What do Ferguson and climate change activism have in common? A great deal, actually, writes Dierde Smith of 350.org. “To me, the connection between militarized state violence, racism, and climate change was common-sense and intuitive,” she wrote, discussing the experience of growing up Black in America and navigating a world of systemic violence against not just the Black community, but people of color at large.
As Smith notes, there are especially strong connections between racial justice and environmentalism — but they often aren’t addressed by environmentalists.
There is in fact a term of discuss the pernicious connection between environmental injustice and racial inequality: environmental racism. When a community is marginalized, as is the case for people of color, it becomes especially vulnerable to environmental injustice in a number of forms. For example, polluting factories, waste centers and related facilities are more likely to be situated in or near communities of color. Members of the Black community of all classes are more likely to live in polluted areas and struggle with pollution-related illnesses such as asthma. While class can play an important role in being harmed by environmental problems (making it harder to move from polluted regions, for example, and more difficult to fight polluting industries), race is a key factor.
In the Black community and other communities of color, organizers have long explored the role of environmental racism in their lives and communities — but the same hasn’t been true of the white mainstream environmental movement. Members of these communities have pushed for a notion of environmental justice that considers holistic aspects of the fight for environmental health. It’s not just about helping the planet, although this is an important component of their work. It’s also about acknowledging that some communities experience environmental problems at a disproportionate rate, and that equality must go hand-in-hand with environmental advocacy.
A classic example can actually be seen in climate change circles, where communities of color are currently bearing the brunt of shifting global ecologies. Many climate refugees are people of color, and communities threatened by rising sea levels and changing weather conditions are predominantly inhabited by people of color. In North America, for example, many Inuit and First Nations are struggling to preserve their traditional way of life and communities in the face of radical environmental changes, many of which were induced or accelerated by the white community and colonialism. Resources on environmental justice are starting to challenge white-dominated notions of environmentalism and what’s important when it comes to advocating for the environment.
Smith’s commentary stresses that there are clear connections between racial injustice and environmental problems in the United States, and it’s necessary to address the country’s racial problems if one wants to resolve environmental issues. Looking simply at one without the other will lead to an incomplete view and an inadequate “fix,” by nature of the larger problems threatening to swallow up both issues.
“[R]arely have [environmentalists] involved themselves in non-environmental campaigns that impact people of color. In fact, environmentalists have made statements and executed campaigns that have antagonized people of color, mainly due to their ignorance of what people of color are most concerned about in their communities,” wrote Brentin Mock in 2012, explicitly connecting “Stand Your Ground” laws and activists fighting Keystone XL. “I’ve seen groups like NAACP, Urban League, League of Young Voters, Color of Change take on climate justice, Keystone XL justice and other environmental campaigns. But I’ve not see much reciprocity — that is, I’ve yet to see a groundswell of environmental advocates take up the cause of Stand Your Ground, juvenile justice, felony disenfranchisement, economic inequality, and other justice programs that primarily target people of color.”
He noted that some white environmental activists use racial dogwhistles and other coded language in their quest to fight environmental issues, without considering the implications of their actions and the need for a more inclusive environmental movement. Even as organizations run by people of color recognize the value of environmental advocacy and fight for the environment, the environmental movement has not accorded the same respect and advocacy, leaving people of color in the cold.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is for me, as a black climate justice advocate,” Smith writes, “as well as for my people, to see the climate movement show solidarity right now with the people of Ferguson and with black communities around the country striving for justice. Other movements are stepping up to the plate: labor, GLBTQ, and immigrant rights groups have all taken a firm stand that they have the backs of the black community. Threats to civil dissent are a threat to us all. We’ve seen this kind of militarized police violence in the environmental movement before: in the repression of the Global Justice Movement, pioneered by police with tanks on the streets of Miami during the Free Trade Area of the Americas protests in 2003, to name just one example.”
Her call to arms stresses the need for environmentalists to broaden their perspective and think about how overlapping systems of oppression interlock with environmental problems to compound injustice. Will the movement rise to her challenge?
Photo credit: Marcin Cajzer.
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