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From Mapping Environmental Racism
to Mapping Self-determination:
A Road Map to Community Autonomy?

by Roberto Flores
Los Angeles, California

This map shows how people of color are disproportionately impacted by emissions from manufacturing facilities in Los Angeles County.
This map shows how people of color are disproportionately impacted by emissions from manufacturing facilities in Los Angeles County. Click on map to see large version of map available for reference in a separate window.

(Links to the enlarged map and to the page of references, footnotes, and method-of-study create a new browser window for easy reference.)

“The way that they (the Sunlaw Partner Corporation) made my friend Liz feel and the way that they made me was like oppression.. So it was like..I am not going to let that happen.” Milton Hernandez Nimatuj, 17 years old, Huntington Park H.S. Junior March 25, 2001


On Tuesday, March 6, 2001, Measure “A,” an advisory initiative put on the ballot by South Gate’s City Council, in South East Los Angeles County, was defeated by a 2-1 margin. [1] Measure “A” asked the South Gate voters to thumb up or down the construction of a 550-mega watt power plant (the biggest in any residential area) in their already overly polluted neighborhood. Since the ballot initiative was “advisory,” the vote was not legally binding and the Sunlaw Partners Corporation could have reneged on its promise to uphold the vote, but it did not. The ballot measure tactic, considered risky by some of the anti-plant observers, because of the usually low turnout of South Gate voters, [2] and because it did not include the participation of the vast majority of the residents affected, turned out to be successful regardless.

A yet reflective regret, coming from one of the community activists, was that while this vote was not legally binding, it was nevertheless restricted to the formality of allowing only registered voters to participate, instead of open to the general residential population affected by the pollution. This plebiscite was, ostensibly, a referendum of the residents that would be affected by the pollution. This, of course, is a much broader population and would ideally include high school youth and a substantial number of South Gate residents that are either not registered to vote or that because of their immigration status cannot. Estimates of the number of undocumented immigrants in the City of South Gate range between 10% and 30%. [3]

The March 6 South Gate vote, as well as the background and groundwork activity of hundreds of immigrant residents both documented and not, promises to have far-reaching consequences not only for the way that the energy-related state agencies and energy technology corporations approach communities in the future, but for the future of the mainstream environmental movement. Perhaps more importantly, this struggle will have monumental impact on the way this and other working class and people of color communities see their role in the struggles for environmental justice. As Robert W. Lake, Torres and Zimmerman generally suggest about grassroots struggles for environmental justice, this struggle was not just about environmental justice -- no grassroots environmental struggle ever seems to be. The South Gate struggle was as much about environmental justice as it was about democratic participation and self-determination. [4] In addition, as several articles in David Camacho’s Environmental Injustices, Political Struggles: Race, Class, and the Environment (1998) propose, the South Gate grassroots struggle was about linking through horizontal coalescing to other micro-movements for self-determination, as well as with the mainstream environmental movement in hopes of constructing solidarity and ultimately a louder voice in policy making. [5]

What makes this struggle stand out in bold relief is that, currently, California finds itself in the midst of one of its most serious “energy crises.” As one can expect, there is much controversy about this community-wide collective action to reject the construction of an electrical plant at the peak of a statewide energy crisis. Given this backdrop, a sector of the mainstream environmental movement was quick to judge this community resistance as NIMBYISM, the not-in-my-backyard irresponsible response to the proposed sharing of environmental bads for an overall good. As controversial is the resident-activists’ claim of racism -- racism not only emanating from Sunlaw Corporation and the state bureaucratic agencies but from the mainstream environmental movement itself.

Roberto Flores. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke
Writer Roberto Flores, seen here visiting the CENCO refinery in Santa Fe Springs (in the greater L.A. area). Communities for a Better Environment (see text of this article), in another struggle from that analyzed in the article, is organizing to keep the CENCO plant closed. Partially owned by evangelist Pat Robertson, the refinery when open had one of the worst accident histories in the state. It is half a mile from a school and .2 miles from the nearest residences. Photo by Nic Paget-Clarke.
This study attempts to contribute to the understanding of the South Gate struggle by exploring the notion of environmental racism put forward from the perspective of participants in Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), a statewide environmental justice organization that played a key role in the defeat of the power plant construction proposal. Through the discourse on racism, this study aims to explore the dynamic relationships between the community of South Gate, the Sunlaw Corporation, the state bureaucracy and the mainstream environmental movement. It addresses the question of what does environmental racism look like? This study also begins an analysis of self-determination and solidarity as a general characteristic of struggles against environmental racism.

