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Climate Change Isn’t Racist — People Are

We cannot assess the damage without looking at the impact on people of color

Illustration: Fei Fei

It’s been a hot summer. I’m talking Do the Right Thing–type heat. The type of heat where you can’t tell what’s coming next — a thunderstorm or a riot.

In times like this, I think about the many, many communities around the country that don’t have clean drinking water. Multiply that by the millions around the world that never had it, and recognize who those people are and how much they look like me. Then I remember that it’s not an accident.

Climate change itself is not racist, but it is the product of racism.

I think about the communities in Brooklyn that lost power during New York’s weekend from what had to be hell and who lives in those communities. That, too, was no accident.

I think about the viral video of a Black man in Las Vegas being placed in a violent choke hold for selling water in triple-digit weather. The video turned out to be from 2013. But does that really make it any better? Just last summer, the police were called on an eight-year-old Black child for selling water without a permit.

I think about Hurricane Katrina and the accusations of looting levied at people who looked like me. The people abandoned on rooftops. The gangs of vigilantes who roamed the streets of New Orleans targeting Black people with impunity, not unlike the lynch mobs of the 1950s. And this on the 50th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder.

I think about Hurricane Maria and the help that just never came for so many. I think about the suicide spike. I think about the drinking water crisis that existed in Puerto Rico before Maria and was so exacerbated by the storm that people began to drink from known toxic sites. The kind of trauma that passes through generations.

People tell me all the time that climate change isn’t racist. My insistence to connect race and racism to the conversation is seen as “divisive” and a “distraction” or “identity politics.” But climate change is a man-made problem. If I can be real, it is a White-man-made problem. And White men are racist AF. (Sure, not all, but the racist ones have managed to make the world in their own image.)

Climate change itself is not racist, but it is the product of racism.

In the environmental space, we love to tell ourselves that it all started with the Industrial Revolution. But we’re telling ourselves a lie. It started with conquest, genocides, slavery, and colonialism. That is the moment when White men’s relationship with living things became extractive and disharmonious. Everything was for the taking; everything was for sale.

In far too many ways, Black people were the natural resources exploited for profit, just like fossil fuels are today. Worse still: It never stopped.

The fossil fuel industry was literally built on the backs and over the graves of Indigenous people around the globe, as they were forced off their land and either slaughtered or subjugated — from the Arab world to Africa, from Asia to the Americas. Again, it was no accident.

Furthermore, the Industrial “Revolution” didn’t pay for itself. It was subsidized with blood money from slavery. In fact, by 1860, slaves in the United States represented the largest single financial asset in the entire economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined. And that doesn’t include the crops they produced: sugar, tobacco, and, of course, cotton. In other words, slaves subsidized the entirety of American life.

The entire U.S. economy was built on the backs of slave labor, so abolition then represented a tectonic economic shift, much like fossil fuel divestment today. In his masterful 2014 essay, Chris Hayes juxtaposes the arguments against abolition with today’s arguments against divestment, and the parallels are staggering.

How many forests had to be cleared to build those grotesque plantations or even the ships to bring slaves here in the first place? And what happens when we cut down trees? They release carbon into the atmosphere — and they’re no longer around to absorb the rest of the carbon.

We really could use those trees right about now.

In far too many ways, Black people were the natural resources exploited for profit, just like fossil fuels are today. Worse still: It never stopped. In my native Birmingham, Black people were arrested on all sorts of bogus charges and forced to work in coal mines.

In other places, they were put right back on plantations. In these scenarios, they were worked quite literally to death because, unlike slaves, the “owners” didn’t have to pay for the replacement. They could just go arrest somebody else for standing on a White man’s shadow or making eye contact with a White woman.

These are the things I can’t unsee.

If climate change shares roots with police brutality and the prison industrial complex and Indigenous genocide and disenfranchisement — in a word, racism — then the climate justice movement is inextricably linked to Black Lives Matter and the movements for Indigenous rights and for immigrant rights.

But if the problems are connected, so are the solutions.

If we’re going to defeat our enemy, we have to understand them. And this system we’re fighting will do anything to preserve itself. It will bomb little girls in Sunday school in Birmingham. It will cut off limbs in the Congo. It will obliterate entire civilizations. It will tell the world that Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela were all terrorists.

If you know that, then you’re not surprised when adults are bullying youth climate activists on the internet.

You’re not surprised that this system saves its worst violence for Indigenous activists (see: Standing Rock). They’ve been fighting this battle since White people set foot on this land; they’ve never not seen those connections.

You’ll notice that they’re dusting off the same musty, bad-faith arguments. You’ll start to notice that the same people who shout that Blue Lives Matter are the same people who say that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t a real climate activist because she rides in cars from time to time.

In the 1850s, naysayers told Frederick Douglass that he was too radical, that he needed to wait. The country wasn’t ready. In the 1950s, Martin Luther King Jr. heard the same thing. How much of a coincidence can it be that now the political establishment tells us that the country isn’t ready for the Green New Deal?

These connections are not accidental. They’re conspiratorial. And we can’t afford to act like they aren’t there, staring us in the face, daring us to do something. The time has been up.

Climate justice writer. Co-creator and co-host of the Hot Take podcast and newsletter. Southern girl and NYC woman. James Baldwin is my personal hero.

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