Wednesday’s New York Times Op Ed section carried a story about the work of Van Jones, a Black environmental activist in Oakland, California. According to Thomas L. Friedman, Jones believes that the Black community isn’t more involved in the environmental movement because the plight of polar bears does not inspire action when you face dangers in your own daily life. If you worry every day about being shot at, about your children’s safety in school, about being able to pay the rent – or if your activism is focused on fighting racism, police brutality and unequal opportunity, it may be hard to take the distant threat of melting polar ice seriously. Through his organization, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Jones wants to help the community relate to the climate crisis by training people for “green jobs” such as installing solar panels and insulating buildings.
These jobs will have to be filled, and preparing people in our communities for such opportunities is a great idea.
But I think another way for Black people to relate to the environmental crisis is to realize this: we are the polar bears. Hurricane Katrina showed us that people of color, especially poor people, are already being impacted by climate change.
Middle class and wealthy people were affected by the Hurricane Katrina disaster as well, of course, and will be displaced again as the waters rise. People of all classes live in coastal areas. But people with resources will be better able to cope. They can more easily evacuate, they are more likely to be able to afford temporary housing, and they’ll be able to turn their degrees and professional skills into good jobs anywhere they land. They will be able to rebuild their lives on higher ground.
Contrast that to the situation of the Black and poor of New Orleans. When the storm threatened, people without cars were not able to evacuate. No resources were provided to move people in prisons or nursing homes. When the levies broke, people were trapped in their homes for days without rescue or aid. Many of those who were able to come out to look for food and water were arrested for looting and portrayed in the national news as criminals. Two years later, many are still living in trailer parks and temporary shelters, unable to find jobs and provide for their families. Rather than being welcomed and integrated into the communities where they landed, in some areas they are isolated, discriminated against and blamed for every unsolved crime in the vicinity.
As the climate crisis intensifies we need to think about what will happen to people in our communities. If we don't act now to reduce carbon emissions, in a few years we will be the ones swimming from rooftop to rooftop, looking for food and shelter, wondering what happened to our world.