The candid interviews that represent the lens or perspective of key actors that were against the construction of the power plant are not submitted to scientific review, but are taken as legitimate knowledge at face value, as thick description from a primary source. [6] By looking at this incident through the lens of the CBE participant observers, one will hopefully gain insight and understanding of the broader affective elements of racism as well as its companion response of self-determination. Aggregate statistics are important to obtain a certain understanding of an issue; perspectives and stories give us the dynamism and depth that numbers cannot always speak to. [7] This study is approached from an Action Research perspective in that it attempts not only to contribute towards a better understanding of this particular struggle, but also to a reflective exercise of the struggle in hopes that it will inspire collective learning by both actors and observers. [8]  

“Nueva Azalea from the beginning thought they had made a wise and cost-effective decision to attract the people of South Gate, but little did they know we as a community would come together with surrounding cities and make them think twice about going through with these plans.” -- Bernette Serrano, Senior, South Gate High School, The Rambler, South Gate High School Newspaper, March 21, 2001

“It doesn’t take a scientist to know that pollution is bad for you…How much information do you need about the effects of a pollutant. Knowing that the community is already over polluted? Angelo Logan, CBE Youth Organizer, March 25, 2001

Brief background

One of the questions that came up consistently was concerning the validity and veracity of the current energy crisis alert. All of the interviewees expressed plenty of skepticism about the veracity of the energy crisis. Xochitl Rubalcava, Vice-mayor of South Gate said that in February, a month before the election, she had an opportunity to tour the small 30-mega watt Sunlaw Skonox technology plant in Vernon which she found was completely shut down and not running. “I was told that not producing electricity was a way to keep the prices up… No one in South Gate believes there is an energy crisis. This [crisis] is just another way for big corporations to make money off the people.” Confirming this sentiment, the Press Telegram ran an Associated Press story that questioned the premise put forward by power providers that the source of the current energy crisis was increase demand pointing out that despite relatively low increase in demand has been at about 4.8 percent the prices charged to utilities went up as much as 300%. [29] The Sunday, March 11, 2001, San Francisco Chronicle, quoted in The Press Telegram, concluded by asserting, “such statistics show that demand is not the problem -- it’s that power companies are manipulating the market to charge more for electricity.” [30]

By March 6, it was clear that the market mechanisms that took control at the point of deregulation of energy in 1996 were now out of control and crashing and that California was facing the prospect of environmental degradation. The unthinkable prospect of relying on oil (which burns much dirtier than gas) to generate electricity was real, given the natural-gas shortages. [31] Energy officials were keeping close contact with mainstream environmentalists attempting to bring in on some of these decisions. About a month before this election, Davis ordered an “unconditional” decree for fast-tracking the construction of additional power plants and bringing the existing plants to full capacity. In addition, California was facing a “power strike” -- by smaller alternative-power companies, which use wind, solar, geothermal, biomass and cogeneration to produce one-quarter of the electricity consumed by the customers of Southern California Edison and Pacific Gas & Electric -- that could further muddy the waters and the air. [32]

South Gate, as the name implies, is located in southeast Los Angeles (SELA). The census map above speaks for itself in terms of the concentration of pollution sites. Typical of all of California, South Gate was part of a larger land grant that had been bequeathed to the Lugo family by the Spanish Crown. Eventually, as the political power shifted after the annexation by the U.S., the Lugo land grant eventually made a complete transition into the hands of white Anglo-Saxon prospectors and settlers. South Gate was founded and incorporated as a city in 1923. From that date to about the early 60’s, South Gate became the home of some of biggest polluting companies in the United States. In those early years of cityhood, South Gate was primarily a white working class community and no one had any idea of the environmental devastation and health risks that these companies were creating. In City of South Gate’s website posted history, it proudly states:

