It's the triple whammy of race, poverty and environment converging nationwide to create communities near pollution sources where nobody else wants to live. Black leaders from the Civil Rights Movement called the phenomenon environmental racism, and beginning in the early 1980s, they documented the pattern at North Carolina’s Warren County PCBs landfill, Louisiana's "Cancer Alley," Chicago's South Side, Tennessee’s Dickson County, Houston's Sunnyside garbage dump and other places across the country.
About 56 percent of the nine million Americans who live in neighborhoods within three kilometers of large commercial hazardous waste facilities are people of color, according to a landmark, 2007 environmental justice report by the United Church of Christ. In California, it’s 81 percent. Poverty rates in these neighborhoods are 1.5 times higher than elsewhere.
Those numbers, however, reflect a miniscule portion of the threats faced by nonwhite and low-income families. Thousands of additional towns are near other major sources of pollution, including refineries, chemical plants, freeways and ports.
Richmond is one of these beleaguered towns, on the forefront of the nation's environmental justice struggle, waging a fight that began a century ago.
Nowhere else to go
In the San Francisco Bay Area, African Americans didn't move next to an oil refinery by chance.
Early black settlers came to California as part of a migration between 1890 and the 1920s, many following family and friends to emerging industry in the East Bay. They escaped Jim Crow traditions of the South, but "lived a tenuous existence on the outer edges of the city's industrial vision, trapped at the bottom of the economic and social hierarchy," according to Sacramento State University professor Shirley Ann Wilson Moore in her book, To Place Our Deeds.
During World War II, blacks again arrived mainly from southern states seeking jobs in shipbuilding plants built under government contract with industrialist Henry J. Kaiser. Henry Clark's father, Jimmy Clark of Little Rock, Ark., came seeking opportunity as the first town barber.
Richmond turned to segregated housing in the decade after its 1905 incorporation. When Kaiser got the war contract for shipbuilding in 1941, most of Richmond's African American population was concentrated in and around North Richmond. Early records describe North Richmond as bordering a garbage dump with few streetlights, scarce fire and police protection and unpaved streets turning to "muddy quagmires in the rain."
The Richmond Housing Authority, in 1941, was told by the federal government to provide low-cost housing to the shipyard workers who swelled Richmond to a city five times its earlier size. But by 1952, no African American had lived in any of Richmond's permanent low-rent housing. There was nothing in rentals or sales available to blacks in the central city.
Nonwhites were pushed to unincorporated North Richmond and other neighborhoods dominated by the refinery, chemical companies, highways, rail yards and ports.
"It was the only land available to them when they wanted to purchase property. People don't put themselves in harm's way intentionally," said Betty Reid Soskin, 93, who moved to the Bay Area with her family when she was eight. She lectures on the African American experience in World War II at the National Historical Park's Rosie the Riveter project in Richmond. “Real estate developers could determine where you lived. The local banker could determine who could get mortgages.”
"Social policy determines history," Soskin said. "We have developed sensitivities to environmental injustice, and those sensitivities did not exist during that time."