Climate Change and Racism: Deeply Tangled Roots

Joe was hired by the Will Steger Foundation to begin to address the question: “What can WSF and YEA! MN do to become more open, available, and useful to people of color and lower-income people?” Traditionally, WSF has been a predominantly white organization and it’s YEA! MN program has drawn in a predominantly white group of high school students. Lately, the organization has started to have more conversations about what this reality reflects.  We began to question what the skin color of those involved with WSF says about our organization.   Joe will write a monthly blog about his work and will organize a series of workshops and  conversations about equity at the WSF for the WSF staff.

ryehousegardenSeveral years ago I moved into Phillips, a neighborhood in South Minneapolis. I love to garden and knew that my housemates and I would be growing food in our yard, so before we moved into our house I dug up several soil samples and brought them to the U of M to be tested. I had heard several vague warnings about soil contamination in our neighborhood but didn’t know anything specific.

While I was waiting for the results I continued to do research on the history of the neighborhood and the potential for soil contamination. While talking to a city employee, I learned that our house was one block outside of the arsenic contamination zone in Phillips. I was relieved to hear that our soil was not contaminated with arsenic, but disturbed that one block away the ground was poisoned.

Through conversations with folks who had been in the neighborhood for years, I learned that the contamination stemmed from a pesticides production and storage facility, CMC Heartland Partners Lite Yard, that operated from 1938 – 1963. The contamination and the extent of its reach were unearthed during the reconstruction of Hiawatha Ave. in 1994, thirty years later (http://www.health.state.mn.us/divs/eh/hazardous/sites/hennepin/southminneapolissoil.html).

As this reality sunk in for me, so have its inherent implications around class and race. Phillips is a working class neighborhood that is predominantly non-white (http://www.city-data.com/neighborhood/Phillips-Minneapolis-MN.html). As I think back to the wealthy, rural/suburban, almost entirely white neighborhood I grew up in, the idea of this extent and type of contamination seems so alien, intrusive, and impossible in the place where I was raised.

The stark inequality between Phillips and the neighborhood where I grew up provides a powerful foundation for understanding both white privilege and environmental racism. Environmental Racism, as defined by the Energy Justice Network, is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards, like the CMC Heartland Partners contamination, on people of color. White Privilege as defined by Peggy McIntosh, a white scholar, is the “invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious”. McIntosh’s definition underscores my own white privilege and its imprint on the story above. For most of my life, I remained oblivious to the asset of living in a clean, uncontaminated neighborhood. I cashed in on this asset everyday by having a comparatively healthy childhood. Here I began to see the inextricable link between race and environmental degradation.

An understanding of environmental racism and white privilege must also inform our conversations around climate change. I know that there is a mentality among many white climate activists that all social movements must be currently “set aside” for the most important task of our time, halting climate change. I know this perspective well because at times I have clung to it voraciously. While this conviction is based off solid science and a healthy desire to preserve human life, it refuses to acknowledge how climate change is exacerbating economic and social inequalities right now which perpetuate systems of social oppression that threaten human life daily. Building a climate movement that is not deeply committed to social justice also fails to acknowledge the foundational interconnection between social oppression and environmental degradation.

First, we must see that climate change, and the extreme weather events that it intensifies, has and will disproportionately affect marginalized and oppressed people. The examples are abundant. Those who were left to face the devastation and aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy were predominantly people of color and predominantly working class and poor. Due to institutionalized racism and an economy built around white privilege, many people of color could not afford to flee and escape the way that their white neighbors could. This pattern will continue as the sea level rises and there is increasingly more volatile weather, unless we begin to work against social inequality in conjunction with climate change.

Second, we must see that the underpinnings of racism and of climate change are the same. Both stem from an economy and culture that prioritizes greed, infinite consumption, and the endless growth of capitol so much so that it commoditizes and abuses people and pumps carbon into the air far beyond what is safe and sustainable for human life. Our economy and culture has created racial inequality because it has historically benefited the wealthiest through the practice of slavery and the development of an oppressed working class. Our economy and culture has created climate change through an unbridled pursuit of power, wealth, and the unending “more”. We must begin to see the interconnection here. Instead of creating a movement to fight only climate change, we must look more deeply to see its tangled and complicated roots. We have to better gaze into the heart of our problem, from which stems a deep social, environmental, and spiritual brokenness. We must practice compassion and start to deeply believe that our pains, joys, and hopes are all connected.

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