As early as 1922, several small industrial plants had located in South Gate. As families moved here, and needed employment close to home, businesses, factories and industry soon followed. One of the largest local industries was Firestone Tire and Rubber Company. The factory was built on a 40 acre former bean field. Firestone’s first tire rolled off the assembly line on June 15, 1928. Some of the early businesses included the A.R. Maas Chemical Company, founded in 1922 on Ardine, near Independence, Star Roofing Company founded in 1934 (now U.S. Gypsum). Weiser Company foundry, formed in 1904, became one of the world’s leading manufacturers of hardware by 1943, with South Gate as the sole manufacturing operation in the United States. [33] In addition to other major factories such as Bethlehem Steel, Alcoa Aluminum and two major auto plants, the City of South Gate soon became the home of hundreds of secondary industry that followed to service the big auto plants, such as battery and steel plating plants. Between the 40’s and today large wave of migrants particularly from Mexico were attracted to take jobs that the sons and daughters of white residents were no longer willing to do. This source of cheap labor provided an attractive competitive edge to the hundreds of polluting companies in South Gate.

By the late 40’s and 50’s South Gate was surrounded by 4 major polluting freeways with hundreds of diesel trucks daily spewing deadly pollution and it laid directly below one of the major airline path. The economic restructuring commencing in the mid 70’s but lasting through the 80’s prompted the relocation and closure of many of these plants. Although some of the major plants are gone, and now exported, they have left their ugly pockmarks as brown fields and many of the smaller and midsize companies continue to operate and pollute the air. Today, the population of South Gate has grown to 96,000, 92% of which is Latino, mainly of Mexican descent. [34] Officials in the City Clerks office, however, estimate, from the water consumption statistics, (South Gate has their own water company) that there is at least a 10% undercount and that most of this undercount represents undocumented immigrants. [35] Altogether, it is estimated that as much as 30% of this population (88,000-98,000) are fairly recent undocumented immigrants residents. South Gate, an economically booming town of the 50’s and 60’s has suffered major economic declines to its industrial infrastructure and shows all the signs of a city in an economic dilemma.

Communities for a Better Environment

“I fought because the people of South Gate were sold out by those who are supposed to protect us…” Robert Cabrales, community member, cited in Alvaro Huerta’s article Modern Day “David-versus-Goliath” in SELA.

Founded in 1978, Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) prides itself in working directly with communities that are directly impacted by pollution. CBE claims that what sets them apart is the fact that they fight at the point of pollution, where the people live, and that they focus their work with “ethnically and economically diverse residents, as well as community groups, labor organizations and other environmental organizations. [36] CBE Mission Statement declares: Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) is an environmental health and justice non-profit organization, promoting clean air, clean water and the development of toxin-free communities. CBE’s unique three-part strategy provides grassroots activism, environmental research and legal assistance within underserved urban communities. CBE directly equips residents impacted by industrial pollution with the tools to inform, monitor, and transform their immediate environment. [37] CBE, which set up its Los Angeles operations and office in the mid 80’s has an impressive track record in carrying out its mission. Just a few of these accomplishments include a 1980 victory that won air pollution reductions from Bay Area refinery polluters; in ’84 it forced the LA Regional Water Board to clean up leaks in underground chemical storage tanks. In 1985 CBE was part of an action that forced water quality agencies in California to reduce the dumping of industrial waste into sewer lines. In 1987 CBE it was party to plaintiffs that won a lawsuit that required that LA draw up a clean air plan that would have as a centerpiece a plan to reduce the use of petrochemicals. In 1994 CBE persuaded the state of California to post health warnings in several languages at fishing piers as well as to fund the amount of contamination in fish. CBE was also a party to the drawing up of the Good Neighbor Agreement with Unocal in 1995 that required $14 million to go towards plant safety, pollution prevention, health programs and other community benefits. It seems that in 1998 CBE made a definite move toward community empowerment and began to establish “bucket brigades” that made it possible for common community folks to monitor their air with extremely accurate and simple to operate air monitors. [38] In 2000, CBE was part of mobilizations of South Coast resident determined to convince the South Coast Air Quality Management District to lower cancer risk for air emissions by 75%. During the same year CBE and EPA settled a lawsuit against Chevron, “resulting in the largest Clean Air Act fines ever and the creation of a local health clinic.” [39]

