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 enough—if 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 victims—ourselves, 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.
Nearly a quarter of black households live below the poverty line, a share that is probably growing. In February, black unemployment hit a whopping 13.4 percent, nearly double the rate for whites. A generations-long gap in homeownership is widening as blacks and Latinos-who were clearly targeted with subprime lending and often steered away from more affordable loans-are poised to lose billions and absorb an estimated half of the nation's wealth loss from foreclosures. Even the auto industry collapse looks likely to hurt black working families the most.
So what does a green economy look like? Green Jobs for All has begun sketching out a clear answer to that question (and, not for nothing, its founding CEO Van Jones is Obama's new green jobs adviser). First, you have to understand the potential: Green jobs aren't just high-tech, they're everything from new building trades such as installing solar panels to revamped old-school ones such as putting in insulation. Like manufacturing was to the 20th century, they're jobs that don't require college degrees but nonetheless generate middle-class wages.
But policymakers will have to ensure adequate resources for training old workers in new skills-and make sure those resources get distributed to where they are most needed. That's where the dreaded "black agenda" becomes important. It's become a trope of the Obama era that the mainline civil rights groups and old-school black legislators are stuck in an irrelevant political past. There's no doubt some truth to that. But building an equitable green economy is arguably now a prerequisite for creating racial justice in America. The green movement is a movement for our times and our people.
Kai Wright is a senior writer for The Root.
Dayo Olopade: Black Folks, Green Thumbs.
Majora Carter: City dwellers can save the world.
Dayo Olopade: Seven ways to love your mother (earth, that is).
John Kerry: Making the green movement more brown.
Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins: Getting in on the Green Ground Floor.