How Obama’s Green Policies Benefit Blacks

As part of The Root's series about how President Obama's policies affect African Americans, we look at the administration's initiatives regarding the green economy and environmental justice.

President Obama in May 2010 at a California solar-power facility.(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
President Obama in May 2010 at a California solar-power facility.(Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

This is Part 2 of The Agenda: What Obama Has Done for You, a series of articles looking at President Barack Obama’s record on issues that affect blacks.

As African-American environmental-justice proponents Van Jones and Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins will tell you, environmental sustainability and climate change are, in addition to their general importance, also tremendously relevant to the overall health of America’s communities of color. Though clean energy is a less obvious racial issue than, say, education or criminal justice, it’s becoming increasingly evident that what goes into our water and air, and how we build our energy infrastructure, are, or should be, topics of grave importance to African Americans.

The Obama administration has set in motion a number of programs to address past injustices while also planning for a future in which low-income communities of color have an opportunity to thrive in the green economy.

Partnership for Sustainable Communities: A Coordinated Effort for Change

Almost as soon as he got into office, Obama began work on his Partnership for Sustainable Communities initiative. By combining the efforts of the Environmental Protection Agency, Department of Transportation, and Department of Housing and Urban Development, the administration has launched a project in which, for the first time in history, all three departments are working together in a way that makes absolute sense to anyone who’s ever lived in a major urban area.

“It is interesting that it took until President Obama for this to happen,” says Derek Douglas, special assistant to the president for urban affairs. “I think it has to do with the bottom-up approach the president has asked all of his agencies to take, and these are the types of results you get when you do that.”

The partnership seeks to invest money and political energy into communities in a way that takes into account the unique way that transportation, housing and the environment affect one another. The end goal, according to the White House, is to offer “more housing choices, make transportation systems more efficient and reliable, and support vibrant neighborhoods that attract businesses.”

To that end, more than $400 million in Sustainable Communities grants have been handed out in October, much of which goes directly toward addressing environmental issues in low-income communities.

Washington, D.C., for instance, received $3 million in order to expand the city’s low-income housing and help revitalize the currently blighted neighborhood of Anacostia. Atlanta will get more than $40 million to construct a streetcar line. 

Developments like this help in multiple ways: First, they offer Americans new residential opportunities and the economic benefits that come with having a reliable mode of transportation, and they simultaneously provide construction jobs in the burgeoning green economy. What’s more, because the grantees are required to be mindful of green business practices and green building, ultimately the projects provide a healthier environment for residents.

“Pollution, like dirty air and contaminated water, can have significant economic impacts on overburdened and low-income communities, which drives away investment, new development and new jobs,” says Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change policy. “But it also exposes residents to potentially costly health threats. And I think that at the end of the day, that’s the bottom line.”