CBE’s history puts the organization in the midst of larger environmental players of policymaking. CBE, however, seems unique in terms of its amount and focus on community development and empowerment and its participatory democratic infrastructure and approach. Currently some of the community based organizations and campaigns based in CBE include La Causa, the Zero Dioxin Campaign, SAFER, a direct-action community-organizing project made up of primarily low-income people of color. Other CBE based organizations include Noran, (The National Oil Refinery Action Network), an organization whose aim is to empower oil company neighbors, workers, shareholders with the goal of making the industry cleaner and safer and many other organization too numerous and expansive to cover here. [40] Suffice it to say that in October of 2000, when Sunlaw’s intention to build a power plant in South Gate became public CBE was not only well-rooted in the Southeast Los Angeles SELA area, but well entrenched in the grassroots environmental justice movements of California and well connected to grassroots movements throughout the U.S. By this time CBE had gone through a development process that has honed its participatory democratic style to the point that most of its organizers now see themselves as facilitators opposed to the more traditional hierarchical concepts of leadership. [41]

Stories of racism and self-determination

As mentioned in the methods section. In order to scaffold the telling of the story, in addition to the four questions concerning racism and self-determination, I will utilize Capek’s (1993) four claims that she identifies as basic characteristics of environmental justice movements as well as the solidarity characteristic that the environmental justice conceptual framework contains. The assumption here is that where these rights are violated we then can see the scaffolding and location to a perceived racism. Together the 5 characteristics are:

1.The right to accurate information about the situation

2.The right to prompt, respectful, and unbiased hearings when contamination claims are made.

3.The right to democratic participation in deciding the future of the contaminated community.

4.The right to compensation from parties who have inflicted injuries on the victims

5.The commitment to solidarity with victims of contamination in other communities. [42]

Of the 5 characteristics the first 3 claims and the last solidarity characteristic are the ones that seem to apply to the South Gate struggle. The basic assumption, of course, is that environmental justice is in response to injustice demonstrated as inequities because of racism or some other form of discrimination. In other words here, I will try to map out and hold steady the elusive face of racism. Perhaps, more important than giving racism a name, is mapping out and reflecting on the people’s response to racism. To accomplish this I will utilize Lake, Torres and Zimmerman, as cited in Bowman, to help us map the type and nature of the response struggle to obtain these basic constitutional rights. Given the limited space, I will embed and join their notion of self-determination into Capek’s 5th characteristic of building solidarity not only as a morally correct position but also as a strategic mechanism to win the other four rights which in their totality will serve as our definition of self-determination.

We start by asking the questions: did the residents of South Gate receive accurate information about the power plant? Was this information offered to them by the corporation or by a government agency? What did the community do to get accurate information and what role did CBE have in obtaining accurate information? Was the withholding of information or the distortion of information, if any, due to race? A related question is what kind of outreach did Sunlaw Corp. do to get accurate information out? What kind of communication relationship did Sunlaw have with the South Gate community?

All of those interviewed were unanimous in their strong sentiment that Sunlaw not only did not provide accurate information but purposely distorted and provided false and misleading information. Bernette, a High School Senior active in CBE, exhibited good Latino manners in her statement that Sunlaw “was not necessary lying but they weren’t saying the whole truth either.” Bernette also observed that the company really had no intentions of communicating and exchanging information with the community when she said, “they, [Sunlaw] probably thought that the people wouldn’t have been able to attend the meetings. They thought that people would have just accepted it, because they [the community] speak[s] Spanish.” [43] Her answer also addresses the question of prejudices and locates the question of racist motives in the company’s disrespectful behavior. Milton addresses the question of communication of information by describing how he felt when the company in a condescending and arrogant manner answers his friend’s Liz’s and his query for information. Milton recalls:

