Undeniably, we are living in upside down times. Scientific facts are renamed by some as hoax-driven data. The media is accused of “fake news,” while their critics are fine with offering up “alternative facts.” And the scorching reality of the systemic racism riddling our courts and on the streets of the nation is blithely denied by the US Attorney General.
I thought it couldn’t get any worse in the environmental space. Rollbacks of regulations, the worsening wildfires and devastating hurricanes, and the challenge of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic were beyond overwhelming.
I was wrong.
On September 4, a directive came down from the Executive Office of the President, via the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). It was directed to the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies and was signed by Director Russell Vought. The subject was “Training in the Federal Government.” The first lines stated: “It has come to the President’s attention that Executive Branch agencies have spent millions of taxpayer dollars to date “training” government workers to believe divisive, anti-American propaganda.”
In the remaining four paragraphs, Vought wrote about “core American values” and the misuse of taxpayer dollars. He then informed recipients of the missive that his office would be sending more details. He also instructed: “In the meantime, all agencies are directed to begin to identify all contracts or other agency spending related to any training on “critical race theory,” “white privilege,” or any other training or propaganda effort that teaches or suggests either (1) that the United States is an inherently racist or evil country or (2) that any race or ethnicity is inherently racist or evil. In addition, all agencies should begin to identify all available avenues within the law to cancel any such contracts and/or to divert Federal dollars away from these un-American propaganda training sessions.”
Besides being bizarre, how is this relevant to environmental issues?
A speaker series titled “Structural Racism and Environmental Justice” had been designed for the learning benefit of those within the EPA. The first session, which took place in August, proceeded without a problem. But now, until further clarification, the future of the talks is in limbo.
I was first introduced to the realities of how environmental inequities are baked into the daily lives of minority populations when I interviewed Dr. Robert Bullard, the “Father of Environmental Justice.” There is documented evidence that toxic industries have intentionally been placed adjacent to poor neighborhoods. More recently, there has been research into the connection between the redlining of neighborhoods, and how black and brown communities were specifically designed in a way that gave them less green spaces.
The EPA is in shambles. Administrator Andrew Wheeler constantly undermines the mission of the agency. He strips out established rules, while explaining that it’s going to be beneficial.
Perhaps a more accurate assessment of Wheeler’s intentions – and the administration that he works for – can be judged by the measures taken in the realm of dollars and cents. The latest budget proposals have asked for a virtual halving of the EPA’s present $9.5 million enforcement budget for environmental justice. They are looking to eliminate $4.8 million.
I reached out to Dr. Mustafa Santiago Ali, who worked at the EPA for twenty-four years, for his reaction to the letter. During his tenure, he was instrumental in bringing attention to the vulnerability of frontline communities and how their needs were not being met by policies. He resigned from his leadership post at the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice (EJIWG) in 2017.
His comments were succinct: “Cancer doesn’t cure itself by pretending that it doesn’t exist, and the impacts of systemic racism on environmental justice communities won’t disappear by not talking and learning about them. The Trump Administration’s recent moves to censor the truth about impacts happening in vulnerable communities reinforces the fact that Black, Brown and Indigenous lives have little value to this Administration.”
I also asked Ali why he left the EPA. He said, “I left because they were going to make more people sick and unfortunately take more people’s lives based on their proposed actions.”
Does that sound un-American to you?