There is no doubt that green is the new black. Suburbanites compete to have bigger recycling bins than garbage cans, to grocery shop using canvas bags, and to park hybrid cars in their driveways. Being conspicuously green is as much status symbol as it is social movement.
But there is another trend too. Black is the new green. The American environmental elite is an increasingly racially diverse place.
President Barack Obama appointed sister Lisa Jackson to head the EPA. He tapped grassroots, green-jobs brother Van Jones as special adviser to the White House. And his Labor Secretary, Hilda L. Solis, is a Latina with a record of championing green jobs and environmental justice. Black women like Majora Carter and Beverly Wright are at the forefront of regional environmental advocacy. And in his chairmanship of the National Wildlife Federation, Jerome Ringo has integrated even the conservation arm of environmentalism, which is historically devoid of racial minority leadership. Even the First Lady is encouraging kitchen table environmentalism with her advocacy of local, organic food and home-based gardening.
With this growing diversity of green leadership it is harder than ever to claim that America’s racial minorities care little about environmental issues. For decades ordinary citizens of color have become environmental activists when they organized to resist the siting of toxic waste dumps in their neighborhoods, to force regulation of polluting industries in fence-line communities, and to bring attention to the negative health impact of particulate emissions near their homes. But these largely decentralized, locally led movements were rarely understood as central to the conservation and climate change environmentalism that dominated federal policy and the national imagination. So despite their efforts, the contributions of black, brown, and poor communities have often been ignored in the story of a greening America.
The diverse, new environmental leadership certainly changes this, but it remains to be seen whether a more racially diverse leadership creates a different kind of American environmentalism.
My friend and colleague, Kimberly Smith wrote a groundbreaking text titled African American Environmental Thought. In it she argues that racial oppression, slavery, sharecropping and segregation altered the meaning of the American landscape for black people. She argues that these injustices alienate black Americans from the land in critical and enduring ways. Therefore, when black Americans reclaim their interest in land, nature, and the environment, they do so in ways that are uniquely concerned with equity and distributive justice. She traces a history of black agrarian and urban environmental thought that supports changing citizens’ relationship to the environment through wide ranging social and economic reforms.
For me the real test of the substantive significance of this new cadre of black and brown leaders integrating the environmental movement is whether their leadership is rooted in and aspires to these kinds of wide ranging reforms. Will they provide the energy, innovation, and will to reverse climate change and force a more equitable sharing of environmental burdens? Or will they, like their predecessors, simply tinker at the edges of America’s insatiable, inequality-producing appetite for more?