The way that they made my friend feel and the way that they made me feel -- it was kind a-like oppression. So, I was like, I am not going to let that happen… And then they couldn’t answer our questions on environmental issues. I came to the conclusion that they were having those meetings just to have them…this is [having meetings] in the contract and they need to have them. [44] Both Milton and Bernette suggest that Sunlaw didn’t really want to have a dialogue, a two-way conversation of equals. In addition, Milton is already committing to action not only to obtain the information but overall not to be oppressed. Around this [un]willingness of the company to give information, Milton relates a story of a company that brushes aside the questions of the community and how this became worse as the community questioned more. Milton tells the story of a condescending Mr. Gould, President of Sunlaw, who answered Milton’s question of why South Gate (for the siting) by saying “well there are two reasons for proposing a power plant in South Gate, the first is obvious, it’s for money and the second is that we want to help mankind.” Mr. Gould avuncularly added, “I know you are not going to understand this but that is all I can say.” [45]

Angelo Logan, Youth Coordinator for CBE, is poignant in his response as he brings out stories about how the company spent at least $300,000 on expensive mailings to try to convince the community to favor construction of the power plant. None of the information put out in these brochures was accurate about the possible hazards of the power plant. Angelo, Milton, Bernette and Yuki Kidokoro, a lead organizer for CBE, together enumerate and identify several areas of misinformation or of withholding of accurate information.

    1. Sunlaw promised to do things that they already had to do. For instance, Sunlaw promised to develop the area around the company. According to Angelo, this type of development is done by all companies as part of the conditions of doing business in South Gate.

    2. Particularly offensive to the community was the Sunlaw claim that its technology would help clean the air of South Gate. Yuki and Angelo brought out that the particular technology, known as Skonox, has never been tested at that high wattage. Another instance of misinformation concerned the question of the amount of particulate matter PM10 that would be emitted. In the report to CEC, the company assessed that they would be emitting about 150 tons of PM10 yearly. As the campaign progressed they changed their number to 80 tons. Yuki tells that at the meeting where Sunlaw was asked about this discrepancy, “they said ‘it was a mistake…a typo,’ and never accounted for that.

    3. “Most offensive was Sunlaw’s answer,” says Angelo, “when Sunlaw was asked to show proof of this claim. Sunlaw said it ‘didn’t have to show proof of that because they [we] were not required to do this by the CEC requirements.’” [46]

    4. Sunlaw also misrepresented the amount of support from other environmental coalitions. Yuki also addresses this in her interview, pointing out the example of CEERT (The Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies), which functions as an umbrella organization and works with many environmental organizations. CEERT leadership and Sunlaw made it seem in their literature that many other environmental groups working with CEERT were also supporting the construction of the Sunlaw plant.

    5. The promise that it would give “x” amount of money in revenue taxes kept changing. According to all interviewees, Sunlaw’s promises of money were, “thinly veiled [47] bribes,” that kept increasing as it became more and more apparent that the community might reject Sunlaw’s offer. Sunlaw started with a promise of 1.5 million annually and that amount eventually increased to 7 million a day or two before the final vote.

    6. The company also associated Latino leaders to the Sunlaw proposal in such a way that made it seem that the leaders were for the plant. Angelo recounts the content of one of the flyers which prominently featured “Cesar Chavez walking a picket line, shaking hands with some of the farm workers. On the back of the postcard it said Cesar Chavez is the ‘Father of Environmental Justice.’ The suggestion, of course, that Cesar Chavez supported the plant construction was offensive and backfired.

    7. Milton, Angelo, Yuki and Bernette all talk about the attacks that Sunlaw leveled against CBE. Milton brings up that CBE was being falsely accused of not wanting the plant because they were working for another company with different technology. [48]

Yuki, sums up the Sunlaw’s attitude by stating “They came in with lots of arrogance…I think that they were trying to confuse the people to convince them in different ways that this was something that was to be good.” As Yuki reflected she went on, “[l]ess bad, but it’s still going to be bad and that’s the piece they didn’t include.” [49] All the interviewees felt that this particular arrogant attitude was fueled by racist attitudes in dealing with a majority Latino community. Yuki, in particular, expressed the difficulty and complexity of trying to sort out what is race and what is class-based oppression.

