Anti-Racism and Environmentalism -101

Black Lives Matter 101 for Environmentalists.

Like many white environmentalists, I have been marching for many issues, including racial equality, since my college days.  Studying the issue today reminds me how little I know and understand about the issue.  Since 2017, several of my colleagues and I have been working on environmental justice issues via a project called Nearby Nature. We had only begun to scratch the surface of this issue when racial justice became a national hot issue following the brutal murder of George Floyd, with his neck pinned to the pavement under the knee of a Minneapolis cop.  Here are my thoughts and a few resources to get us started.  If you would like to join us in an online, virtual discussion on these issues, please check the GWG Calendar for the next "Anti-Racism for Environmentalists" Zoom meeting. To find some links to comprehensive lists of anti-racism resources, skip to the bottom of this article

Understanding White Privilege

Of course we know that you may have grown up dirt poor and struggled for everything you've gained, but as a white person, it's impossible for me to deny that I have many privileges that my brethren of color do not.  In nearly every demographic data-point, white citizens come out better. Education, jobs, housing, and health care are, on the average, much better for Caucasians than for African-Americans.  Here is something to think about, that I find helpful.  By one report, the difference in life expectancy between African Americans and whites is 14 years.  Try and imagine 14 years of your life being erased.  Here are some resources to increase understanding of white privilege.

Understanding Black Experience

One thing is clear in the struggle for equity and that is that white folks can never fully understand what it is like to face every day, from childhood through adulthood, in dark skin.  Likewise, we should not attempt to speak on behalf of people of color or listen exclusively to white voices on the issue.  LISTENING to Black voices and experiences is essential.

  • Ta-Nehesi Coates' Between the World and Me is considered one of the best modern writings on the subject of a black male's experience in America
  • Watch the 2016 documentary, I am Not Your Negro, based on an unfinished manuscript by James Baldwin, to understand the historical context of #BlackLivesMatter.
  • Not racist?  Not good enough any more. Ibrahim X. Kendi's recently published How to be an Antiracist is generating discussion as a guidebook for whites during this new awakening.

Understanding Environmentalism and Racism

The impact of racism on environmental issues has many facets.  One is the larger impact that climate change and environmental degradation has on urban areas, communities of color and thrid world countries.  Another aspect is the disparity in access to natural areas and outdoor recreation.  A recent study by the Rails to Trails organization outlined how residents in Milwaukee's Black communities lack access to recreation that white suburbs enjoy. People of color who want to explore natural areas often feel less than welcome.  The recent experience of a Black birdwatcher in Central Park and that of two black Milwaukee pastors going to fish on a rural lake are reminders that Black experiences and white experiences outdoors are different.  Here are some articles and resources from the Sierra Club that outline our position and its urgency for the environmental movement.

  • Sierra Club Statement on the Murder of George Floyd  Sierra Club condemns police brutality and the violent, racist killing of George Floyd as well as the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor; there will be no environmental justice without racial justice. 
  • From Outrage to Justice, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune's statement. Enacting racial justice change requires every person outraged by the recent attacks against black people to practice active anti-racism, and become an ally for racial justice in the outdoors and beyond.

More Resources

Finally, in closing, I urge everyone to study, discuss and understand this issue.  I address this appeal in particular to my white environmentalist colleagues.  I say this because the system of white supremacy we live under must be dismantled by a unified force of people of all colors.  

Respectfully Submitted by David Thomas, Coordinator, Nearby Nature Milwaukee