Environmentalists Team Up to Support Ferguson

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. “Iíve 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 Iíve not see much reciprocity — that is, Iíve 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 canít 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. Weíve 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.


Jonathan Harper
Jonathan Harper3 years ago


BJ J3 years ago


Marcia Vinson
Marcia Vinson3 years ago

I've been making this connection for quite some time, thank you for the article! Unfortunately, I feel that a majority will not realize this until its too late. Militarization is a direct effect of preparing for global warming, food and water shortages. People will finally notice when what happened in Ferguson, is happening in their neighborhoods. Until then, history repeats itself. People do nothing until something directly affects them. Imagine the shock and outrage once this does begin to spill over into communities that have yet to experience this! Our police forces have training connections to Israel that are directly linked to the upcoming crises, we've just seen a preview in Ferguson.

Jenny Sejansky
Jenny Sejansky3 years ago

So sorry for the typo in my previous comment! "LETTER" is correct! Can't scream at people who can't write if I can't write right myself!!! :)

Jenny Sejansky
Jenny Sejansky3 years ago

I love how the folks here who believe that when a black person shoots a white person, the whites are immediately justified when they kill a black person. Now, you tell me you're not racist, Janice? The only info I found on this Nevada case was in a white supremist/Mormon rag that could barely spell three leter, one syllable words correctly. So, there is little info on the case. The only reason why Ferguson is in the news so much is because Darrin Wilson is still at large, being paid and on holiday. No charges have been brought against him yet and the Police Department blatantly tried to cover the whole thing up. THEY WERE NOT ALLOWED TO DO SO. BUSTED- if you will!THAT's why the outrage. You know what happens when you finally look into something- you find so much more than you were even looking for. THAT'S what's happening in Ferguson right now. Whitey is getting the CRAP beaten out of him for YEARS and YEARS of disserving the black community there. If it means so much to whitey to make noise about the Nevada shooting, nothing is stopping them., In fact, if a bunch of white mormons were out there protesting right now, no tear gas, guns or military weapons would be deployed over it, either. So go cry to your racist friends about how bad whitey has it. Go get Rush down there to start a revolution over it. What stops you? IDIOTS!!!!!!

Maria Teresa Schollhorn

Thank you.

Vivianne Mosca-Clark

I guess it depends on where you live. When Sandy when off...the rich living up on the hills didn't have much problems. It was the poor people living on the coast line that still seem to be having issues. So the article has some information...But made it more confusing.

John chapman
John chapman3 years ago

I might be failing reading comprehension.

I read this but I don't understand it.

Loretta Pienaar

Janice L and all you who are indeed white and privileged, you certainly are not peace loving, that is for sure! You just don't care or want to know and that's for sure too.

judith sanders
judith sanders3 years ago

Well, of course, a community where there isn't a good turnout at elections, and where a large percentage of the population is mostly concerned with day-to-day expenses is a great place to put a plant that emits toxins. This isn't restricted to Black communities, low-income rural areas that are predominantly White will fight regulation of polluting plants, because they may offer the best jobs in the area. People fear not being able to pay their next car payment or utility bill more than they fear long-term health problems for their children. We Americans just don't have the science background to be able to make sound decisions, in many cases.