Because in the real world the content, historical context and consequences of these questions overlap, the second question is now much easier to address. The second question has to do with having fair and open hearings. A prerequisite to, and a part of, having fair and open meetings is the access to accurate information. However, let’s examine some of the sub questions that generate from the second right in Capek’s scheme. The second right is the right to prompt, respectful, and unbiased hearings when contamination claims are made. Did this happen? Were people encouraged to attend the meetings? Were the meetings prompt? Were the meetings respectful? Were these meetings biased by someone’s control of the agenda?

There is no evidence from the interviews that the meetings were not held in an either prompt or non-prompt manner. However, all the respondents felt that the meetings were not respectful. Milton talks about how the treatment at the meetings made him think, relating; “well what do they think about us? I just came to my own conclusion. Well I guess they think that people of color that we don’t know what we’re talking about. I guess that’s one of the reasons I felt strongly against the plant.” [50]

From all the responses it seemed that the meetings were biased, unfairly limiting the participation of the people and privileging the company. Yuki explains that “Sunlaw would make outrageous claims of their technology cleaning the air,” [51] of varying and unverifiable amounts of PM10 and there was nothing except our education and own research that would keep them accountable. All the interviewees suggested that Sunlaw felt that they were not accountable to South Gate’s community.

Angelo brought up another interesting form of bias that he observed that he could only attribute to racism and classism that not only affected the transmitting and exchange of accurate information but the meeting atmosphere in general. Angelo talks about the selective treatment of questions depending on who was asking. Angelo recalls, “when people came up [to the podium], immediately, officials first looked at the person’s title and then they decided whether they were going to take that question seriously.” Bernette talks about there being no community outreach on the part of the company. Having no one ask questions because there is no one at the meeting, of course, privileges those that are in favor of the construction of the power plant.

The third characteristic in Capeks description of environmental justice, the right to democratic participation in deciding the future of the contaminated community, again overlaps but it also directly related to the common answers to my question about why South Gate? Embedded in this question is the question about whether Latinos care about democratic participation and whether Latinos care about the environment, about contamination and about the consequences of contamination? When the above claim is examined in terms of these questions the interviewees had a lot to say. The following are responses that address the above questions. Why South Gate?

Bernette comments “Sunlaw probably thought that the Latinos of South Gate would never say ‘maybe we don’t want you here.’” [52] This suggests that Bernette views Sunlaw’s view of the community, as that of consisting of people that don’t care to participate, don’t care about the environment, could care less about their health and that of their children and would OK anything the “experts” suggest. Some facts support Bernette’s perception of Sunlaw. In most of the post election articles, Sunlaw consistently expressed surprise, [53] disappointment and even shock at the fact that the people of South Gate voted against what they seemed to think was a generous offer. The interviewees felt that this dismay and consternation was due to the same racist view of the Latino community that explains why they would lie, misrepresent, distort and withhold information. Milton put it this way, “they [Sunlaw] were just using the [Latino] community as a way to get money and that’s it. They [Sunlaw] weren’t think[ing] about the health issues and the environment.” [54]

Milton’s view brings out the complex relationship between classism and racism. That is, in the case of South Gate, there is no way one can separate class from race. Yuki suggests that these layers, which show themselves in degrees of discrimination, are then difficult to separate and neatly peel off, particularly in this age of politically correct language. Yuki also shows profound sensitivity to this complexity as she comments:

All I know is that they have a lot of arrogance. Would it be stronger because they are in a community that they are not from or can’t even identify with? It’s again, like trying to break apart race and class and in LA it’s so connected. A white poor community might be just as easily bought off. It’s tough to see in the particular situation but then when you see the larger pattern then you can see it [racism].” [55]This difficulty of “proof” of racism expressed by Yuki was not a difficulty expressed in terms of what the interviewees felt. The following are some of the areas that then tend to paint and map out how Sunlaw was racist. No one could say this was due to racism because as Yuki said “it’s impossible to get into their [Sunlaw’s] heads.” But all the interviewees felt it was there both because as you stand back and look at the overall pattern that emerges (see map) one can clearly see what the results are and based on the interviewees past experience, this particular experience felt like racism.
    1. Sunlaw chose South Gate because it felt that these working class Latino people wouldn’t resist, participate in the process of deciding what happens to their community to the extent that they (Sunlaw) could get in.

