While we were preparing this unprecedented issue linking anti-racist struggle and environmental justice, the Movement for Black Lives, a collective of more than 50 organizations, published its platform which includes the following demand: “A Divestment From Industrial Multinational Use of Fossil Fuels and Investments in Community-Based Sustainable Energy Solutions.” This demand merely echoes the sentiment that to think through or work on racial politics without some component of environmental activism or awareness is to amputate the struggle in advance of any political achievement.
Given how intimate are these struggles despite being rarely invoked together, we invited some of the people who spend a lot of time thinking, writing and acting on Blacks, racial politics and climate justice to submit their thoughts on the relationship between The Black Lives Matter movement and Climate Justice. Here’s what they had to say to us in this special forum:
Khalil Shahyd: Environmental Justice Advocate
We have fought hard and long for integration, as I believe we should have, and I know that we will win. But I’ve come to believe we’re integrating into a burning house.”
— Martin Luther King Jr.
Dr. King spoke those words to Harry Belafonte after the signing of the Civil Rights Act. He was speaking out of concern that integration of Blacks into American society without fundamentally transforming the structural nature of society would create new crises, in some ways more troubling than the segregation he and others fought to dismantle. The insight Dr. King expressed is made evident when we consider the persisting poverty faced by many rural and urban Black communities despite the growth of a substantial Black middle class since the bill’s passage.
Yet, perhaps there is an even more appropriate lens through which to view and understand Dr. King’s message. Today we are faced with the realization that the industrial society Dr. King and so many others fought to integrate us into is literally “burning the house.” As greater awareness to the causes and implications of climate change prove irrefutable we are likely to see increased vulnerability as livelihoods and ecosystems are disrupted or altered. While racial justice advocates have relied on a growing national economy to improve the living standards for minority workers, our national economy required larger and larger amounts of fossil fuels and materials to be consumed. The result is unsustainable levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that threaten to literally scorch the earth.
As the Black Lives Matter movement takes on the leadership of our collective advocacy for rights and liberation, addressing Climate Justice must be of the highest priority as the central focus of our modern “Civil Rights Movement.” The transition to a greener society will exacerbate racial inequality. The new technologies we are told to rely on for this transition are being developed and controlled by a minority of engineers, investors and entrepreneurs who are largely white. Further, these technologies, and the resources required to build them out, will be controlled by companies founded, financed and managed by mainly white people to whom knowledge and wealth will accrue as a result. The overwhelming majority of the profits earned from innovations designed to meet the climate challenge will gravitate to those with wealth, not those who need it, and the last great economic transition will proceed in a way that entrenches us at the bottom of the economic and political ladder.
Reverend Leo Woodberry: Pastor, Kingdom Living Temple
From the Federal Government to states to foundations, everyone supports the need for just energy transitions, equity and meaningful engagement for African Americans, in principle. One has to do no more than to look around the table at the decision-makers lack of melanin and paltry allocation of resources to African American communities to know that environmental racism is still in full effect in America — despite the fact that grassroots organizations have led the fight for environmental justice for years. Philanthropic and policy colonialists in air conditioned offices still view Blacks as unworthy, incapable denizens whose Black lives just don’t matter as much as others.
Tina Johnson: Policy Director, US Climate Network
The systemic racism that is decried by the Black Lives Matters Movement is the exact systemic racism that has permeated the struggle fought by the Environmental Justice Movement. Both of these movements are linked by the overabundance of evidence that Blacks in America are treated unjustly in such a way that their human rights and dignity are under constant attack by economic, social, racial, environmental and penal/judicial oppression. This link is evidenced by statistics that reveal that Blacks are disproportionately impacted by environmental racism and an unjust criminal justice system. Sixty-eight percent of Blacks live within thirty miles of a coal-fired plant, the distance within which the maximum effect of the “smokestack plum” occurs. Blacks are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. It cannot be ignored or denied that if you are Black and poor that you will be polluted on, and shot by police. Black Lives Matter is connected to environmental racism because they are both borne out of the reality that systems that abuse the human rights of a community based upon its race must be stopped.
Adrienne L. Hollis, Ph.D.: Writer, Activist, Attorney
The environment is where we live, where we work, where we play, where we go to school, and where we pray. In these different environs, there is inequity in the way people are perceived and treated. Minority populations, people of color, disenfranchised and impoverished communities, indigenous peoples, those with lower socio-economic status – poor people – are all defined as susceptible communities to environmental problems. Historically, black Americans have suffered unjustly at the hands of those who pollute the environment. Climate justice recognizes that those same populations are the first to experience and suffer the negative effects of climate change. It seeks to find ways to lessen those effects – so that no group unfairly bears the burdens associated with changes in the environment, and increases access to clean water, clean air, fresh and affordable food, safe and healthy living environments, jobs and opportunity.
