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Systemic Racism and Why We Need an Anti-Racist Environmental Movement

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I’ve been in several debates about systemic racism. What is it? Is it real? Why are we talking about it? Is it relevant to the environmental movement? Yes, to all of these questions and I’ll tell you why. As environmentalists, we have to concern ourselves with exploitative “SYSTEMS.” Helping the environment doesn’t implicitly help racial or social equity. Holistic pro-environmental action needs to address racial and social inequities or it’s not holistic, it’s just environmental action that benefits some, but not all. So the fight for equity IS intersectional with the environmental crisis.

RELATED CONTENT: How to Fight Climate Changesocial racial justice environmentalism

What is Systemic Racism?

Systemic Barriers Pre-1960s

racism segregation systemicUntil the mid-1960s, racism and sexism were institutionalized at ALL levels of American government. Discrimination against people of color (POC) was completely legal. African Americans were excluded from most avenues to a middle-class lifestyle. Creditworthy POC were redlined into certain neighborhoods and denied mortgages.

How many of us can afford a home without a mortgage?

After slavery was abolished by the Thirteenth Amendment, southern states enacted racist rules and codes, known as the “Black Codes” or “Jim Crow” laws.  These regulations restricted the personal freedoms, voting rights, and movement of ethnic minorities in the south. In addition to voter disenfranchisement, ethnic minorities, especially African Americans, were prohibited from serving on juries, purchasing certain types of property, or holding public office in the southern states. Voter restrictions, such as poll taxes and literacy tests also restricted the rights of the poor.

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African Americans couldn’t access life insurance, banking services, certain educational, or job opportunities. In 1944, racist legislators prevented African American soldiers from utilizing the G.I. Bill despite having honorably served. The G.I. Bill helped white veterans attend school, receive financial assistance, and receive low-interest home loans. Homeownership is an essential component of wealth building. If you restrict a group of people from homeownership they can’t build wealth or pass it on to future generations. 

Following U.S. military integration in 1948 and the Supreme Court cases of the 1950s, the U.S. Congress enacted a series of pivotal civil rights laws in the 1960s and 1970s–the bedrock of which is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title VII. But historic discrimination and racism didn’t go away overnight because a law got passed.

Corrective measures placed on government institutions were adopted partly through force, partly through modeling, and partly through proximity. Although laws have been put in place to rectify historic discrimination, the cycles of inequality of access and poverty have continued into later generations. African Americans are 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts. The poverty rate for Indigenous Americans is “nearly double the national average for all people and 1.7 times higher for children.” 

There has been a great deal of sociological study about historic discrimination (both dejure and defacto) and its effects. For example, in the year 2015, most poor black families lived in concentrated pockets of poverty with other poor black families. Whereas poor white families tend to live in mixed socioeconomic neighborhoods. This type of social segregation determines an individual’s ability to access services like  education, public safety, and jobs, etc.

The War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration

Systemic Barriers Post 1960s

racism drug war nixonAfter the 1960s, came the “War on Drugs,” created by President Richard Nixon. Nixon’s former domestic advisor John Ehrlichman spilled the beans on the REAL REASON behind the War on Drugs in a 1994 interview with Dan Baum. Baum later published this snippet for Harper’s Magazine after Ehrlichman died.

“At the time, I was writing a book about the politics of drug prohibition. I started to ask Ehrlichman a series of earnest, wonky questions that he impatiently waved away. ‘You want to know what this was really all about?’ he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. ‘The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.'”

The War on Drugs began in the 1970s, continued into the 1980s and 1990s, incarcerated millions of black people for drug infractions, and disenfranchised one in eight black men from voting because of felony drug charges. The white working-class had similar problems with the opioid crisis, however, it has been treated differently by lawmakers.

I have been asked to give an example of systemic racism TODAY, because of the current 2020 protests. As I noted, exclusion from a middle-class lifestyle created excessive poverty in certain communities, which continues TO THIS DAY.

There are also criminal justice sentencing disparities between white and black defendants TODAY, not 50 years ago. For example, in 2012 an Alabama judge sentenced a young single mother to 496 in jail for parking tickets. “The sentence was so stiff it exceeded the jail time Alabama allows for negligent homicide.” The judge was in violation of the law, yet he was allowed to keep his seat until he retired.

I had several paragraphs on medical bias and maternal death rates, but for brevity’s sake, I had to cut them. Books have been written on this subject. I can only cover so much.