    2. Sunlaw chose South Gate because they knew that the working class Latino people of South Gate were in need of jobs and in such financial need that Sunlaw could buy their consent with promises of jobs, programs, parks, scholarships and other incentives.

    3. Sunlaw chose South Gate because it is already highly polluted and if they could show that they were a relatively clean industry, Sunlaw would then be able to convince the working class Latino people of South Gate that they would be better off with them (Sunlaw) than without them. Yuki points out that Sunlaw projected itself out as “cutting edge environmental technology.” [56]

    4. Sunlaw chose South Gate because it could through the use of technical language convince the people, regardless if the information was accurate or consistent.

    5. Sunlaw chose South Gate because it had, before hand, obtained the endorsement of significant representative “leaders” of the environmental movement, the Latino civil rights movement as well as the labor movement and felt that any opposition community grassroots opposition could be easily minimized and isolated.

These are some of the themes that stand out from the interviews that help us outline and map the face of racism. Yuki’s perception that it is impossible to get into people’s heads and establish intent has a base of historical social learning. Racism at its worse was genocide and responsible for several decades of holocaustic policies and actions against, Blacks, Indigenous, Mexican and Asian immigrant communities. Today, one pays dearly both in real and social capital if caught being outright racist. So, corporations, government and organizations have learned to deny and hide their racism. Legal denial and sophisticated coding and smokescreening have effectively blocked open admission and discussion of racism. Given this legal culture, it is understandable how the conservative Supreme Court has just voted to require “intent” as proof of discrimination based on the Civil Rights Act of 1965. [57]

Self-determination and solidarity

“If it wasn’t for CBE no one would know about the Power Plant” -- Bernette Serano, South Gate HS

While important to name the oppression, it was much more important to all the interviewees to move beyond and name and identify the solution. None of the interviewees felt that they absolutely had to prove racism in order to move ahead, on the contrary their attitude was to instantly move from the victimization status to the actor -- in Milton’s words “It felt like oppression and I’m not going to let that happen.” This leads us to the question of solidarity, building organization and self-determination, that is, taking full responsibility for the hard choices facing the South Gate community.

The interviewees were in complete concurrence with Camacho’s description of the environmental justice movement as a movement whose ultimate aim is to unite its concerns with those of the mainstream environmental movement. Until that occurs, however, the tension between the EJ movement and the mainstream movement is located in the mainstream environment movement’s reluctance to accept “the fact that that social inequality and imbalances of power contribute to the environmental degradation, resource depletion, pollution, and environmental hazards that disproportionately impact people of color along with poor and working class whites.” [58]

Given the particular juxtaposition of CBE, the overall role of CBE as a major environmental as well as a major player in the overall environmental movement was absolutely important in this struggle. In this situation, CBE was able to be a bridge of hope and a source of facilitating real (long term) empowerment. Milton states this sentiment as he reflects, “when I heard CBE’s report and saw Barham’s [the researcher-scientist] interaction with the CEC and Sunlaw, I felt sure of myself and of what I was standing for.” [59]

Angelo addressed the tough but essential role of CBE in this struggle by relating that Sunlaw had obtained the endorsement of three traditional allies of the local Latino working class community. The three traditional allies were leaders and organizations from the mainstream environmental movement, leaders and organizations from the Latino-Chicano Civil Rights movement and leaders and organizations from the Labor Movement. Even under this overwhelming and stressful situation the interviewees relate that never did they doubt that the communities’ opposition was any less valid or to be abandoned. All the interviewees seemed to hold fast to their commitment to a community that was “obviously overburdened with pollution and already faced with serious health problems because of it.”