The burdens are more than just scientific data about the future of climate change. For people of color, the future is now. Climate injustice means increased air pollution and asthma rate, and socio-economic burdens. Advocating for climate change means a person’s health should not suffer because of their zip code, race, or environmental conditions. That is its relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement. Climate justice and Black Lives Matter are both social movements. Both deal with the intersection between environmental insult and assault on populations of color and/or those of lower socio-economic status. These populations are the first to experience the effects of climate change, and the first to experience the effects of inequity in the criminal justice system or when dealing with police.
The connection between climate justice and Black Lives Matter – in my opinion – is the belief that basic human rights and civil rights matter and should be protected for everyone, including those historically disenfranchised – black Americans.
Jameka Hodnett: Activist
The modern environmental movement has been and continues to be dominated by white hetero-patriarchy. Big Green organizations often co-opt movement narratives from predominantly black, brown, and front line communities, while continuing to benefit themselves from institutionalized racism and corporate capitalism. This is a troubling juxtaposition because black people are the ones who will be hit the hardest by climate change. Systemic racial inequality already leaves black people in a vulnerable position and the climate crisis will exacerbate those conditions. The climate crisis requires imagining a world without fossil fuels. It requires pushing our global economy in a fundamentally different direction. It requires an unwavering spirit and a true fight against oppression, and The Movement for Black Lives has all of these components.
The modern environmental movement is too comfortable to shake up the status quo. It’s time to realize that their marriage to incrementalism and political expediency will not be enough to fundamentally transform our economy with the urgency that we need to combat the climate crisis. On the other hand, the Movement for Black Lives understands the urgency of creating a fundamentally different world. They understand that an economy built on white supremacist capitalist patriarchy treats black folks as surplus labor, as something to be caged or discarded. It is not interested in half measures because death does not occupy a gray area.
The movement’s platform now has a component geared towards climate justice and fossil fuel divestment. They recognize that all systems of oppression are connected and at the heart is a deeply exploitative and violent system that rips up the earth just as violently as it does black and brown people daily. Freedom for black people is being able to live and thrive in an environment free from all forms of oppression. The climate crisis is one of the biggest opportunities to merge the urgency of two movements and now is the perfect time to do it.
Montina Cole: Attorney, Writer
The many facets of climate change disproportionately impact black lives and multi-faceted solutions to the climate crisis are needed, including voting rights reform. We need to elect leaders who understand that the Black community is on the frontline of experiencing the negative health, environmental and economic impacts of climate change – we need leaders who will fight for climate justice. But our ability to elect such leaders will be stymied unless politically disenfranchising New Jim Crow voter suppression tactics are rolled back and laws promoting full voter participation are passed. The Movement for Black Lives has wisely recognized the need to fully exercise Black political power, including the right to vote. Now is the time to make it so.
Kari Fulton: Environmental Justice Advocate and Community Organizer, Empower DC
It is critical to understand that a vision for Black Lives includes a vision for Climate Justice. Black Lives Matter is about more than police brutality against the Black community. The same system that hires and trains cops to racially profile African-Americans, also trains urban planners, developers and politicians. They are trained to place polluting industries in minority communities and to develop emergency management plans that protect affluent white neighborhoods, while destroying low-income minority communities.
Communities of Color are hurt first and worst by the impacts of Climate Change. We feel the damages of natural disasters. We are being pushed out to suburbs without adequate transportation, jobs or emergency support and we are also breathing toxins from polluting industries and development. The whole system is guilty and I am glad to see that there are many ways to infuse a strategic Climate Justice conversation into the policy platform laid out by the Movement for Black Lives.
Denise Abdul-Rahman, NAACP (Indiana), Environmental Climate Justice Chair
Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi moved our black lives into a deep societal, virtual and physical, conversation about how we matter, significantly.
The more inequality manifests, the more environmental injustice is perpetuated. The production systems run by the 1% accelerate carbon pollution and co-pollutants. These pollutants are hosted and burdened by black, brown, and vulnerable communities. The very same communities already burdened with environmental injustices, over policing, poverty, brownfields, toxic water, all of which are an assault on our health and wellbeing thus making us ill equipped to being climate resistant.
The movement demands change, equity and just systems.
Preview issue here. To receive both the print and digital versions TBS Vol 46., which includes our climate justice issue along with issues on Black feminism, Black dance, and more, please subscribe here.