Alabama Flakes: Racial Justice/Climate Justice Intersection Continues To Elude Enviros
Last week Alabama closed 31 driver’s license offices in 28 counties, leaving the eight counties with the highest percentage of non-white voters without a place to issue drivers licenses and state identification cards. Alabama’s only African American congressperson, Rep. Teri Sewell, argued the decision in combination with the state’s draconian voter ID laws will, “disproportionately affect African American voters in violation of their constitutionally protected right to vote.” Leading Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton referred to it as, “a blast from the Jim Crow past.”
And while we’re late to the outrage, it’s time for the environmental movement to say loud and clear that Alabama’s actions, coupled with its history of racial inequality (i.e. Selma, Jim Crow and Gov. George Wallace), and its vulnerability to climate disruption, profoundly pronounces the intersection of racial and climate justice. But this is more than just an opportunity for environmental organizations to show solidarity at a time when “green” groups are trying to be more inclusive of people of color. It’s an opportunity to really lead and form new and more powerful coalitions to fight for the only planet we’ll all — regardless of color or what state we live in — call home.
First let’s be clear that when we’re talking about Alabama, like a lot of gulf-coast Southern states, we’re talking about a region at high-risk from climate chaos and environmental pollution. Those risks are felt more acutely in communities of color, and low wealth communities. As reported by Dr. Robert Bullard and Dr. Barbra Jordan-Mickey Leland, Alabama is “exceptionally vulnerable” to increased sea level rise, extreme heat and decreased water availability. Furthermore, Alabama has experienced between 36 and 44 climate fueled since 1980 that cost one billion dollars or more. In addition, it’s been well documented that people of color experience disproportionate impacts from chemical and oil refineries, as well as the placement of toxic facilities in general. These harmful trends all affect people of color disproportionately. When it comes to the intersection of racial & climate justice, Alabama could be called ground zero.
Earlier this year a coalition of environmental, civil rights and progressive groups announced with great fanfare a plan to register one million climate-conscious voters, specifically focusing on African Americans and Latinos communities. But so far, none of the environmental groups in that coalition have denounced or announced a plan to combat voter suppression in Alabama. It’s time for them to do so.
Last year Deirdre Smith, Strategic Partnership Coordinator with 350.org, wrote an article discussing why the climate movement must stand with Ferguson, MO. She wrote, “The events in Ferguson offer an important moment if you’re a climate organizer, looking around the room, wondering where the ‘people of color’ are. It’s a time to dig deep and ask yourself if you really care why – and if you are committed to the deep work, solidarity, and learning that it will take to bring more ‘diversity’ to our movement.” Alabama offers a similarly important moment.
I believe that “digging deep, caring and commitment” can’t just look like a 400,000 person march with people of color and frontline communities at the front. It can’t just mean flying to New Orleans to take part in a second-line solidarity march on the 10th anniversary of Katrina. I think Deirdre is calling for much, much more.
It will take the same empathy and temerity that inspired northern activists of all races to travel to Mississippi to register Black voters in the 1960s; and, in the cases of Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, even give their lives for the cause.
Pope Francis has been called one of the best leaders to articulate the intersection of racial, social and climate justice. He did so in his groundbreaking encyclical, and mentioned this intersection in almost every speech he gave in our country last month. But it’s up to us to put those words and ideas into action. Because if it’s clear that there is an intersection between racial and climate justice, if we’re truly called to protect our “common home” by a higher power…then we have to do it for everyone, not just when the hashtag is trending.
The process of diversifying the environmental movement (in numbers and power) as well as exercising the intersection of racial/climate justice is not an easy task. It requires healing, patience and, like Deirdre pointed out, listening; lots of listening. This will not be a comfortable process, and it’s the discomfort that actually makes me hopeful. The great Buddhist nun Pema Chodron once said,
“Generally speaking, we regard discomfort in any form as bad news. But for practitioners or spiritual warriors – people who have a certain hunger to know what is true – feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment anger and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck.”
So let’s get comfortable with our discomfort. Let’s dig in and do the work that needs to be done, rather than just pay lip service to diversity. You can start by signing this petition calling on the Department of Justice to investigate the Alabama DMV closures by Environmental Action member Laura Packard and her new organization Voter Rights Action, and including a comment about climate justice when you do.
But act fast, and tell your friends, because time is running out for our planet. If we don’t act soon, I fear that the proclamation of the great author Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The arc of history does not bend towards justice, it bends towards chaos,” will indeed be vindicated. Resisting climate change must be a global and inclusive effort. And until we find a way to fight together, we will surely all burn (or drown, or fry in climate chaos) alone.