Conclusion: from mapping self-determination to mapping autonomy

In his discussion of “Sustainability within the Liberal Paradigm,” Gonzalez cites Milbrath’s suggestion that the only way for humanity to develop a sustainable society is to abandon capitalism as well as the normative system and distribution of political power, which are based on capitalism.” [60] The question of most practical observer-actors is immediately; what do we put in its place and how? There are movements that are addressing this question both in an ideal-visionary and practical manner. However, there are tremendous incentives both psychological and material that resist this change. U.S. culture has become one of accepting the lesser of two evils. This, I believe, is a formula for disaster. In the Sunlaw plant case, the people of South Gate felt that they could no longer settle for the less bad, the less evil and responded with self-deterministic assertiveness.

While self-determination does not necessarily lead to the abandonment of capitalism and the type of rebuilding of community that Milbrath describes and suggests, it tends toward it and could become a stepping-stone in that direction. The abandonment and neglect of working class communities of color by the elite and government is giving no choice to these communities but to develop permanent organized forms of self-reliance. As the institutionalization of this abandonment makes it visible and permanent, it triggers a corresponding response for permanent infrastructural extra-governmental self-governance. This self-governance by no means has to be a narrow, sectarian, parochial, separatist response, as we have seen in some of the rightist communities. On the contrary, the potential as seen in the South Gate case seems to favor an inclusive and connective response, which instructs how respectful integration of a new type of nation should be formed. I refer to this type of interconnected, inclusive, parallel infrastructure as autonomy.

Autonomy can be seen as moving to the next stage of political solution and is propelled by the spontaneous struggles of self-determination. Autonomy is nourished with social learning from previous and current self-deterministic struggles that have not resulted in holistic and integrative solutions. Autonomy addresses the question of agenda and policy not by primarily focusing on appearing legitimate before the powers that be but by developing a permanently organized parallel self-government infrastructure at the local level that is organically connected to other local struggles and thus creating an ever-wider movement. Under these condition more and more of the mainstream will see the productiveness of also uniting and supporting the creation, the bottom-up creation, of a new mainstream. Because of the increasingly skewed distribution of wealth and environmental and social bads burdening the poor communities of color it is there where this tendency seems to be developing most.

In a recent interview of Gustavo Esteva by Z Magazine, he describes to us how the Zapatista Movement represents this transition from self-determination that can be compared to the transition from localism (which could lead you to narrow nationalism, regionalism and parochialism) to localization (opposite to globalization) and from resistance (self-determination) to a libratory proactive mode (autonomy) that is not reacting to immediate crisis but is taking responsibility for long-term solutions:

What we are talking about now is localization, as a word that is both opposite to globalization and localism. There is a sense that what we had before Zapatismo was a form of localism in which people were resisting in their small communities, in a region, but concentrating their forces internally. This resistance of Indian peoples entrenched in their own communities…you can see this in the U.S. or in England or wherever, a small group of people are resisting Wal-Mart or a road or whatever. They become localists, and in many occasions this localism can become fundamentalism, a very dangerous form of localism that is highly authoritarian and inward looking….

What we are now describing is a transition from resistance to liberation - because people are still rooted in their own place, committed to that place, strengthening their roots in that place, but also opening themselves to wide coalitions of others like them, looking for solidarity, mutual support, new ideas, learning from others. This process of learning from others has been the definition of Zapatismo from the very beginning. This is really a critical point. Now you can have these great coalitions of discontent that are really very effective, not only in classical terms of solidarity where people support a group fighting elsewhere, but as a process of mutual solidarity, a shared learning process. I think these coalitions evolve into what was defined by the Zapatistas as the politics of ‘one NO, many YESES.’ Yes, we share this opposition to something, to Neoliberalism, to a nuclear plant or to whatever, but we can accept at the same time many different reasons for this opposition, many different ideas, many different affirmations. [61]

In response to environmental racism, organizations such as CBE seem to be taking steps along with grassroots movements and playing an essential role in midwifing the transition from self-determination to localization and libratory autonomy.

Published in In Motion Magazine July 29, 2001.