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Rooted in Racism: How the Teachings of James Cone Still Uphold Today With Environmental Racism

Amena Ohrethre - Teen Aspect - August 3rd, 2022
(Medical News Today)

Kilynn Johnson has been living in the same neighborhood, Gray Ferry, since she was little. She had been diagnosed with asthma when she was young, but, later on, she developed more breathing problems and eventual gallbladder cancer. There was little hope that Johnson would make it. After confessing her diagnosis to a long-time neighbor, Sylvia Bennet, they began to realize that most of their families and friends in the neighborhood had died from some sort of cancer or another. Together more than “two dozen family members, friends, and neighbors” (Villarosa 2) had been diagnosed with or died from cancer. This number was too high to be a coincidence; it had to do with their environment. The women realized that most of their health issues could be blamed on the refinery plant owned by Philadelphia Energy Solutions (P.E.S) that has been in their neighborhood for years. The women began to work with Philly Thrive, an environmental-justice group, to advocate for clean air and protest to stop building another gas plant.

The community of Grey Ferry was a case of intense environmental racism. In cities across the United States, most landfills, factories, and incarcerations are located in Black communities (Villarosa 7). This was the result of racist decisions made by city officials (Villarosa 7) and has affected these communities in more ways than one. A direct example of this is the refinery in Grey Ferry. One night a corroded pipe exploded, causing Johnson’s house to shake. The tremors were so strong it even affected Johnson's daughter who lived a mile and a half away and lost power in her home. Later, Johnson began experiencing breathing problems as a result of the explosion. Furthermore, after the explosion, a health report revealed that P.E.S was pumping out benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, “21 times the federal limit” (Villarosa 9). The refinery was purposely situated in the community of Gray Ferry, a Black community, and has caused sickness and death for many of Johnson's loved ones.

Described as the “father of Black theology,” James Cone is an American theologist widely known for his powerful articles and work in Black liberation theology. Though Cone passed away in mid-2018, his work remains more imperative than ever, especially regarding the news of the detrimental refinery poisoning happening in Johnson’s neighborhood. In Whose Earth is it Anyway? James Cone argues that a big problem among environmentalists is that they are not connecting the issue of race and the environment. To rectify this, he urges members of the Black community to engage in environmental activism because it affects them in more ways than one. He writes about “a group of black churchwomen in Warren County, North Carolina, who in 1982 lay their bodies down on a road before dump trucks carrying soil contaminated with highly toxic PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl) to block their progress...the incident sparked the attention of civil rights and black church leaders and initiated the national environmental justice movement. ” (Cone 4). This proves the necessity of black people in the environmental movement and makes them aware of the underlying issues (specifically racism) underneath them. By actively engaging in these issues, Black people are able to shine a light on the injustices thrust upon them. Thus, Cone would approve of Philly Thrive’s effort of connecting racism to social justice and helping the members of Grey Ferry advocate for justice. Johnson herself is an example of Philly Thrive’s impact. After months of attending Philly Thrive meetings and learning about the environmental dangers created by the refinery, after the explosion and her emergency trip to the hospital, she had changed...‘I [Johnson] used to be a really quiet person until I ran into Philly Thrive.” (Villarosa 9). The change Johnson has gone through is a result of Philly Thrive’s actions to make the community of Grey Falls understand the social and environmental implications of the refinery. Johnson will become more active in environmental affairs and be aware of the racial injustice this encompasses. This proves Cone’s point about the importance of including social matters in environmental matters because the community of Gray Ferry is able to advocate for two types of injustice: racism and environment.

With each news headline revealing more situations similar to Johnson’s (in Michigan, Louisiana, Alabama, etc..), it is important to look back on the teachings of environmental leaders and theologists like James Cone and see how they can help. Raising awareness is important but so is taking justified action towards a future that will benefit all people regardless of religion or race.


Cone, James H. “Whose Earth Is It, Anyway?” Ideals and Ideologies, 2019, pp. 495–502.,

Villarosa, Linda. “The Refinery Next Door .” The New York Times.

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