CHICAGO — Hazel Johnson loves to show off the neighborhood. But she gives tours with a twist: As the car pulls away from her home at the Altgeld Gardens housing project, visitors are told to shut the windows tight.
"The stink gets pretty bad, and some folks take sick," she says with a bitter laugh. "So, just mind what you breathe and take in the view."
Crossing a moonscape of brick rubble and scraggly weeds, Johnson points out steel mills and aging factories spewing smoke into a frozen winter sky. Off to the right are dozens of landfills, contaminated lagoons, a huge chemical waste incinerator, steel slag beds, buried metal drums and piles of loose trash.
When the car passes a busy interstate, Johnson stops on the banks of the Little Calumet River, a foul-smelling slush of green, black and brown. It gurgles by yet another dump, and leads to a sewage treatment plant where the stench from sludge is overwhelming. Nearby, a row of metal-plating shops and paint companies dots the highway like tombstones along a country road.
They call it the "toxic doughnut," here on the far southeast side of Chicago. It's one of the nation's most polluted urban zones, and it surrounds the 10,000 African-American residents of Altgeld Gardens. Crammed into an isolated project, they're plagued by high rates of cancer, puzzling birth defects, and the strong belief that nobody else gives a damn.
"Why did they build homes here in the first place?" Johnson sputters, as the car tour ends. "And why doesn't anybody do something about our health problems? I've been here 26 years, and I'm still trying to figure out why."
For a growing number of scientists and activists, the answer is environmental racism.
Simply put, the poor and people of color bear the brunt of pollution in America. According to one report, three out of five blacks and Latinos live near toxic sites, and the numbers are even higher in congested urban areas, like Chicago, Los Angeles, Houston and New York. To those who study the phenomenon, Hazel Johnson's problems are extreme--but nothing new.
"This is something that minorities have known for years," says Robert Bullard, a professor of sociology at UC Riverside and an expert on the subject. "Now the rest of the country is waking up to the fact that people of color are dumped on, literally and politically. Lots of folks are realizing that it's time to fight back."
For Hazel Johnson, the fight started long ago. But it's been a frustrating, uphill struggle, and after years of battling industrial polluters, she's no closer to a solution. Weaker souls would have given up and moved away, yet Johnson continues to search for answers--even as an estimated 26 million pounds of hazardous air chokes her neighborhood each year.
It all began when her husband died inexplicably of lung cancer in 1969, and she learned that dozens of neighbors also had cancer. Her anger grew when she asked questions and got the runaround from bureaucrats. It erupted when studies showed that more people died of cancer in Altgeld Gardens--a sprawling complex covering 17 blocks--than in other areas of Chicago and the rest of the nation.
Today, Johnson has become a leader of the fledgling environmental justice movement and a thorn in the side of the hazardous waste industry. Last year she won the President's Environment and Conservation Challenge medal, the nation's highest such award, and she also hosted seminars at the environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro. She's traveled across the country, teaching other activists to wage battles against pollution.
"Hazel is the grandmother of toxics resistance in America and a voice of conscience from the grassroots," says Gary Cohen, who directs the National Toxics Campaign Fund in Boston. "You don't get more authentic than her. She's the real thing, someone who inspires people to take action."
Even if she can't get out of bed some mornings. Johnson is poor and in failing health. She doesn't have a car, and the pipes in her apartment still leak after 26 years. Her seven children are grown, but she's still torn between her responsibilities as a mother and an activist.
Although prominent organizers welcome her across the country, Johnson struggles to keep the attention on people in Altgeld Gardens. Battered by crime, crack and unemployment, most of them have trouble putting food on the table and don't worry about landfills.
"Hazel? Yeah, I know Hazel," says a young mother, dragging three kids through the project to a doctor's appointment. "But I don't have time for what she does. It's all about air, right?"