The exploration of race and the environmental movement
This is an issue that has been racking my brain for a while now, either because of my own personal conflicts with it or because the issue is one that is legit and in need of some serious discussion. I first shamefully have to admit that the issue of race in the environmental movement hadn’t really entered my brain until this past year (I mean, race issues period rarely enter my brain, at least not from a personal perspective, and I’m not sure if that is shocking or expected as a biracial woman- probably shocking).
Nonetheless, the topic exploded in my head this year through conversations with coworkers and reading books and articles as I explored my passion for sustainable agriculture and food. Also working at a non-profit, along side many other groups involved in progressive movements, allowed me to see these silos for what they are and it suddenly dawned on me that the environmental movement is one of the most segregated out there.
Historically, environmentalism has been packaged as the province of upper-middle-class white hipsters and socially conscious professionals with money to burn. And despite black Americans’ agrarian roots, farming and naturalism has often seemed more a project for the barnyard-loving, hemp-wearing set
This obvious realization was really depressing for me, partly because along with it came a feeling of guilt for being so immersed and passionate about a movement that was excluding a part of myself. I would never stand for being part of a group that was excluding or segregating anyone, but this issue particularly impacted me because the realization came at the same time as my long overdue longing to identify with the black woman in me, instead of the barnyard-loving, upper-middle-class white hipster that I have been living as.
So this is just the beginning of my attempt to explore this issue, and it may appear throughout my future posts as unresolved questions, but it will always be an issue I try and tackle and challenge with others and within myself. For now, let’s begin watering this seed that has been planted in my head.
The green movement that has swelled in the past decade has left minorities out of the equation, point blank. Not only by ignoring the imbalanced impact the climate crisis has on minority communities, but also by excluding them from the movement of activists itself. Some might argue that that is not the case anymore, with a black President, a black EPA administrator and many prominent black eco-advocates like Van Jones and Majora Carter. But these are just a handful of faces among a sea of white, tree-hugging environmentalists that claim the answers to the climate crisis are simple for everyone to understand. What about the messaging to these communities? What about empowering them to take solutions into their own hands?
Think about it. When was the last time you saw a positive, empowered image of a black farmer? What about the issue of healthy, farm food made accessible and affordable in black and Latino communities?
I’d like to point to a great article by Dayo Olopade in The Root that addresses this:
Certainly industrialization has caused all Americans to become more divorced from their food sources. But that separation has often been far more drastic and detrimental for black Americans. The 1999 case of Pickford v. USDA found that black farmers had been subject to decades of governmental loan discrimination. In 1910, black farmers owned 15 million acres of American land. In 2002, according to a report from the “Why Hunger” campaign, the figure had dropped to just a tenth of that. As these connections have disappeared, suppliers of fresh food have all but abandoned many black neighborhoods. A recent study in New York City found that in underserved black and Latino areas, shoppers had to travel 20 blocks before finding produce for sale. Washington, D.C.’s heavily black Ward 8 got its first major grocery chain in late 2007. The story is similar in Oakland, Detroit and Tampa. And even in small towns, black residents often have to go to the “white side of town” to find decent fresh food.
And so there is something ironic about the fact that black Americans whose ancestors were brought here to work the soil—first as slaves and then as sharecroppers—are now largely clustered in neighborhoods where it is harder to find fresh oranges than “orange drink.”
This irony is traumatic to me. And it is one that has to be exposed. The green movement is packaged for white folks. This is a reality that black folks already know. And one that the environmental movement has to learn. The question is where do we start on that road to make sure environmental racism does not persist and that the green movement itself is black enough?