Reparations have long seemed a politically impossible dream, but the climate crisis may be changing that. As the planet’s weather has shifted radically in recent years, so has the conversation about paying compensation to black America for centuries of economic injustice. Back in 2003, Chappelle’s Show was lampooning the idea of reparations with a skit involving black NBA players quitting the sport after receiving checks from the federal government. Now, in 2019, Democratic presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Julián Castro are voicing support for reparations, as has the usually right-of-center New York Times columnist David Brooks. And while no one seems to have noticed it, an implicit call for reparations is embedded in the leading policy response to the climate crisis, the Green New Deal.
The Green New Deal sees the fight against climate catastrophe as indivisible from the fight against racial and economic injustice. The congressional resolution introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey articulates a vision—a rapid, far-reaching mobilization of government “to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions”—that will be pursued through a range of legislative and administrative actions. Activists with the Sunrise Movement, the grassroots group working with Ocasio-Cortez to build support for a Green New Deal, say the 14-page resolution serves as more of an organizing tool than a final destination. Yet even in its bare-bones state, the resolution pulls no punches about the need to address racial inequalities, noting in its preamble the “large racial wealth divide [in the United States] amounting to a difference of 20 times more wealth between the average white family and the average black family.”
The wording of the Green New Deal resolution is starkly different from the color-blind, economically muffled message that mainstream environmental organizations have long favored: “It is the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal…to promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly, the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”
Note the call for “repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples [and] communities of color.” That phrase can be read narrowly to include what environmental-justice advocates have long pointed out: People of color and limited means generally suffer first and worst from the pollution of air, water, land and climate. Read more expansively, however, and with an eye toward America’s long history of expropriating black labor and wealth through slavery and later racial injustices, “repairing historic oppression” can also refer to paying reparations to black America.
The Nation sought comment about this interpretation from the Green New Deal resolution’s co-sponsors, Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey. Neither responded.
Separately, however, Ocasio-Cortez has not shied away from the reparations argument. In public conversation with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates at New York’s Riverside Church on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Ocasio-Cortez said that the original New Deal in the 1930s had compounded “the existing inequity from the legacy of slavery.” She added, “We drew red lines around black communities, and we said white communities will get home loans and they’ll get access to the basic bedrock of wealth in America…. this will be your heirloom. We gave white America an heirloom that appreciated over time—that people still benefit from today, and we did not give that to African-American, Mexican communities, Puerto Rican communities.” Ocasio-Cortez concluded that “until America tells the truth about itself, we are not going to heal.”
“Black, brown, and low-income communities bear the brunt of pollution and environmental degradation, accelerated by climate change,” Representative Barbara Lee, one of the 90 co-sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution, told The Nation. “That’s why addressing climate change is not just an environmental issue, but also an imperative to achieve racial and economic justice.”
“Under our current brutal economic system, climate change doesn’t just mean things getting hotter and wetter,” journalist Naomi Klein said to Green New Deal activists on a conference call the week the resolution was introduced. “It also means things getting meaner and crueler. That is what happens if we just stay on this course.” A Green New Deal, Klein added, can “repair and redress centuries old and very current crimes against African-Americans, indigenous people, women, [and] migrants.”
Prior to the Green New Deal, the bias coursing through the environmentalist movement was notorious. Writing about the landmark green advocacy of the 1970s, Van Jones, who later served as president Barack Obama’s special adviser for green jobs, argued that “the movement to better regulate industrial society was, in its origins, almost entirely the purview of the affluent and white. As a result, it failed to see the toxic pollution that was concentrating in communities of poor and brown-skinned people, even after major environmental laws were passed.” Likewise, the New Deal of the 1930s had excluded minorities. In When Affirmative Action Was White, Columbia University historian and political scientist Ira Katznelson notes that during the New Deal, “new programs produced economic and social opportunity for favored constituencies and thus widened the gap between white and black Americans in the aftermath of the Second World War.” The thinkers and activists behind the Green New Deal have studied this history and are determined not to repeat it.
“Our work is about acknowledging past wrongdoings, especially not doing it again,” Rhiana Gunn-Wright of New Consensus, a think tank that is helping Ocasio-Cortez flesh out the specifics of a Green New Deal, told The Nation. “If you are going to have this mobilization [to avert a climate catastrophe], and you’re going to put out this money, how do you do it in a way that creates a more just, more prosperous, more sustainable economy for everyone, and do so in a way that centers those who are going to suffer the most in climate change and in our economy?”
Gunn-Wright conceptualizes the mission to repair historic oppression as “a really large exercise in intersectionality.” She added, “For our work, I ask how do you think about reparations more holistically. Which is—how do you make our society more just and fair to people of color, especially low-income people of color, and how do you make it more fair to them structurally?” she says. “Right now, our economy, our society isn’t equitable. So, the idea that we just sit something on top [of existing structures] and everyone has equal access? That can be the case, but generally it is not.”
Thus the potential Green New Deal projects outlined in New Consensus’s report, Mobilizing For A Just, Prosperous, And Sustainable Economy, aim not only to slash greenhouse-gas emissions but also to create millions of good green jobs. They pay particular attention to stimulating economic activity and wealth creation in blighted communities that typically get left behind. To close the racial wealth gap, Gunn-Wright and her team are researching mechanisms such as baby bonds and retirement funds that enable families to save and accumulate wealth. And the Green New Deal as a whole includes a commitment to full employment, universal health care, and similar features of a social safety net not as a left-wing wish list but for practical reasons: Such measures help insure that poor and working-class Americans of all colors do not lose out during the transition to a zero-carbon future.
Creating a blueprint for this type of climate-, racial-, and economic-justice demands ingenuity and ambition at NASA-like levels. “We’ve never had serious investment in truly green infrastructure in this country. It’s been piecemeal,” says Dr. Robert Collins, professor of urban studies and public policy at Dillard University. “It’s been a few tax credits for solar power here and there. It’s never been a serious investment, and when you did get investment, very few of those programs were concerned with equity.”
Despite the Green New Deal’s outspoken commitment to racial justice, the reaction of the nation’s racial-justice organizations has been mixed. Seeding Sovereignty, GreenLatinos, Justice First are among the groups that have supported the Green New Deal resolution. No position has been taken yet by the Congressional Black Caucus, legacy civil-rights organizations such as the NAACP and the Urban League, and groups like Color of Change and Black Lives Matter. Meanwhile, some climate-justice activists and front-line community groups have faulted the resolution’s failure to demand an end to additional fossil-fuel infrastructure and production, arguing that it will be impossible to create a zero-carbon economy or protect vulnerable communities if more drilling and pipelines are allowed. The Indigenous Environmental Network, for example, applauded the Green New Deal resolution “for its vision, intention, and scope,” yet also expressed concern that “unless some changes are made to the resolution, the Green New Deal will leave incentives by industries and governments to continue causing harm to Indigenous communities.”
As Green New Deal advocates gear up to build popular support in the coming months, they are soliciting input from such front-line communities. The Sunrise Movement plans a nine-city “Road to the Green New Deal” tour; New Consensus is also exploring a listening tour. “We’re drawing from people like the Movement for Black Lives, the Dreamers movement, even as far back as the civil-rights movement, the Economic Bill of Rights, and the New Deal,” says Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of Justice Democrats, the group that first recruited Ocasio-Cortez and other leftists to run for Congress in 2018. “There are precedents for what we are calling for. In order to get it right this time, the Green New Deal needs to address everybody in this country, and that includes communities of color and others that have been marginalized for far too long.”
“We can’t expect people to come to us,” Gunn-Wright says. “That is the next stage of the development of the Green New Deal. We cannot write it without those voices.”