in Congress supported passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water acts. 

So when Republicans seek to destroy or handicap the EPA, they are turning their backs on their own heritage as a party.

If a lifelong conservative and devoted Republican like Eric Holcomb can recognize the importance of protecting the environment, what is keeping many of his cohorts in the GOP from the doing the same? Perhaps they are receiving too many donations from polluting companies who do not want to be held accountable.

Hill’s opposition to the EPA’s involvement is particularly troubling, given that the agency is meeting an urgent need in his state, as well as the fact that he is an African-American whom one would think would be understanding of the challenges faced largely by people of color in East Chicago. It is one thing for someone to stand on principle; it is another for them to stubbornly deny the facts that are right in front of them.

Hill has already raised eyebrows with his opposition to drug treatment programs for nonviolent addicts, saying punishment should come before any treatment, despite the results of research that shows how treatment programs can stop the revolving door of the criminal justice system. 

Does Hill want to help move Indiana forward with solutions, or does he just want to appeal to a reactionary political fringe in order to run against incumbent Democratic Sen. Joe Donnelly next year or one day succeed Holcomb as governor? 

Time will tell.

Have a good week, and we look forward to seeing you at the NAACP symposium.

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