On November 27, news broke about a black teenager in Jacksonville named Jordan Davis who was shot and killed by 45-year-old Michael David Dunn apparently after an argument between the two over loud music. On November 28, news broke about U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, the frontrunner to replace Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, who has financial holdings in a number of companies that could benefit from the building of the destructive Keystone XL project.
Each of these incidents involve two major advocacy campaigns: The Davis killing re-igniting the anti-Stand Your Ground
laws movement that started with Trayvon Martin's murder, and the latter re-igniting environmentalists’ anti-Keystone XL fight
that burrowed from national attention for a moment while Obama fought for re-election (though local fights to stop the pipeline, such as the blockade in Texas [linked above] have remained strong). Both movements largely supported Obama, mainly because his administration is more sympathetic to their causes than Romney’s promised to be, given that his campaign was endorsed by the National Rifle Association and American Enterprise Institute.
The national Keystone XL struggle, however, illuminates shy truths about how disconnected the environment movement can be from other social justice movements. Environmentalists have attempted to recruit people of color to the Keystone XL struggle, But rarely have they involved themselves in non-environmental campaigns that impact people of color. In fact, environmentalists have made statements and executed campaigns that have antagonized people of color, mainly due to their ignorance of what people of color are most concerned about in their communities.
Taking the Susan Rice issue, after a flurry of often racist and sexist attacks
were belted out by conservative Republicans about the possibility of her replacing Hillary Clinton for Secretary of State, environmentalists added to those attacks when her financial holdings in Transcanada were reported
by NRDC’s One Earth
. On its face, it was legitimate criticism, but only if you sever it from the range of attacks that happened hitherto.
Adding fuel, Jane Kleeb, executive director of Bold Nebraska, said of Rice, “She’s not qualified to make an unbiased decision.”
The “not qualified” barb rang similar to comments
made by Sen. John McCain, Sen. Jim Inhofe, Sen. Lindsay Graham and Sarah Palin, who’ve all used terms like “unqualified” or “incompetent” to describe Rice. Meanwhile, neither Scott Dodd, who penned the One Earth blog, Kleeb, nor Bill McKibben, who’s also voiced opposition to Rice, have taken the time to acknowledge the racist and sexist attacks on Rice in the weeks previous. Whatever financial holdings Rice has can be divested; having them in the first place does not make her unqualified. If anything it makes her more
qualified because she may have insight into Transcanada operations that would put her in a better position to hold them accountable.
These are regrettable oversights from the environmentalists in question, who I’m sure would correct themselves if given the chance. But the larger injustice is their initial lack of awareness that would lead to making reckless statements like that, especially at a time when they need to be building coalitions. It’s not the first time anti-Keystone XL advocates handled their issue carelessly with regards to people of color. Kari Fulton of the Environmental Justice Climate and Change Initiative reported last year how environmentalists failed to take into account the economic needs of African-American workers
who chose construction of the pipeline over environmentalists desires.
I’ve seen groups like NAACP, Urban League, League of Young Voters, Color of Change take on climate justice, Keystone XL justice and other environmental campaigns. But I’ve not see much reciprocity -- that is, I’ve yet to see a groundswell of environmental advocates take up the cause of Stand Your Ground, juvenile justice, felony disenfranchisement, economic inequality, and other justice programs that primarily target people of color.
Which is a shame, because those movements could use some of environmentalists’ passion around conservation and the preservation of life. The same people who are concerned about the life of dolphins, bluefin tuna, blue crabs, white sharks, red drum, brown shrimp, and brown pelicans, should also be concerned about the lives of black and brown people, like Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin -- or the thousands of people of color trapped in Louisiana’s prison system.
This is not to say that there is entirely no overlap. The sliver of environmental justice programs that exist bring a few people together to cross-pollinate justice issues. NRDC itself has been excellent in making the connection between the environment and preserving human life, especially for people of color and low-income people, and Sierra Club has been good as well. But normally this means a few individuals from predominantly white environmental organizations joining in on EJ causes, and hardly ever does it involve white environmentalists assisting with non-environmental campaigns. And yet stretched thin civil rights groups are recruited to add manpower to environmental causes.
The paradigm for diversity, equity and inclusion will have to be flipped, where it is no longer about scholarshipping or peeling off a few people of color to join environmental causes so that it can be labelled a “multi-racial” coalition. Rather, white environmentalists will have to start joining the conversations and causes of people of color -- environmental-related or not -- so that they can learn what a true multi-racial coalition looks and acts like.
If you are a white environmental activist and you have participated in non-environmental social or racial justice causes, or an activist of color with who has worked on environmental causes, Bridge the Gulf would love to hear from you. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org