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Leadership on the environment is an important part of racial justice

people at climate march
John Minchillo/AP Images for AVAAZ
There needs to be much more of this.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

What’s one of the biggest security challenges in the black community? If you’ve been following the news, you probably think it’s related to bias-based policing or criminal justice.

Here’s a challenge you may not have heard about: the dearth of black environmental leadership. African Americans comprise 12% of the nation’s population, but all of the communities of color combined (i.e., 38% of society) hold only 12% of the leadership positions in environmental organizations—both inside and outside the government. That’s not just a problem for blacks, but for our entire society.

It’s easy to see why the disparity is a big problem for the black community: perhaps as a consequence of this lack of leadership, there’s a significantly higher concentration of environmental hazards and degradation in black communities, from more toxin-releasing facilities—and air pollution in general—to more brownfields (real estate that has been contaminated by a pollutant of some kind, and cannot be re-used until it has been completely remediated). This pollution in black communities drives up morbidity, stress, and mortality statistics while driving down neighborhood economic investment, political clout, social capital, school performance, and community pride.

But why, exactly, is this a problem for those of us who are not black, or do not live in a predominantly black neighborhood? Because environmental issues metastasize, and because we can’t expect innovative solutions without a diversity of perspectives—particularly from people who have vastly different lived experiences. African Americans who grew up in certain communities may have a deeper understanding of the real-life impacts of environmental degradation, allowing them to craft better policies for all of us.

Law professors Lani Guinier of Harvard and Gerald Torres of Cornell, using the metaphor of canaries in mines, suggest that what happens to black Americas is a portent of what is likely to happen to middle- and working-class white Americans. Environmental degradation in the form of concentrated pollution—and the attendant health impacts in black communities—are likely to spread to other communities through climate change. Black communities may suffer earlier and more intensely from the ills of social inequality, but these ills will eventually manifest in other communities that previously believed themselves immune. There is no substitute for African Americans’ perspectives on environmental policies—ones informed both by their lived experience, and their grasp and application of scientific knowledge.

We’ve seen some modest policy wins under the Obama administration. Americans’ health will likely be improved as a result of a new requirement to reduce emissions of mercury and other poisons from some 1,400 fossil fuel power stations. And in 2013, the administration tightened restrictions on carbon dioxide emissions, resulting in reductions of over 35%. What’s more, new coal facilities can be built only if they are able to capture and store on the order of 30% of their emissions. But elections have consequences; these environmental policy gains can be reversed in the future by politicians who are supported by relentless fossil fuel lobbyists. Americans need a healthy dose of rough-and-tumble politics of energy and the environment.

Some of the worst environmental offenders remain at large: Industrial polluters who, like other “corporate citizens,” want to be regulated and taxed substantially less while being subsidized significantly more. Corporations seek to appropriate nature for private gain while the costs of environmental abuse are shared by the rest of us. As Oil Change International notes, the public bears externalized costs of fossil fuel industries for the military, climate, local environmental, and health care, to the tune of at least $360 billion, and upwards of $1 trillion annually.

And the fossil fuel sector is determined to delay the point when renewables are cost competitive with fossil fuel-based electricity. One strategy used by fossil fuel advocates includes removing statutes that call for states and municipalities to have a specified share of electricity within their jurisdiction be supplied by renewable sources. For example, Ohio-based energy companies such as American Electric Power and FirstEnergy, together with fossil fuel-backed entities like the American Legislative Exchange Council and Americans for Prosperity successfully helped produce a bill (SB 310) that Ohio governor Kasich signed into law in June of last year. The bill delays annual increases in the share of renewables as part of the overall supply of electricity for the state and energy efficiency for two years. Derivatives of this strategy are taking root in many of the remaining 29 states with statutes to increase renewable energy usage.

If we don’t elect or appoint more leaders who have lived with the impact of such policies, we’re putting our collective future at risk. But the next question is: Where are the African American environmental leaders? Is this a bias problem—in other words, are qualified African American candidates not being promoted or elected—or a pipeline problem—that not enough African Americans are engaged in the field?

It’s likely related to both factors, but the latter is somewhat easier to solve systemically.

There are two institutional approaches to engage more black Americans on the issues of climate, energy, the environment, and social justice—through historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and Africana studies programs at other universities. Only about a quarter of the 100 HBCUs have some type of environmental studies program. And although only 9% of black college students matriculate at HBCUs, these institutions have a unique platform to bend campus-wide attention around environmental matters, in part because of their smaller size. Just as all HBCU students learn about the black experience while studying various subjects, they can also learn about how environmental issues pose the most significant challenge—and present the biggest opportunities—of the 21st century.

As for Africana or African American studies, there are over 250 such programs around the country, primarily at predominantly white institutions (PWIs). PWIs are also home to the nation’s largest and well-resourced environmental academic programs. Essentially all research-intensive and top liberal arts PWIs have at least one environmental studies program. Generally, black students do not enroll in environmental studies courses on PWI campuses, but they do tend to enroll in some number of Africana studies courses.

At present, less than 5% of Africana studies professors and academic units identify the environment, climate change, or energy as their prioritized area of research and engagement. Similarly, less than 5% of Africana Studies courses take up these subjects.

My suggestion to African Studies professors: Use your classes and curricula as a platform to discuss issues concerning climate, energy, and the environment—all are intimately related to the topic of social justice, which is foundational in many Africana studies lectures already. And for HBCUs: Create and strengthen environmental degree programs, and staff them with leading academics in the field. After all, today’s black students are tomorrow’s black intellectuals and engaged citizens. If more of them can become leaders in the epic struggle to steer society toward sustainability, we’ll all be better off.

This article appeared in The Weekly Wonk, New America’s weekly e-magazine.

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