We have all watched with increasing horror, and resolve, protests arise across the United States in the wake of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders. Racism in the U.S. is deep, with roots that go back before the founding of the country. And racism in the U.S. entangled with, indeed, it is inseparable from, environmental injustices. Communities of color, and frontline communities have always borne the brunt of pollution in the air, land and water (remember Flint?), negative impacts from construction and operation of fossil fuel facilities (“cancer alley” in Louisiana) and even the disproportionate environmental impacts of redlining, which forced African-Americans into certain neighborhoods, and prevented them from living in others.
At the same time, the racist power structures in the U.S. systematically undermined these communities’ ability to build political power and resist these injustices. “The systems of oppression that have led to the deaths of so many Black people,” says Black environmentalist Leah Thomas, “were the same systems that perpetuated environmental injustice.”
Police brutality directed at African-Americans didn’t start with George Floyd or Eric Garner. But we heard their identical words, “I can’t breathe,” as they were murdered. Eric Garner had asthma. George Floyd had Covid-19, both conditions that affect your lungs, and both conditions that disproportionately affect and kill African- Americans. Lung conditions that cause health problems in the Black community are frequently caused and exacerbated by decades of living in places with higher levels of pollution and particulate matter than white communities. For example, 68% of African-American people live within 35 miles of a coal plant, and what these communities have in common beyond pollution is that they are over-policed, and under-invested in. Imagine replacing a police precinct (or a coal plant) with a park. Imagine replacing officers with healthcare providers, and fossil fuel jobs with installing solar panels on community-owned businesses.
Systemic racism in the U.S. has always been intertwined with the state working to quash opposition to racism and anti-racism protest movements, and the same has been true for environmental protest movements. We have seen dozens of videos of police officers assaulting anti-racist protestors in recent weeks. We have also seen security forces assaulting environmental protestors, most notably at Standing Rock. Numerous states are going to extremes to criminalize protest, using environmental activism as a kind of trojan horse, in the same way they moved to criminalize protest after Philando Castile was murdered by police. New laws propose to make “interfering with oil and gas activities” or “disturbing” government meetings a felony. Anti-protest laws make people gathering on highways, or violating arbitrary curfews, subject to detention and arrest.
The same system that attempts to crush resistance to police brutality is marshalled to crush resistance to environmental racism. Should the state be protecting fossil fuel companies, or citizens’ First Amendment right to protest? Should the law encourage police forces to brutalize protestors demanding livable, healthy futures?
Meanwhile, the (mainstream, white) environmental movement has been asking African-Americans to bear the burdens of both racism and the climate crisis, without, until recently, engaging in the necessary active allyship and antiracism work that intersectional environmentalism demands. Racism, explains marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, “derails our attempts to save the planet.” She asks us to “Consider the discoveries not made, the books not written, the ecosystems not protected, the art not created, the gardens not tended,” because Black people are forced to spend their energy just trying to survive. Instead of being able to do the work of solving the climate crisis, African-Americans have to demand the right to merely breathe and live in America.
The climate crisis is a matter of life and death. So too, is racism. Ignoring the structural racism that exacerbates the impacts of the climate crisis is not a viable pathway. We must acknowledge that environmentalism that is not intersectional is worthless. One of the tenets of the “Intersectional Environmentalist Pledge” is that “I will not ignore the intersections of environmentalism and social justice.” Another is “I will not remain silent during pivotal political and cultural moments that impact BIPOC communities.”
In this pivotal moment, it is crucial that we speak up, and it is crucial that our work is dedicated to environmental justice, even after this moment passes. We can demand environmental policies that center communities of color-- even the Green New Deal can be improved. We can build policies from the demands of communities facing these dual crises. We must acknowledge that systemic inequality perpetuates climate injustice, and we must build a more equitable future that dismantles this system.