Climate Change Isn’t the First Existential Threat
People of color know all about building movements, courage, and survival
Dear Climate Movement:
I’m with you when you say that climate change is the most important issue facing humankind. I’ll even go so far as to say it’s the most important one ever. But when I hear folks say — and I have heard it — that the environmental movement is the first in history to stare down an existential threat, I have to get off the train.
This game of what I call “existential exceptionalism” is a losing one. It is not only inaccurate, shortsighted, and arrogant — it’s also dangerous. It serves only to divorce the environmental movement from a much bigger arc of history.
And for me, as a Black woman from the South, it’s downright insulting.
I’ll grant that we’ve never seen an existential threat to all of humankind before. It’s true that the planet itself has never become hostile to our collective existence. But history is littered with targeted — but no less deadly — existential threats for specific populations. For 400 years and counting, the United States itself has been an existential threat to Black people. Let’s be clear: Slavery didn’t end with freedom; it just morphed into a marginally more sophisticated, still deadly machine.
We need to talk about Jim Crow
I want you to understand that Jim Crow — far too tame a name for its reality — was never about water fountains or bus seats or lunch counters. It wasn’t about “integration.” Instead, I want you to imagine living in constant, crippling fear of humiliation, rape, torture, and murder — in a word: terrorism. Lynching was not some abstract threat or a one-time event. It was omnipresent. It hung in the air like humidity. Or the stench of burning flesh.
And it wasn’t a quick death. Maybe you were dragged by a speeding truckload of drunken, hysterical men practically frothing at the mouth for your blood. Maybe you were tarred and feathered. Maybe your unborn child was carved out of your womb while…