Black Communities Arrested by Environmental Racism: An overview of the waves of Revolution and Reconstruction in America

By I. Malik Saafir, President & CEO of The Southern Renaissance

A panoramic view of environmental racism allows Black Americans to see their communities through seven lenses of justice: housing, education, employment, healthcare, recreation, and religion.  

Environmental justice gives Americans a panoramic view of environmental racism from the perspective of Black Americans. The history of this kind of panoramic view of racism can be traced back to what I call the First Wave of the Civil Rights Movement, a time when Black Americans first experienced racism through the seven lenses of justice.

The First Wave of Civil Rights Movement came with the Abolition of Chattel Slavery. The Union State governments provided political, economic, and military power to Black Americans to secure and protect their civil rights. This led to the First Black Reconstruction and the passage of Civil Rights legislation.

The First Black Reconstruction and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1866, 13th Amendment, 14th Amendment, and 15th Amendment gave Black Americans an opportunity to redefine what it meant to be an American outside of the gaze of their former white owners. Black Americans’ momentary freedom was compromised when the Union States no longer provided political, economic, and military protection to America’s new Black citizens.  

As a result, White Americans in the former Confederate States created Black Codes which laid the legal foundation for Jim Crow and carceral slavery.  Black Americans were legally forced to continue to live in racially segregated environments that were defunded or underfunded because of their race.  Black Americans began to see the direct connection between their race and their physical place. Black Americans lived in constant terror of lynching campaigns, unjust imprisonment, and toxic waste being dumped in their communities.  Black Americans saw the deadly impact of anti-black racism where they lived, learned, worked, healed, played, and prayed.  


The Second Wave of the Civil Rights Movement
came with what I call the Abolition of Jim Crow. The federal government provided political, economic, and military power to secure and protect the civil rights of Black Americans. This led to the Second Black Reconstruction and the re-passage of Civil Rights legislation.

The Second Black Reconstruction along with the re-passage of the Civil Rights legislation promised Black Americans that they would not have to face the constant psychological and physical terror of anti-black racisms where they lived. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 dismantled Jim Crow segregation in housing, school, employment, hospital, recreational and religious spaces. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 outlawed practices such as literacy tests and poll taxes that discriminated against southern Black Americans.

In turn, Black Americans began to advocate for equal housing, schools, jobs, hospitals, as well as recreational and religious spaces.  Black American advocates and activists co-founded the Environmental Justice Movement to begin to better redress the injustices experienced by Black Americans in the seven areas of environmental racism.  


The Third Wave of the Civil Rights Movement
is what I call the Abolition of Mass Incarceration. The Federal government has not sufficiently provided political, economic, and military power to secure and protect the civil rights of Black Americans. The Third Black Reconstruction and the passage of Civil Rights legislation focuses on dismantling the Prison Industrial Complex and the New Jim Crow which feels synonmous with the struggle to end carceral slavery.  

It is well known that Black Americans are disproportionately represented in American prisons based on the concept of “being tough on crime” in Black Communities.  Malcolm X once said, “if you are Black you were born in jail.”

The American criminal justice system focuses on punishing Black Americans for not remaining in their place. This is a continuation of the psychological and physical terror of White Supremacy.   Black Americans are stripped of their birthright which is their civil right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This unrelenting fear grips the minds of Black Americans when they apply for a home loan, enroll in school, enter a hospital, prepare for a job interview, enter a playground, or attend a religious service.  Black Americans are reminded that to be Black in America is to know the difference between living in a black space versus living in a white space.

Black Americans live with the threat of being incarcerated or murdered at home, school, work, hospitals, outdoors, and while worshiping.

The lethal threat of White Supremacy in America is based on the myth that to be an American is to be white and superior to blacks. We must address these seven lenses of justice: housing, education, employment, healthcare, recreation, and religion. Until the threat of White Supremacy is removed, to be a fully accepted American means being a White American.

Bibliography: Alexander, M. (2020). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Anniversary ed.). The New Press.
Bois, W. D. E. B., & Jones, M. H. (2013). Black Reconstruction in America: Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 (1st ed.). Transaction Publishers.

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I. Malik Saafir is the President & CEO of The Southern Renaissance (Little Rock, AR). Southern trains education, business, government, and nonprofit leaders how to end poverty in the African Diaspora. Malik received a Masters of Divinity from Vanderbilt University where he was a Kelly Miller Smith Scholar and graduated with Honors. He is currently teaching  in the Philosophy & Religion Department at Philander Smith College.  Previously, he held a position as Visiting Lecturer of African/African American Studies at the University of Central Arkansas. He is an alumnus of the GreenFaith Fellowship Program and Toyota TogetherGreen Fellowship Program.

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