Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

A Roll of the Dice
distributed 7/1/05 - ©2005

If you roll a die (that's half of a pair of dice) there's an equal chance for any one of the six sides to be on top.

If you roll it again, a different number will probably show. If you roll it 30 times, it is likely that each side will have appeared about 5 times -- maybe 4, maybe 6, but the distribution of the six sides should be pretty close to even.

If you roll the die 6,000 times, well, you have too much time on your hands, and you might want to find a more productive way to amuse yourself. But, if you do carry out that tedious exercise, it is very likely that each of the six faces of the cube will have surfaced just about 1,000 times. If, however, in that long series, there are 2,000 times when the side with a single dot rolls to the top, you'd better check to see if the die is loaded, or if there's something odd about how you're throwing it.

Roll the die once or twice, and it is impossible to tell if the game is fair. Real questions about cheating only can be raised when a distortion from the expected statistical pattern shows up in a long series of events.

I lift up this basic perspective on statistics -- not to encourage you in gambling -- but because it is of great importance in a landmark study about environmental justice.

In 1987, the United Church of Christ (UCC) Commission for Racial Justice released a report titled, Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. The UCC research took data from the Environmental Protection Agency about the location and character of hazardous waste sites, and combined it with demographic information from the US Census Bureau. By using such large data sets, the researchers were able to look at broad statistical patterns, and avoid the quirks and uncertainties of individual cases. The study documented "a startling and disturbing trend -- the locations of toxic waste sites are disproportionately linked to communities of color in the United States."

Let's go back to rolling dice. Each side of the die -- in the long run -- should come up about 1/6 of the time. Each face will have a roughly equal presence.

Similarly, when you're dealing with race, each racial or ethnic group should show up in a particular sample in about the same percentage as their share of the total population. Who knows if any one individual is a victim of discrimination or bias? But when the statistical percentages are way off from what would be expected, there is real cause for concern.

The Toxic Wastes and Race study looked at both race and income as factors in relation to exposure to hazardous chemicals. They found that there was a much stronger bias -- a much greater chance of toxic exposure -- on the basis of race than on the basis of income. In the face of those findings, the church leaders coined the term "environmental racism" to describe the racial impacts of decisions about locating environmental hazards.

The UCC study was updated in 1994, and found similar -- or even worse -- bias to the original 1987 report. The Executive Summary of the update includes these figures:

  • In 1993, people of color were 47 percent more likely than whites to live near a commercial hazardous waste facility.
  • As in 1980, the percentage of people of color in 1993 remains three times higher in areas with the highest concentrations of commercial hazardous waste facilities than in areas without commercial waste facilities.
Is it racism when the Martinez family lives next to a Superfund site? It is hard to say. But when people of color, overall, are 47% or 300% more likely to face those risks, it is pretty clear that we're looking at the damaging effects of institutional racism.

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Environmental justice -- a positive statement that is the alternative to environmental racism -- has its roots in longstanding struggles in the US for racial and economic justice. Environmental disparities are decried as yet one more item on the list of unfair treatment: health care, education, and other social services.

It is not a good thing if anyone is exposed to the nasty chemicals that ooze from waste sites, or the mercury that settles from power plants, or the soot that triggers asthma. As a general matter, it is appropriate to work at cleaning up that pollution everywhere.

As a matter of social justice, there is a different importance in addressing the statistical imbalances. While it is not good that anyone should be exposed, it is not fair that some groups are exposed at far higher levels than others.

The environmental justice movement is a blessing to our society, even when it names distressing and difficult realities. The extensive research and advocacy on that theme have identified root causes of the problem -- some intentional, others not -- and have made environmental justice a constant consideration in US environmental law.

I give thanks for the leadership of the United Church of Christ in identifying this point of intersection between environmental degradation and racism. The environmental movement will be strengthened as it takes seriously the ways in which race and class influence our priorities and perspectives in caring for all of God's creation.

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Detailed information about pollution, race and class is now available to you through the Internet. Enter your ZIP code at the "Scorecard" website by Environmental Defense, and you can see fascinating -- and disturbing -- data for your own county and state. I encourage you to visit the Scorecard site. Spend some time getting a personal feel for the ways race and class intersect with environmental risk in the US, and ponder what that means about the eco-justice ministries of your congregation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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