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Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, Remarks at the Princeton Prize in Race Relations, As Prepared

05/12/2009
As prepared for delivery.

Thank you for inviting me to be with you.

It gives me great pride to join in honoring these young people and to celebrate their bright futures.

I also want to acknowledge that none of this would have been possible without all the parents, teachers, mentors, neighbors and friends that helped along the way.

We all owe them a big round of applause as well.

This is obviously a unique moment to have a discussion about race relations. Our nation has, of course, reached an historic milestone with the election of our first African American President.

For my parents and grandparents, the prospect of seeing a black president of the United States was simply unthinkable.

In 2003 when the Princeton Prize in Race Relations began, it was reasonable to wonder if we would see it in our lifetimes.

And even as recently as last year, when then-Senator Obama won the Democratic nomination, Congressman John Lewis, one of the original Freedom Riders in the Civil Rights movement, said, “If someone had told me this would be happening now, I would have told them they were crazy, out of their mind, they didn’t know what they were talking about.”

Yet, here we are. And the first African American president is not the only change that’s come.

Last year’s election had the most diverse electoral turnout in our nation’s history. There were extraordinary levels of political participation from African Americans, Latinos, Asians and others.

I’m proud to say that African American women had the highest level of participation of any category – nicely done ladies.

The voice of America was truly heard in 2008.

To reflect the growing diversity of that voice, President Obama has appointed the most diverse cabinet ever assembled.

This Administration will work with the most ethnically representative Congress ever voted into office.

And that inclusion is not just happening for Democrats. Right now, the heads of both of our major political parties are African Americans.

These are big changes from when I was young, and they give me great hope for the future my sons will see.

But that doesn’t mean we can rest. This is a unique moment – and because of that, it’s an important moment. We’re at a turning point – and the challenge is to make sure we don’t turn backwards.

We have to make sure that political participation stays at these high levels, and doesn’t drop off in the coming years.

We have to keep educational and economic opportunities growing.

And we have to keep this conversation alive, to continue to improve race relations across the country.

That is particularly important in my field. Environmental protection is one of the places where we absolutely have to keep expanding the conversation.

On most other issues, you hear the voices of all races. Our national security issues are not specific to one ethnicity or another. Neither are education or health care – where blacks, whites, Asians, Latinos, Native Americans and others are taking strong positions and working for change.

Yet, there is a sense that environmentalism doesn’t always cross racial and community lines – despite the fact that environmental challenges certainly do.

Like any kind of inequality, environmental inequality has profound adverse effects.

People in those communities get sick more than in other communities. They suffer from asthma, cancer, and other illnesses.

More often than not, because of their income, they aren’t able to get treatment anywhere but the Emergency Room – driving up health care costs for everyone.

Environmental disparities mean that business won’t invest in these communities. With fewer job opportunities the local economy can’t grow.

Without economic opportunity, there is poverty. And with poverty comes a whole host of other problems like crime, gangs, drugs and violence.

Let me add that this is not something that only applies to disadvantaged urban areas. Right now, a lot of our tribal lands have hazardous waste sites and open dumps, exposing their residents to dangerous toxins and possible contamination of land and water.

Many Native American economies and cultures are being threatened by climate change, from the loss of fish habitats in our rivers and streams to eroding shorelines that are threatening native Alaskan villages.

So, the concern is not just that we need more minority voices in the fight against climate change – although we certainly do.

Our concern is that in too many places in America, the burden of pollution and environmental degradation falls disproportionately on low-income and minority communities – and most often, on the children in those communities.

We can’t stand by and accept the disparities any longer. As EPA Administrator, I see it as part of my mission to show all Americans that this agency works for them.

We have to put a stronger emphasis on diversity, inclusion, and race relations when it comes to protecting human health and the environment.

We are making progress. The inauguration of the first African American president, and my subsequent confirmation as the first African American Administrator of this Agency, has forever changed the face of environmentalism in this country.

If you think about it: there was a time when I would have been forced to drink unsafe water from an inferior water fountain because of my race. Now, in 2009, I have the responsibility of ensuring that everyone drinks clean water, regardless of race.

That is powerful. It speaks to the amazing change our country has seen.

I hope it also sends a clear signal that environmentalism doesn't come in any one shape, any one size, or any one look.

Environmentalism is not just about protecting the wilderness. It's not just about saving the polar ice caps. It's about protecting people in the places where we live, where we work, where we raise our families.

It's about making urban and suburban neighborhoods safe and clean. It's about protecting children at their schools and workers at their jobs.

So we have to broaden the conversation. We need to meet people where they are, and engage on terms that make sense in their lives.

We have to go to every community – especially those that have been left out and left behind – and impress upon them that the issues of environmental protection are their issues, and our work is their work.

Meeting people where they are, showing them what common ground we stand on, being willing to listen and work together – that is what improving race relations is all about.

As I said, our country is at a turning point. But we are by no means finished.

The accomplishments we’ve seen, the history we’ve made, the list of success we’ve had over generations – these aren’t destinations. They’re markers along the road.

In fact, I think the greatest accomplishment is that we are here with a dedicated group of young people who are committed to keeping the work going.

I look forward to seeing where they will take us.

Thank you again.