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Alabama Town's Dump -- and a Legacy of Racism

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Alabama Town's Dump -- and a Legacy of Racism

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Alabama Town's Dump -- and a Legacy of Racism

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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

Here's a story about a small town in Alabama that's trying to bring in more jobs for its people. It's a story that's familiar to commentator John Fleming. It's like many stories he's written over the years for his newspaper The Anniston Star, except for one thing. For once he says this is a story that looks to him like it's not about race.

JOHN FLEMING: Almost everything about Uniontown, Alabama, is sad. Forty years ago the place was home to five industries. Antebellum homes fronted the broad streets. Churches, beautiful brick and stone structures, anchored the corners.

Today those industries are gone, save the cheese factory. The Antebellum homes are in varying degrees of decay. The churches are mostly empty shrines holding services twice a month maybe. On summer days when the air grows thick and the sun beats down Uniontown even stinks, compliments of the whey from the cheese factory.

And sadder still it gets. Just south of Uniontown is the proposed sight of the new endeavor to generate jobs and money. A landfill as big as all outdoors. If built it will be big. Big enough to accommodate garbage from as far away as the Northeast. Only a place that stinks and is desperate for jobs and income would contemplate this. The Uniontown dump has the hallmarks of environmental racism spray painted all over it. People are used to such things here in the middle of Alabama but that doesn't mean they like it or will put up with it. Or that it is necessarily about race.

Here's what I'm talking about. The other night I went to Uniontown's high school gymnasium for a public meeting about the dump. I saw bleachers packed with blacks and whites thoroughly upset at their majority black county commission for unanimously approving the landfill. One by one they took to the podium to skewer the commission and plead with state regulators not to approve the landfill. A white lawyer, a black preacher, a white housewife, a black clerk, a white farmer, a black schoolteacher.

We call this part of Alabama the black belt for its rich soil, dirt that grew cotton and later cotton plantations that were worked first by slaves and by their descendents in the state of semi-servitude. It is also the cradle of our intolerance. And Uniontown is not far from the major battlegrounds of the Civil Rights movement.

But there wasn't any racism in that gym the other night that I could see. There was however one group, black and white citizens, allied against another group, their black and white elected political leadership. There is no doubt that poverty and race play a part in Uniontown being a possible site of the landfill. I'm just not sure that the Uniontown case is a case of environmental racism.

This part of Alabama has endured generations of social and economic purgatory fired by an obsession with race. But it looks to me that the fight over the Uniontown dump is where racial politics depart the stage to make way for the politics of problem solving. Like I said, Uniontown is a sad place. But if there is one thing to be happy about, it's that race for once seems to have little to do with it.

NORRIS: John Fleming is editor at large for The Anniston Star in Alabama.

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