Environmental Justice Is Racial Justice environmental justice organizations
by Jasper Cunneen
“Once, the Dream’s parameters were caged by technology and by the limits of horsepower and wind. But the Dreamers have improved themselves, and the damming of seas for voltage, the extraction of coal, the transmuting of oil into food, have enabled an expansion in plunder with no known precedent. And this revolution has freed the Dreamers to plunder not just the bodies of humans but the bodies of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky.” – Ta-Nehisi Coates from Between the World and Me
For those concerned about the environment, the urgency to act on climate change rises each year. It intensifies as wildfires in the pacific northwest continue to burn at unprecedented levels. It escalates after each tropical storm or hurricane batters the Gulf Coast—occurrences that are increasing in frequency and destructive potential. It hardens with each historic flood in in the Midwest, with every record-breaking heatwave in the southwest.
It is an urgency from which springs an increasingly desperate, chest-tightening feeling that makes one ask, how is it possible that we have ignored something like this for so long? After knowing about it for decades and reaching 97% consensus among scientists that climate change today is a human-driven phenomenon, how is it not a priority among everyone everywhere? Why isn’t everyone willing to acknowledge and act on something that is so clearly within our power to influence for the better? Why do the cries of so many seem to be falling on deaf ears? They are questions that lead to sobering answers. Even more sobering? They are questions that have been asked by communities and people overlooked and marginalized for generations.
If one is to take anything away from the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing protests against police brutality and white supremacy, it is that systemic racism exists in every aspect of American life. Environmental groups are not excused from that truth. They have slowly begun to acknowledge how systemic racism has embedded itself within a movement that has long touted altruistic principles, and they are taking initial and necessary steps to address it.
“I think there’s been a huge disconnect between the environmental movement and native cultures and people of color,” says Richard Arterbury, the founder of Ocean Blue Project and a member of the Choctaw Nation, when asked about the topic.
“I think a lot of communities get left out of things. It’s the same thing with plastic. Some communities don’t have a choice that I have here to recycle. They may not have a bottle drop nearby.”
A recent study by the New York Times examines how communities—most often poorer and populated by people of color—were ‘left out’ through the racist practice of redlining and are now more likely to suffer from extreme heat not felt in neighboring—and often white—areas where trees and green spaces are more prevalent. Leaving certain people out is a hallmark systemic racism and is why Black and brown communities experience food deserts and higher rates of pollution. It is a story of exploitation and comfort-induced negligence. The Dream, as it were. It is striking how similar that story is to the one we call climate change.
There are perhaps no others in this country with more knowledge of the dangers of injustice and inaction than Black and native peoples who have been fighting against an invisible and overwhelming threat since the first ships landed in what would become Virginia—whose methods of protest, local organization, civil disobedience, and legal redress in the struggle for equality are the foundational tools of environmental activism today.
The environmental movement must commit itself to racial justice not only for its own good but for the good of the planet it seeks to save. Imagine how much more impactful it can become when Black, Indigenous, people of color when they can focus entirely on issues like plastic pollution, carbon sequestration, and clean energy instead of worrying about being stopped by the police because of the pigmentation of their skin, when they are put into positions of leadership and given platforms to share their perspectives and the power to implement local, regional, and national solutions.
The fights are different but they are the same. Both are about creating a better world for all people to live in. Both will only be won after an honest accounting of how we arrived at where we are today and a commitment to positive change. The road to justice is long, but what other road is more worthy of travel?