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Baptists Must See Crisscrossing of Race, Poverty and the Environment

Goodwill Baptists in North America are having feverish public and private conversations about next steps. Of course, trying to get Baptists heading in the same direction is like herding cats, a near impossibility.

Nonetheless, it is a moral imperative that we work together for the common good, building on the highly successful New Baptist Covenant gathering. And one way to do this is to identify next steps to address shared pressing social problems.

Prior to the highly successful Al Gore luncheon on earth stewardship, a perceptive Euro-American Baptist pastor shared his concern about whether African-American Baptists would really attend the luncheon. Embedded in his concern was the notion that the environment was really a “white” issue.

After the luncheon, a pivotal African-American leader shared that the environment was not one of the moral priorities on the agenda of African-American Baptists. He did not discount the moral imperative to care for the earth, but he did say that poverty was a more pressing concern than planet care.

Both conversations disclosed a perceptual divide between two racial groups over a critical issue: the environment in general and global warming in particular.

Race, poverty and the environment are interlocking issues that demand a new way of moral thinking and mission action among goodwill Baptists who support the New Baptist Covenant.

If we segregate out the environment as a “white” issue, then we fail to address comprehensively the issues of race and poverty. If we integrate all three issues, then we increase the entry points for greater involvement and effectiveness in addressing these pressing problems.

Race, poverty and the environment intersect at a number of points. One is toxic dumping.

The dumping of “e-waste” or electronic components, such as computers and cell phones, in developing countries is so significant that the prestigious National Geographic carried an article about it in its January issue: “High-Tech Trash: Will Your Discarded TV end up in a ditch in Ghana?”

The article noted that some 98 million U.S. cell phones were trashed in 2005, 25 million TVs are discarded annually, and between 30 and 40 million PCs will be tossed out in the next several years.

Where does e-waste go? A lot of it goes to China, Ghana, Nigeria and other nations where it is recycled or burned.

An online video clip from Basel Action Network shows the dumping and burning of e-waste in the swamps around Lagos, Nigeria.

BAN’s photo-documentary report, “The Digital Dump: Exporting High-Tech Re-Use and Abuse to Africa,” said that some 500 40-foot containers, or 400,000 computers, enter Lagos each month.

A disturbingly high amount of this hazardous waste is shipped to poor countries, where environmental controls are weak and the poor dig through toxic scrap to simply live.

Why is the affluent world closing the digital divide with the impoverished world with digital dumping? Why is the United States government so morally indifferent to private industry shipping toxic waste to poor countries that it has a federal hands-off approach?

The United States’ dumping of lead and other poisons in the developing world is an offspring of our own dumping practice. That is the dumping of waste in poor communities and neighborhoods of color.

The landfill in Nashville, Tenn., is located in Bordeaux, an African-American community north of downtown, not Belle Meade, one of the wealthiest and whitest conclaves in the U.S.

Nashville’s household hazardous waste recycling center is also on the north side, which is a poorer side of town, not Green Hills, the leafy, affluent neighborhood where I live.

Why is it that landfills and hazardous waste centers are located in African-American and poor neighborhoods?

Part of the answer is political and economic power. The rich and powerful can dispose of their trash wherever they want to and that’s what they, we, do.

“Environmental racism” is a term that captures the idea that, intentionally or unintentionally, some polluting industries target minority communities, and some communities dump their waste products in poor neighborhoods. Both actions place the poor and people of color at greater health risk.

From a moral perspective, the Bible’s vision calls us to take actions that uplift our neighbors and protect them from being degraded, whether the issues are race, poverty, the environment or entwinement of all three. After all, we share a common community.

In fact, the Greek word oikos means household, house or family. It is the root word for ecology, economics and ecumenical.

Our Baptist household needs a common moral concern about economic and ecological matters that affect and transcend our racial, ethnic and geographic boundaries.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.