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"The Truth Won't Set You Free (But It Might Make the Evening News): The Use of Demographic Information in Struggles for Envirnmental Justice in California,"

by Luke W. Cole May/June 1996 issue of Poverty & Race

One of the great myths of white America is that the truth will set you free. What I mean by this is that simply being right, or having the truth on your side, does not mean you will win a particular struggle. The struggles communities fighting dangerous and unwanted facilities have been undertaking across the country for the last two decades are not about who has the right facts, or the right science or even the right law. They are about who has the political and economic power to make their voice heard.

This said, having the truth on your side nonetheless is both useful and important. This article focuses on one particular type of "truth," the use of demographic information in community-based struggles for environmental justice. Despite its many draw-backs, demographic information, when used properly, can be a powerful tool in local fights.

In our work at the Center on Race. Poverty & the Environment, we have used demographic information in a variety of studies to build local movements, educate policymakers and the public, and bolster legal claims. Here are some of the uses we've found for such data:

Community education and mobilezation: Community groups can use demographic information and studies to anger and motivate their members or community. This important movement-building function occurs when demographic information helps a local community see what it may have considered merely an environmental problem in a new light, as a civil rights problem. A community's reaction to "They want to build a new plant at Third and Bayshore" might be very different from its reaction to that same information in the context of a demographic study showing: "San Francisco has two power plants, both in the Bayview-Hunters Point community. Now they want to build the third plant here, too. Thus, Bayview's residents, 70% of whom are African American, will bear l00%of the burden of producing San Francisco's energy."

Media hook: Demographic studies are important educational tools beyond the local community. Media outlets are constantly looking for "scientific" information on different topics and will readily report demographic surveys. even in draft form. These articles or news pieces help a community group reach a much broader audience, thus helping identify potential allies or other similarly situated communities; many times, community leaders will get a phone call from a new supporter, who will say, "I just read about your fight in the paper and I want to help"
The demographic studies we have used are generally graphic illustrations of environmental racism, such as when we revealed that all three of California's bClass I toxic waste dumps are in low-income, Latino farmworkers communities or when we released a study documenting that billboards in San Francisco's African American community were three times more likely to feature alcohol advertisements than billboards in other neighborhoods. Such studies further public understanding of environmental racism.

Administrative advocacy: In California, we have used demographic data in administrative advocacy before local, state and federal agencies. These data have helped community groups provide a context for a local siting decision, such as when residents of Kettleman City discovered, and then pointed out to the local Board of Supervisors, that their town was the only majority Latino town in Kings County and also was the only town asked to host a toxic waste dump. As groups around California investigated the demographics of their own communities, they found a similar pattern: most of California's toxic waste treatment, storage and disposal facilities are in or near communities of color. In its 1995 report, Toxic Wastes and Race Revisited, the United Church of Christ reported that, based on its demographic analyses, 53 of California's 54 toxic waste sites were in communities that had a greater proportion of people of color than the national average. Findings such as these-by both grassroots activists investigating their own communities and national environmental justice groups painting a big picture-have been a key in community groups' ongoing challenges to California's Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), the state agency responsible for permitting toxic waste facilities. On behalf of a number of California grassroots environmental justice groups, our Center has filed two administrative complaints with the U.S. EPA under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids discrimination by entities, such as DTSC, that receive federal funds. Administrative complaints have a great deal of potential power, as EPA's regulations forbid even discriminatory impact (in addition to intent) -and in California, such impact is easily demonstrated by demographic studies such as the United Church of Christ's.

Litigation support: Finally, demographic information is useful in planning and bringing environmental justice lawsuits. Just as in administrative advocacy. demographic information that shows a pattern of siting dangerous facilities in communities of color is an essential foundation to lawsuits alleging violations of civil rights laws. Lawsuits under Title VI, or under Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 (the Fair Housing Act), are a new but increasingly popular tool in the Environmental Justice Movement, and a number have been filed in California, challenging everything from rebuilding a freeway through the predominantly African American community of West Oakland to expansion of a toxic waste dump near Buttonwillow. Advocates should note that all evidence introduced in such hard-fought cases, including demographic studies, will be subject to exacting scrutiny by one's opponents and may also be the target of studies performed by the other side's hired-gun experts.

Inherent limitations: In using Census data, one should be aware of some of their limitations in describing a particular community, region or state. The Census Bureau does not count Latinos as a separate race, but allows that they can be of any race: "Hispanic" is reported as a separate category. This can lead to an interesting situation: When the people of Cattlemen City told Kings County officials that "Kettleman City is 95% Latino," a figure they based on the 1990 Census, the County responded: "Our figures show that Kettleman City is 67% white." Both were right.

Inaccurate data: Some data sets are flawed, and it is important to know about this and take it into account in fashioning any study, or risk having one's study (rightly) attacked. One recent example is a flaw in EPA's powerful Landview program, which plots demographic information as well as a host of other information on the siting of toxic facilities. The location of the toxic facilities plotted on Landview is based on those facilities' self-reported latitude and longitude. If the location of the facility inadvertently is reported incorrectly by the facility itself (do you know' the exact latitude and longitude of your office?), then that information is incorrectly entered into the Landview database. As the saying goes, garbage in, garbage out. When using Landview, we have had to double-check the actual location of facilities in the study area in question.

The Bottom Line

In sum, the experiences of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment show that demographic information can prove highly useful in local environmental justice struggles. Activists and advocates must remember, however, that like any other tactic in the struggle, demographic studies are only a means toward an end, not an end in themselves. The truth will not set us free, but it is an important ally in our struggle for environmental justice.

Luke W. Cole is General Counselor the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment and Staff Attorney at the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, 631 Howard Street. #300, San Francisco, CA 94103-3907, 415/777-2752.

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