Why “Black on Black” Crime is a Straw Man Argument

I continue to hear “look at Chicago, there are so many black people killing black people.” Yep, I get it. It’s terrible. I won’t even get into the gun violence part, but here’s the difference. Most violent crime is intraracial (meaning crime is typically black on black, white on white, Hispanic on Hispanic). So why isn’t there a phrase for “white on white” crime?

Just as poverty increases the likelihood of food and housing insecurity, it also increases a community’s vulnerability and exposure to crime. The poor are twice as likely to be victims of crime. This victimization statistic is consistent across other ethnicities when poverty is the primary factor. Then it’s off to the criminal justice system. See the previous section about sentencing disparities.

And before someone comes AT me that “all lives matter,” Black Lives Matter really means Black Lives Matter TOO because historically black and brown lives have not mattered. It does not mean that other lives do not matter or matter less.

Social Contract with Police

social contract police We have a social contract with the police. We pay their salaries with our tax dollars. Their job is to protect and serve. We do not have a social contract with a criminal. It should be noted that police violence against civilians is not limited to people of color. In 2019, police killed 370 white people, but proportionally most people killed by police are black men. Meaning in proportion to the population, police are more likely to kill black people. In 800 jurisdictions black people are 5 times more likely to be arrested by police. In 250 jurisdictions black people are 10 times more likely to be arrested than white people.

“These figures were derived after accounting for the demographics of the communities served… black people are disproportionately incarcerated in the United States, especially for drug sentences, when compared to their population.” –The Hill

An example of this type of policing is discussed in Comedian Loni Love’s new book. As a college student, she and her friend were in a cafeteria when her friend poured soda into a water cup. Her friend was immediately arrested and taken to the kitchen by a police officer. Love followed her friend and was immediately arrested for trespassing because she walked into the kitchen. The officer called them racial epithets and sent them to jail.

Love was charged with a felony for trespassing and her friend was charged with a misdemeanor. Love agreed to probation and later had her record expunged. It was wrong for her friend to put soda in a water cup, but Love rightly concludes that this incident would probably not happened had they been white. In most circumstances, an officer would have told her to dump the soda or pay for it.

Yes, There’s a Problem

I don’t want to generalize that police = bad. Policing is a difficult job. Police often deal with people during the worst moments of their lives, so there is going to be conflict. I go to a predominantly black church and we have a wonderful relationship with our local law enforcement agency. Our pastor is their police chaplain. I have dear friends who are police officers. Police forces should NOT be abolished, but we have to admit that there’s a problem with over-policing in black communities.

There are a lot of reasons behind these numbers beyond just racism, such as the militarization of the police, gun violence, and increased police budgets. The police in the U.S. are equipped with military-style weaponry to use against their citizenry. Since 1977 police budgets have increased by 173% whereas the national population only increased by 50%. 173% > 50%. I won’t go too far down this rabbit hole, but these are topics that should be discussed as well.

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The key takeaway is that black people are 2.8 times more likely to be killed by police than white people. There is evidence that militarization does NOT decrease crime and specifically targets the black community. In some parts of the country, police kill 6 times more black people. Whatever your belief system, there is a systemic problem that we need to solve. Why is this happening? How can we lower these fatal encounters FOR EVERYONE, while fighting systemic inequities?

What is Privilege?

There are plenty of poor white people who are suffering in poverty and all of the woes that go with it. It doesn’t diminish their experience to discuss racism. People can have different types of privilege. A poor white person does not have economic privilege but does have the privilege of white skin. A wealthy black person has economic privilege, yet does not have white privilege. A study of 100 million traffic stops indicated that black people are pulled over by police 20% more than white people.

So although someone has economic privilege they may not have skin color privilege. Income levels are extremely important and can create significantly different outcomes. However, as I note above, there are many scenarios when education and income are taken into consideration, yet people of color continue to have worse outcomes.

Why We Need an Intersectional Environmental Movement

environmental racism pollution

Climate Change and Race

Climate change is accelerating much faster than scientists anticipated and black and brown people are typically more impacted by the effects of pollution and climate change. We’re all on the same sinking ship as the arctic hits 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.78 Celcius), but some of us will sink faster than others. Low-income communities are the most vulnerable. Yet higher-income individuals (even the “GREEN” ones) produce more carbon emissions. The wealthier you are, the higher your carbon footprint. The poor have the lowest carbon footprint averaging about 12 metric tons (or what the rich produce from just their vehicles in 8 months).

