Beyond Environmental Justice

For blacks, the green movement has been primarily about bad things dumped in our neighborhoods. But health-based activism is no longer enough. Today’s black and green movement must be about jobs and economic sustainability.

Getty Images
Getty Images

The green movement has always had an Achilles’ heel. Environmental issues are typically not like, say, racial profiling or gender-based pay inequity, where the injustice is demonstrable and plain. You’ve got to walk a would-be environmentalist through a few, often complex steps to connect seemingly benign action A with huge catastrophe B. And it often takes even more steps to link that catastrophe with challenges people face in their everyday lives. The threats are opaque. 

In black America, environmental justice has been the primary lens for understanding those threats. For instance, when public housing agencies rely heavily on rodent poison rather than invest in preventive steps like enclosed trash compactors and routine inspections, black quality of life suffers. Projects are filthy with poorly contained waste, and lots of black toddlers eat rat poison

Over the years, these are the sorts of green concerns that have made it onto the black political agenda. When policymakers systematically clump bus depots and waste treatment plants in black neighborhoods, driving up childhood asthma rates, it’s a civil rights concern. When slumlords refuse to strip lead paint, they’re preying upon poor families. Black people have been trained, in recent decades, to get these connections. 

But that largely defensive, health-based environmentalism is no longer enoughif it ever was. President Obama has raised the stakes considerably by inextricably tying his massive economic agenda to the sustainability movement. And when you follow the links, the consequences of that decision are clear-black America’s future might just depend upon its ability to paint its politics green. 

Obama likes to point out that he’s not the first president who’s had to create a whole new economy. It remains to be seen whether his effort will as profoundly impact American life as Abraham Lincoln’s railroad or FDR’s GI Bill, but the audacious president hasn’t been shy about his aspirations. “History reminds us,” he thundered in his February address to Congress, “that at every moment of economic upheaval and transformation, this nation has responded with bold action and big ideas.” 

All of the economic initiatives that have preceded Obama’s massive agenda share a trait beyond being big and bold: They left black folks out in the cold. We were locked out of postwar home-buying subsidies, nickeled and dimed on military-generated manufacturing jobs and got little out of the GI Bill’s higher education incentives. 

Clearly, times have changed; open racial bias in a government-backed program is now unthinkable. But just as clearly, racial disparity remains deeply rooted in our economy, due in no small part to the inequality meted out by the programs that created today’s middle class. One statistic kicked around liberally at a late-March Capitol Hill summit on people of color and wealth makes the point compellingly: The typical black family today has a dime of wealth for every dollar owned by a white family. Obama’s effort may be the last, best hope for finally closing that gap. 

If so, the president has been clear about the path he’ll follow to get there. “It begins with energy,” he bluntly told Congress in February. And that means we must become clear about our path as well. In the coming months, one thing above all else has got to happen in black America: Everybody-from elected officials to neighborhood activists-must become deeply, meaningfully engaged in the movement for a sustainable economy. 

Environmental justice remains a big reason for that. Green for All CEO Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins put it well in March 25 testimony before a House Appropriations subcommittee. “Polar bears will not be the biggest victims of global warming,” Ellis-Lamkins said. “People will be the biggest victimsourselves, our children and grandchildren. And as Hurricane Katrina demonstrated, it will be poor people and people of color who are hit hardest.” 

But there is much more. It’s a cliché that when America gets a cold, black folks get pneumonia. But guess what? It’s nonetheless true, and this recession has drastically deepened what was already a dramatic economic hole for most of black America.