In the 1970s, when the environmental movement was just getting started, industrial polluters responded by seeking to drive a wedge between the "greens" and their natural allies (minorities and organized labor). The industry's technique was to depict environmentalists as caring more about forests and butterflies than human beings.
Unfortunately, many environmental groups played into this propaganda by ignoring pollution's toll on public health and focusing solely on wilderness preservation. It was a pattern that did foster some alienation among minorities and labor unions.
But that was then, this is now. Most environmental activists, minorities, and union members have wised up to corporate America's divisive strategy. Environmentalists have devoted substantial attention to the human condition under threat from industrial pollution. Reacting to the steady stream of data, minorities have come to realize they are more likely to benefit than suffer from what industry contends are "job-killing" environmental reforms. The voting record of virtually all black members of Congress testifies to this wakeup call.
Yet to win support from African-Americans, much of corporate America persists with its discredited line that tightening cleanup standards costs jobs. Its chief agent in this endeavor is Harry Alford, who heads an organization with the weighty title of the National Black Chamber of Commerce. What is mostly behind this appellation is industry money.
As the fossil fuel barons' African-American mouthpiece, Alford travels around the country issuing dire economic warnings to minority communities. It is a pitch that has a dwindling number of takers since environmental cleanup has proven a boon, not detriment to the economy and conditions in low income neighborhoods.
Strengthening anti-pollution standards saves jobs by reducing illness that would otherwise incapacitate workers. Tougher environmental laws also force manufacturing facilities to remain up to date rather than having to eventually shut down for becoming obsolete.
Industry's threat to relocate or close shop if tough new rules are imposed tends to be a bluff. Corporate executives have been voicing the same warnings for decades every time environmental rules have been introduced or upgraded. Nonetheless, these merchants continue to sit tight and make money. Everyone knows that relocation is usually more trouble than it's worth.
In addition, some of the regulations propel industry to diversify away from fossil fuels to clean, renewable energy, which expands employment opportunities and just happens to be more job-intensive.
These days, Alford's case for opposing stricter anti-pollution regulations is repudiated by glaring statistics. African Americans are 79 percent more likely than whites to live in neighborhoods plagued by industrial pollution and its adverse health impacts. That is not surprising when polluting industrial facilities are routinely situated in low income neighborhoods frequented by minorities. Given these locales' relatively poor air quality, it is also no shock that African Americans are three times more likely than whites to die from asthma.
So when Alford goes tooling around the country preaching the evils of stricter environmental regulation, he is increasingly dismissed as a Cassandra in African American circles. When he asserts he is representing the best interests of minorities, don't let the color of his skin fool you.