We know that people who live in poverty are more vulnerable to just about everything. They are also more likely to live in polluted areas, breathe polluted air, and drink polluted water. For example, look at the Flint, Michigan water crisis. A 2016 study “found that long-term exposure to the pollutant [particulate matter] is associated with racial segregation, with more highly segregated areas suffering higher levels of exposure.” –The Atlantic

“They find that black people are exposed to about 1.5 times more particulate matter than white people, and that Hispanics had about 1.2 times the exposure of non-Hispanic whites…Interestingly, it also finds that for black people, the proportion of exposure is only partly explained by the disproportionate geographic burden of polluting facilities, meaning the magnitude of emissions from individual factories appears to be higher in minority neighborhoods.” — The Atlantic

Factories, hog farms, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and other polluting industries are more likely to be located in minority communities. This goes back to the city planning process. Some of these structures were placed pre-civil rights movement, but many were placed afterward. Not in my backyard (NIMBY) folks don’t want a garbage dump in their neighborhood, so where does it end up? City planners and corporate elites put them in low-income minority neighborhoods because those people have less collective power and won’t put up a fight.

“In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published an influential report that found that hazardous waste facilities were disproportionately located in minority communities, and called this unequal vulnerability ‘a form of racism.’ The environmental movement, the report observed, ‘has historically been white middle and upper-class.'” — The New Yorker

The Linear Economy

There is a direct link between colonial environmental destruction and white supremacy. It’s an exploitative, consumer-based, linear economic system, that is fueled by oppression and extraction. It wouldn’t exist without these two things.
“Climate change is the result of a legacy of extraction, of colonialism, of slavery.” –Elizabeth Yeampierre
It’s a system built on perpetual growth on a finite planet. It exploits low-wage workers in other countries for cheap goods; starts wars for profit; allows billion-dollar companies to pay $0 in federal income taxes; fosters horrific animal cruelty in factory farms and meatpacking plants while exposing workers to hazardous conditions; pollutes our air and water; prevents employees from taking bathroom breaks; doesn’t shelter the homeless; allows children to go hungry; and so on. It’s a system that has failed the majority of us.
It’s also a system that refuses to protect its citizenry from the imminent threat of climate change.
Unfettered, amoral, and exploitative capitalism is the common enemy of societal, environmental, and racial justice.
Before someone comes AT me calling me a marxist or a communist, please note that I’m referring to a system without appropriate protections for public health, labor, or the environment. This is not the same as a mixed capitalist economy with safeguards to protect the most vulnerable. Most 1st world countries have a “mixed economy” or a capitalist private sector under government regulation. Unfortunately, many of us are not really living in mixed economies.

A mixed economic system protects private property and allows a level of economic freedom in the use of capital, but also allows for governments to interfere in economic activities to achieve social aims.”

Racism in the Environmental Movement

racism ableism zero wasteMany in the early conservation movement had racist beliefs like Madison Grant, who wrote pseudo-scientific work about white supremacy and eugenics. The architects of environmental conservation, game refuges, and parks, believed “wild nature was worth saving for its aristocratic qualities.”

William Vogt’s ‘Road to Survival’ embraced eugenics as a response to overpopulation, urging governments to offer cash to the poor for sterilization, which would have ‘a favorable selective influence’ on the species.” — The New Yorker

Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 best-seller “The Population Bomb” was based on his preoccupation with a poor neighborhood in Delhi, India. “Seen through a taxi window: a ‘mob’ with a ‘hellish aspect,’ full of ‘people eating, people washing, people sleeping. . . . People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating . . . People, people, people, people.'” (The New Yorker)

There was a belief that some people were more worthy of reproducing than others, otherwise known as ECO-FASCISM.

The environmental movement HAS changed dramatically. There is much more inclusion of people of color and varying incomes, but the zero waste movement is still primarily represented by upper-middle-class white women.

As a person of African American and Blackfoot Native American heritage who grew up working class, I know about racism and classism, but I’ve recently learned that many in the zero waste movement aren’t as aware as I thought they were.⁣ The zero waste movement has often been labeled elitist, ableist, and non-inclusive. And you know what, they’re not wrong. ⁣⁣

It’s not just plastic and trash jars y’all.

The Implosion of a Zero Waste Facebook Group

zero waste facebook group racismA few weeks ago two massive zero waste Facebook groups (same admins) completely imploded. Every single racial justice post was deleted, commenting was turned off, and people were banned. It got so bad that the groups were archived. ⁣⁣When someone commented that there weren’t any admins of color, an admin said they purposely didn’t ask POC to join the admin team because they didn’t want them to volunteer their time. Huh? Isn’t all of Facebook voluntary? I’ve never known a Facebook admin who got paid.

This type of mindless exclusion does no one any favors. The Facebook moderators continued to go down the primrose path by suggesting that people should look to black leaders for these types of discussions instead of a zero waste page. It only went downhill from there, as the admins issued a performative justice piece with no substance.

