US Catholics allergic to reality of environmental racism, theologian says at St. John's University

This story appears in the Francis: The Environment Encyclical feature series. View the full series.

by Peter Feuerherd

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Catholic environmentalists need to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, Fr. Bryan Massingale, theology professor at Marquette University, told a conference at St. John’s University here on Saturday.

"We all live on the same planet but we don’t breathe in the same air. Some environments are more equal than others," said Massingale, who cited how minority communities have been used as dumping grounds for decades. "The poor and communities of color bear risks that would be unacceptable" for white and more affluent areas. These communities, he said, have long been "sacrifice zones" of environmental degradation, places where unwanted waste is disposed.

Titled "Care for Our Common Home: The Cry of the Earth and the Cry of the Poor," the conference was the ninth such biennial gathering that St. John’s, a Vincentian university, has held on social justice matters. Speakers included theologian Erin Lothes of the College of St. Elizabeth and several experts in sustainable development. Massingale delivered the keynote address.

"We are not faced with two separate crises," said the priest, citing what he described as an environmental and racism disaster inflicted upon the people of Flint, Mich. -- a city that is largely African American and poor.

"Environmental racism is a reality in this country," Massingale said, faulting elements in the Catholic green community for being concerned about the earth with much less concern about some of the people who inhabit it.

He praised Pope Francis, who, in his encyclical "Laudato Si’ on Care for Our Common Home," links the two crises, frequently citing shortcomings in the "human ecology" of lack of access to basic needs such as clean water and housing.

More: "Conference presents black Catholic perspective on climate change" (Nov. 11, 2015)

Even with the pope’s insights, Massingale said, Catholic environmentalists often fail to see the links between racism and the environment. He noted how some Catholic environmentalists complained on a website in last June that the papal encyclical launch was being overshadowed by media coverage of the killings in a church by a white supremacist in Charleston, S.C.

He said that American Catholics in general have "an allergy" to talking about racial issues, even when race is evident.

The situation, for example, in Flint -- where residents, despite frequent complaints to governing authorities, have been drinking and bathing in contaminated water for more than a year -- is a stark example of environmental racism in action. He said that such a crisis would never have been allowed to continue in more affluent cities.

Flint, governed by a state-appointed manager, no longer has democratic rule for its largely minority and poor population. That undemocratic system allowed an intolerable situation to continue, he said.

More: "Donations stream into Catholic Charities amid Michigan water crisis" (Jan. 14, 2016)

Massingale said that racism "enables people to not care for people who are not like them" and is the root cause of many environmental crises.

That racism is not only evident in the wider culture, it is also part of American Catholic life as well.

In Catholic circles, he said, racism is often defined as individual acts of rudeness and discrimination, remedied by appeals to overcome personal sin. It is, however, Massingale said, a more systemic issue.

And, even while immigrants, many of them black and brown, continue to redefine what it means to be a Catholic American, leadership still sees European Catholic culture as normative. He described participating in the writing of a bishops’ pastoral on racism, a document which was never completed. "Our people will get mad," said one consulting bishop about the concerns raised. Another commented, "Our people will not understand."

Who were "our people" that they mentioned? Both bishops, said Massingale, defined themselves, their people and the church in the United States as white.

Other speakers at the conference -- held at the third largest and most ethnically-diverse U.S. Catholic university in the country -- agreed with Massingale. The speakers at the meeting, sponsored by St. John’s Vincentian Center for Church and Society, argued that the crisis articulated in Laudato Si’ is increasingly urgent.

"Environmental pillage has been catastrophic," said Anthony Annett, climate change and sustainable development advisor at the Earth Institute of Columbia University. He described the encyclical as a social document, not merely an environmental manifesto, concerned with people’s relationship to God, the earth and humanity.

Elham Seyedsayamdost, researcher and developmental specialist and visiting scholar at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, noted that the 21st century has witnessed three times as many natural disasters documented per decade as the previous century. Most of the impact of those disasters were felt by poor people who are least responsible for growing carbon fuel pollution, which many experts see as contributing to global climate change.

John C. Mutter of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, and author of The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Poorer, said the Hurricane Katrina disaster, as one vivid example, fell most heavily on the poor of New Orleans. For decades those with means had established themselves in flood-free areas, he said, away from the industrial canal system that enveloped the poor neighborhoods of New Orleans with water, bringing death and destruction to thousands.

[Peter Feuerherd is a journalism professor at St. John’s University and frequent NCR contributor.]

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