Black and green: The fight against environmental racism

Every year, Earth Day generates stories about the outdoors, wildlife, clean-up efforts and other reminders that our actions affect the air we breathe, the water we drink and the earth we depend on for food.

This year, many environmental organizations have taken on issues related to environmental racism, but while that may be laudable, Fred Tutman, who’s been active in environmental work for decades, said there is still a “tone deaf” quality to what many older, established — and largely white — environmental groups are doing.

“They don’t want to look racist,” he said, but he’s not sure how much willingness there is to attract new, Black members “with different ideas” and priorities.

Tutman is the Patuxent Riverkeeper, a position that’s part of the Waterkeeper Alliance, a group with a network of grassroots organizers fighting for clean water. His family’s roots along the river reach back generations, and he’s served as Patuxent Riverkeeper since 2004.

Tutman said the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer accelerated the movement by many environmental groups to deal with racism.

“I think it’s bigger than George Floyd, but I think it brought to the fore the different reality that people of color live with,” Tutman said.

For years, Tutman said, there was a supposition that Black communities didn’t care about the environment. He scoffs at the idea.

“I’ve never found a community of any stripe, of any color, that didn’t care about the water, the air and the open space,” Tutman said.

He said that traditional environmental movements have focused on protecting a sort of privileged outdoor experience, with an emphasis on recreational activities like hiking, kayaking and skiing.

“Compared to communities that are suffering genuine health disparities based on environmental causes — dirty water, filthy land, toxic surroundings — those are different frames. They’re not the same movement, really,” Tutman said.

As the Patuxent Riverkeeper, Tutman is currently working with residents in Lothian, Maryland, and is quick to point out “the citizens are really driving the bus” on trying to clean up multiple sources of pollution.

“We’re really working long term with the community of Lothian to build community power to take on these fights one at a time if necessary.”

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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