I firmly believe that the admins had good intentions, but the exclusion of POC admins had a detrimental effect on the tone of the group. Many people left the group to form an intersectional zero waste group.

How can we fix this?

all hands fight climate change

So how do we fix these problems?

  • Retool police budgets. This does NOT mean abolish police. Our society needs police and other first responders. However, we need to rethink police budgeting. As I noted above police budgets have increased 173% versus a population increase of 50%. Police budgets are frequently the largest line item in city budgets. I firmly believe that police are necessary, but so are mental health services, social workers, and drug addition specialists. Unfortunately other social services have gone by the wayside in lieu of policing.

David Brown, chief of police in Dallas, Texas said “We’re asking cops to do too much in this country. We are. Every societal failure, we put it off on the cops to solve. Not enough mental health funding, let the cops handle it. … Here in Dallas we got a loose dog problem; let’s have the cops chase loose dogs. Schools fail, let’s give it to the cops. … That’s too much to ask. Policing was never meant to solve all those problems.”

    • He’s right. Police are too far down the social supply chain for these societal problems. This is exactly why funds need to be diverted from police departments to other social services. When someone has a mental health crisis, mental health professionals should respond. There’s nothing wrong with having two police officers on site to ensure everyone’s safety, but mental health professionals are trained to deal with these matters.
    • Police have minimal training on drug abuse and mental health crisis. This problem isn’t unique to the United States. This Canadian police officer was called to do a wellness check on a student. The officer ended up dragging the woman out of her room and stepping on her neck. This woman had an emotional argument with her son and locked herself in the bathroom. Her son called the police to do a welfare check. The police punched the woman in the face, broke her teeth, broke her nose, and then covered her face in a spit hood.
    • I can’t locate the article, but I read that the Orlando, FL jail is essentially the largest drug rehab facility in the state. THE JAIL. Not an actual rehab facility.

This is exactly why mental health and drug addiction services need to be funded.

Many other societal problems can be solved by macro policy decisions. We are living in a gilded age of corruption, akin to the early 20th-century oil barons, railroad tycoons, and steel titans. History is repeating itself. In 1918 there was a flu pandemic and a Great Depression soon followed. At the turn of the 20th century, there was the Great Horse Manure Crisis. Too many horses, not enough ways to dispose of all of the manure. When the automobile was introduced, the horse manure problem went away. But now we have a much bigger crisis that could lead to our extinction and the destruction of the planet.

An immediate change to this system is needed and WE NEED ALL HANDS ON DECK. We need EVERYONE to fight climate change. If people are  focused on their immediate needs, like staying alive, paying bills and feeding their kids, it keeps them distracted. They can’t be actively engaged in climate activism if they’re busy with everyday things. Here are a few ways we can fight to change the current system we’re in.

  • Remove ALL corporate and PAC money from politics. Politicians should only be funded by the people.
  • Billionaire corporations (soon to be trillionaires) should pay more than $0 in federal income taxes. They use federal infrastructure like roads, airports, and rail. They should pay for the upkeep of these things. Some of these billionaire corporations are receiving refunds from the federal government.
  • Stop corporate bailouts. Individuals who actually pay taxes received a $1,200 (€ 1,065) check, while OUR federal government handed out trillions to corporate America. American Airlines shouldn’t be able to engage in stock buybacks, demand a bailout, then fire employees. How does this help the American people?
  • Stop corporate subsidies. Why should Boeing, big oil, big pharmaceuticals, and big agriculture receive tax subsidies? Boeing manufactured an airplane that repeatedly crashed into the ground. Yet their CEO walked away with a $62 million golden parachute.
  • If you tax the billionaire class (MORE than $0), then maybe we can pay for things like:
    • healthcare for all
    • mental healthcare
    • more homeless shelters
    • better public schools and higher pay for teachers
    • repair bridges and roads
    • better jobs in low-income communities
    • AND CLIMATE CHANGE ACTION

None of these things can happen without the political will to make policy changes. Everyone should have access to affordable healthcare and livable wages. Not everyone can learn a trade or go to college, but if you work 40 hours a week you should be able to LIVE. We deserve better and it’s time we demand it. Don’t settle for lip service. Get active in your community today. My next post will show you how to fight for racial and social justice!


I hope you’ve enjoyed this post on the importance of racial and social justice in the environmental movement If you have any ideas or suggestions, please share with me in the comments or on Instagram




#environmentalracism, #systemicracism, #intersectionality, #socialjustice

racial justice environmental movementblack lives matter intersectional environmentalismblack lives matter environmental movement