I have heard much talk of a waste transfer site during my years at UNC Chapel Hill. Now, if you are a normal person, you may be asking, “what exactly is a waste transfer site?” Basically, it is a location at which trash is brought for a few hours only to be soon taken away to a landfill miles away. Orange County has decided to build one because the current landfill will apparently be full by 2010.
The current landfill is located in a predominately black community off of Rogers Road. The county is thinking about possibly putting the waste transfer site near this area in part because it is near a current, smaller waste center. Naturally, the residents who have had to put up with the landfill do not desire to have anything to do with waste management after the landfill is closed. They are voicing legitimate concerns. But, many seem to be making this about something it is not: “environmental racism.”
There is a group entitled the Rogers-Eubanks Coalition to End Environmental Racism (CEER) working against locating the waste-transfer site in the mostly black community. And guess what? They are going to be legitimized by UNC-CH during a summer exhibit at Wilson Library as well as a panelist discussion that will take place on June 25th during which a member of CEER will speak. An organizer of the discussion made it a point to explain on the UNC.edu site that they will focus on “the recent conflicts, too, because that’s why this neighborhood is in the news.” It is clear that a point of the event will be in part to perpetuate the theory that the Orange County government is motivated by visceral racism.
Judging by the news about the event reported on the official university website, another purpose is obviously to add to the oh-so-infrequent discussion of African-American history in our community. A panelist member, Emily Eidenier, says that she hopes “this research will bring to the public an expanded view of county history – one that includes the histories of African-American citizens and African-American agriculture.”
Of course an exhibit that focuses on African-American history is, in itself, not a bad thing; it is a legitimate subject. But, to fuel the notion that the county or the town of Chapel Hill is making decisions based upon the racist feelings of politicians when they are simply following a guideline of criteria and to suggest that UNC or the surrounding public schools do not include the history of African-American citizens when they do (to an obnoxious level at times) is ridiculous.
We at UNC have an entire department, an entire building and program, and an entire club devoted to the issue of African-Americans’ plight. The African-American Studies department, for example, has a photograph as a part of it’s website’s banner that shows students protesting the imprisonment of the “Jena Six.” You may remember the six black students, one of which who had a criminal past, who beat the tar out of a white student at a Louisiana high school after a number of incidents that increased racial tensions. You may also remember the rash of pointless protests that occurred on campus a couple years ago. Oh, what an opportunity for Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton to make some money!
I, for one, am sick of all of the madness surrounding Chapel Hill’s obsession with fanning racial tensions at every turn. Our own publication wrote an article suggesting that race should not be a factor in college admission and we were accused from many different corners (including the DTH) of somehow being racist. The black community along with the white yuppies / wanna-be hippies in Chapel Hill and the surrounding area should stop threatening those with whom they disagree with the stigma of being called “racist”; it is childish and utterly silly. The people who live in areas being considered for the location of the waste transfer site have every right to voice their concerns, many of which I find legitimate. But stop the threats.
2 thoughts on “Making Sense of Trash”
I read this post with interest, as it is in part about the Wilson Library event that I have helped organize and a local history project that I worked on as a Master’s student in the School of Public Health here at UNC. Let me first say that the focus of this exhibit, and the panel discussion, is local history. Understanding the history of this community, as well as many other communities in our county, gives us a richer sense of ourselves and our common heritage. Because relationships between races in this country (and therefore this county) have been deeply divided in the past, any discussion of our common history will include discussion of race and racism, especially if it spans over 200 years of history, as this exhibit does.
That being said, let me also say that I can understand your frustration about the term “environmental racism.” You reflect the feelings of many county administrators and officials who feel maligned by the phrase. While I do not disagree that the phrase itself is divisive, and perhaps not the best way of creating collaborative partnerships when they are most needed, I’d like to briefly explain it a little bit more. What “environmental racism” suggests is not necessarily overtly racist acts, or even racism attributed to contemporary political actors. It is used to describe what is also known as “structural racism” or the history of racial prejudice that we have had in this country which has resulted in the development of land use policies, over time, which have often targeted minority communities for unwanted municipal projects. In fact, research in North Carolina, and in the South as a whole, documents land use policies that have disproportionately targeted minority communities for municipal and toxic waste sites, in many cases because these communities (like Rogers Road) were never fully incorporated into town or city limits, creating a situation of political marginalization.
You are absolutely right to point to the strict process used by our County Commissioners to site the solid waste transfer station. Our representatives are being careful to do what is right for the county and right for the communities most affected by their decisions–and that is one reason why this search is taking a long time. The problem is that back in the 1970s, when the first landfill went on Eubanks Road, there was no strict process used. In the 1970s, Commissioners made the decision to site the landfill there even though they had to overturn the ruling of the Orange County Planning Board that the Eubanks Road site could not be used due to risks of water contamination. In short, the process in the 1970s was far from transparent, and that was when trust started to unravel between community members and local politicians on this issue.
I know this comment is becoming lengthy, so let me close here simply by saying that the issues our politicians are grappling with today in terms of the transfer station and Rogers Road are complicated. They cannot easily be separated from the decades of history surrounding solid waste management, nor the even longer history of political marginalization of African American communities.
I’d like to urge you not to simply write off this exhibit because of the phrase “environmental racism,” but rather to understand it as part of an imperfect way of articulating history that includes conflict and wounds that have yet to entirely heal.
I’m happy to talk to you more about the project and listen to any thoughts or opinions of yours that you feel haven’t been addressed or have been addressed unfairly in this comment.
I appreciate your comment, and understand your points.