There will be no Climate Justice without Racial Justice by Agnes Vinblad
Graphic credit: Agnes Vinblad
Since May this year, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets across America to protest the deeply rooted systemic racism in the country. The fight against anti-Black racism has reached a historical boiling point with 'Black Lives Matter' finally entering the general public's vocabulary. The current reinvigoration of this modern-day Civil Rights movement was sparked by the senseless murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. 8 minutes and 46 seconds - that's how long former police officer, Derek Chauvin, kept pressing his knee firmly down on George Floyd's neck while three other officers put their full bodyweight on his back and legs. "I can't breathe" would become Mr. Floyd's last words. This case is far from unique - being a Black man in America today means that you are 2.5 times more likely to be killed by police during your lifetime than a white man. These dire statistics tell an undeniable story of what systemic racism looks like. More specifically - it tells us what anti-Black racism looks like in today's America.
Racial justice and environmental justice are inevitably intertwined - one cannot exist without the other.
Denying the existence of systemic racism and anti-Blackness is just as dangerous and outrageous as denying that climate change is real. The 'Black Lives Matter' protests against systemic racism include the fight against environmental racism. Let's break down this connection in detail.
It is estimated that Indigenous peoples hold and protect more than 50% of the world's land, with 2.5 billion people being dependent on Indigenous and community held land. However, only 10% of the world's land is legally recognized and owned by Indigenous peoples - leaving most of their land vulnerable to illegal or forced expropriation. Forcefully stealing land from Indigenous peoples is arguable the oldest form of environmental racism - America itself is built upon stolen land. In 1492 Christopher Columbus, a white man from Europe, falsely claimed to have "discovered" new land despite it already being lived upon and belonging to Native Americans. From that act of violently stealing the land, which would later become what we today know as America, environmental racism has propelled its way through history. It has continuously been granting arbitrary land privileges and environmental protections to white people, while leaving Black- Indigenous- and other minority communities behind.
Historically, Black people in America have been systemically barred from owning land and property. The practice of redlining began with the National Housing Act of 1934. Redlining included a set of local, state, and federal housing policies that enforced racial segregation across the country. Redlining forced Black Americans into crowded and unsafe rental housing in polluted cities while barring them from building generational wealth by denying them property ownership. Meanwhile, green, spacious, and leafy suburbs were developed in which white Americans owned both property and land. Redlining remained legal until 1968 when the passing of the Fair Housing Act made racial housing segregation illegal. Today, this history of racist redlining has established impoverished and low-income neighborhoods across America. The impact of climate change and industrial pollution also happens to be significantly more severe in these same neighborhoods.
A recent study of 108 urban neighborhoods across America showed something remarkable - in almost every city studied, the formerly redlined neighborhoods had significantly higher temperatures than the non-redlined ones. In some cases, the difference was close to 13 degrees hotter. These temperature differences are causing severe and dangerous impacts on both personal health and general quality of life. Formerly redlined neighborhoods are still to this day predominantly occupied by Black and minority residents, leaving them especially vulnerable to the steadily increasing temperatures caused by climate change.
Additional research has further shown that, in 37 American cities, neighborhoods previously redlined, today have about 50% fewer trees on average when compared to the non-redlined ones. This lack of greenery does, yet again, mean that today's Black urban neighborhoods are left more exposed to temperature increases, pollution, and health hazards. Remember, environmental justice and racial justice are intertwined - you cannot achieve one without the other. In America today, environmental racism is rife, and it has a steady hold in virtually every Black- and minority community across the country. For example, toxic waste plants and industries are often purposefully placed in predominantly Black neighborhoods. In the state of Michigan, the zip code 48217 is well known - it's the most polluted zip code in the state, and of course, it is also an almost all Black neighborhood. Nationally, Black Americans are 75% more likely to live near an industrial factory or plant, compared to white Americans. In this country, it’s not only the knee of a racist police officer stopping a Black person from breathing freely - environmental racism is doing the exact same thing to thousands of Black Americans across the nation every day.
By looking at the history of America, the stolen land it was built upon, and the continued environmental racism perpetuated through policy, the undeniable connection between racism, anti-Blackness, and the impact of climate change and environmental destruction becomes clear. There will be no climate justice without racial justice.
This realization makes it even more critical for us to ensure that our climate movements must be intersectional and that we all must make a conscious effort to uplift and center Black, Indigenous, and minority people within climate activism and sustainability.
This movement means nothing if we are not respectful of their lived experiences and irreplaceable expertise.
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About the Author
Agnes Vinblad (@AgnesVinblad) is a Project Officer at SDSN Youth, working with the Youth Solutions Hub - a startup hub specialized in social entrepreneurship. She has previous experience from numerous NGOs and international organizations, such as the Women's Global Leadership Initiative and the United Nations. In 2018, she represented the European Union as a G7 Youth Delegate. Earlier this year, Agnes was listed as a "Top 33 Under 33 Sustainability Talent" in Sweden.