Last week, National Black Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Harry Alford gave Sen. Barbara Boxer the business over their disagreements about the climate bill before her committee. In testimony before the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, Alford admitted that he spoke "not as an economist" and as "not a climate change expert," but as someone with "a deep understanding of small and minority-owned businesses." In other words, he knows black people. When Boxer waved an NAACP resolution supporting climate change action in Alford's face, he took offense, accusing Boxer of "racial"-izing the climate change debate, and asked pointedly: "Why are you doing the colored people's association's study with the black chamber of commerce?" Later, he added: "Let me speak for the African-American community, since I am African American."
The bickering over who speaks for black America on climate change was a distraction from the more important issue whether black people will have a voice in reshaping U.S. energy policy. To be fair, Boxer cited other reports before she name-dropped the NAACP with Alford. But she erred when she decided to hide behind the NAACP document. Boxer's move was the equivalent of a white person invoking a black friend in an argument with a black person to establish racial credibility. Indeed, ultimately, all the NAACP document did was resolve that the black organization would work with the National Wildlife Federation on this issue.
Alford called Boxer's act "condescending." But it was no less troubling than Alford’s testifying with the aid of a report produced by his white friends at CRA International, who prepared the "Impact on the Economy of the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009" study, from which Alford quoted heavily.
As reported by Grist.org, Alford's NBCC has collected $350,000 from Exxon Mobil since 1998, and according to Boxer they financed the CRA study as well. Exxon Mobil has been a huge financier of global warming skepticism and a top lobbyist against the climate change bill. The $9.3 million it spent on lobbying for the first quarter of this year led all in the oil and gas industry. This alone calls into question whether it's NBCC or Exxon Mobil that is attempting to speak for black Americans on this issue. All said, it is black Americans who are screwed if the best voices they have at the climate table come from the NBCC and the NAACP. The NAACP, yes, finally adopted a resolution to act on climate change, but it has been inexplicably absent on this issue for the past few years, even though poor, black communities will suffer the most from global warming-related disasters. The NBCC has been working on energy policy issues since the 1990s. But part of that effort has been speaking out against climate change action.
NBCC is not the only black organization that opposes adoption of a clean energy bill. Another opponent is the Congress of Racial Equality, which not coincidentally has also received funding from Exxon Mobil, some $275,000 since 1998. CORE's chairman, Roy Innis, stated last year that global warming proposals "threaten to roll back much of the civil rights progress for which civil rights revolutionaries and Dr. King struggled and died." Innis made that speech in that epicenter of civil rights clashes, Salt Lake City, where he encouraged Utah residents to join him "in challenging these energy killers, these modern-day Bull Connors and George Wallaces, who are standing in the door, trying to prevent poor Americans from achieving Martin Luther King's dream of equal opportunity and true environmental justice."
However, black organizations don't fit neatly into categories of Exxon Mobil-funded climate change deniers and those who aren't. Exxon Mobil was a sponsor of last week's NAACP's 100th anniversary national convention. While every member of the Congressional Black Caucus except Artur Davis (D-Ala.) and Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) voted for the American Clean Energy and Securities Act when it passed the House in June (Davis voted against it, and Hastings abstained), Exxon Mobil gave the CBC Foundation Inc. $20,000 for its annual legislative dinner and an additional $25,000 for "event support." The CBC doesn't speak for black America, but it does vote for most of it, so it's encouraging that Exxon Mobil's financial influence hasn't been felt in the same way as it has for CORE and NBCC. Still, it is a fair question for African Americans to ask who exactly is attempting to speak for them on Capitol Hill, and also who is funding those speakers.
If Alford was right about one thing during his tantrum with Boxer, it was when he said: "This has nothing to do with the NAACP. It really has nothing to do with the NBCC. We're talking energy." On energy, all of these groups agree in principle. Whether the NAACP resolution, Alford's testimony or even Innis' Utah civil rights speech, all spoke to the issue in the context of protecting small and minority-owned businesses and low-income families. What a check from Big Oil or a partnership with a multimillion-dollar environmental group evidently wins is a place at the policy-setting table.
Environmental justice organizations are mostly funded by foundations and from lawsuits against companies like Exxon. Their work entails monitoring for local environmental and health risks, and educating families about the hazards they face from global warming and toxic pollution. Much of the leadership of these groups comes from credentialed practitioners with expertise from both the academy and the community. Yet environmental and climate justice leaders such as Robert Bullard, Beverly Wright and Peggy Sheppard are often excluded from congressional policy hearings likely because these figures speak about the harms and benefits to African Americans from a perspective other than that of business and industry.
In May, Kari Fulton of the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative, a coalition that's been addressing climate change since 2000, was disinvited from speaking at a press conference on the EPA carbon dioxide endangerment findings. According to Fulton, the Sierra Club pulled the plug on her – after initially inviting her – after deciding that the EJCC’s position on how cap and trade policy affects African Americans wasn’t in alignment with the other mainstream environmental groups speaking at the press conference, among whom was the National Wildlife Federation.
When environmental justice groups are silenced, D.C. policy makers are left with groups like NBCC claiming to speak for African Americans. Like the NBCC, the EJCC knows something about black people.Unlike the NBCC, though, they actually have climate change experts.
Brentin Mock is a freelance reporter who worked most recently as a writing fellow for The American Prospect focusing on environmental justice and policy issues. He is a 2008-09 Metcalfe Institute Diversity in Environmental Reporting Fellow, and a 2009 USC Annenberg Institute Justice and Journalism Fellow for environmental justice reporting.