MINORITIES: Ecological Reporters Awaken to Ethnicity


This article originally appeared in Issue# 51

At first glance it looked like The Return of the Rainbow Coalition. First Whoopie Goldberg, then Edward James Olmos took the platform to rouse the crowd to action.

But it wasn't a minority rally. It was Earth Day. And it brought viewers the all-too-rare media coverage of minority figures speaking out on other than specific minority issues.

Moreover, the media have begun to examine the usually-overlooked relationship between general and minority environmental concerns. Coverage this spring of pollution-caused cancer clusters in largely black industrial towns in the Mississippit Delta are one of a number of recent examples. And it's about time!

Commanding little media attention, minority people have long struggled with local ecological problems like toxic-waste disposal and lead-paint poisoning. Yet they have generally kept their distance from mainstream environmental movements and leaders, who seemed mesmerized by the big picture and national media-attracting hooply, while often appearing unrecptive to minority participation and unresponsive to their environmental concerns. (In a January 1990 letter, civil rights leaders criticized eight national environmental groups for their hiring practices and general disregard for local environmental problems facing low-income minority communities.)

The media must bear part of the responsibility for the development of such minority/mainstream tensions among environmentalists. Over the years, media have done little to enlighten readers and viewers about these concerns. At other times, media coverage of environmental issues have ignored critical minority dimensions.

A case in point. The May 1, 1990 Los Angeles Times carried a lengthy front-page article on the Grand Canyon pollution cause by the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station. While the article addressed the need to improve plant emission controls so tourists could enjoy a better view of the canyon, not once did it mention the Navajo and Hopi people who have to breathe the plant's emissions every day.

John Galsworthy once wrote, "Idealism increases in direct proportion to one's distance from the problem." For too long, media coverage of the environment has focused on far-away mountains and wilderness. Threats to them deserve coverage but so do the poisoning of city air and water, the kind of close-at-home environmental problems that affect the day-to-day lives and health of millions.

For most minority people, environmentalism means crucial local struggles for a better life, not glib slogans and high-visibility public rallies. Media need to provide greater and more sensitive coverage of the broad range of ecological issues, including local problems faced by minority communities. Their ability to do this will be a crucial step toward improved understanding and cooperation between minority community members and mainstream environmentalists.

Author Bio: 

Carlos Cortes is Professor Emeritus of history at the University of California, Riverside. His most recent books, The Children are Watching: How the Media Teach about Diversity (2000) and The Making - And Remaking - Of a Multiculturalist (2002), were published by Teachers College Press. He is co-author of the Houghton Mifflin Social Studies series (2005) and Cultural Consultant for Nickelodeon's Peabody-award-winning children's series, "Dora the Explorer", while he also performs his one-person, one-hour autobiographical play, A Conversation with Alana: One Boy's Multicultural Rite of Passage".