Environmental justice and racial justice are inextricably linked. Environmental degradation primarily impacts poor communities which are disproportionately BIPOC. The lack of political power in these communities has made them especially vulnerable to both corporate and governmental actions that harm the environment.
Whether the impact of climate change on indigenous communities that we discussed last week, the complete failure to protect the primarily black citizens of Detroit from lead poisoning, the imbalanced loss of life in hurricane Katrina, or fact that as a result of red-lining, “Black people are 40% more likely to live in areas with the largest projected increase in heat-related deaths…” due to climate change, we can see that the stories of environmental harm affecting humans involve more BIPOC than White victims. This is too widespread to be assumed to be coincidental or unintentional.
When we speak of racial justice and environmental justice, we must see them as inextricably linked. Those most affected by climate change and pollution must have a louder voice at the table. Their vote is their voice. Voter suppression is racially based. It prevents BIPOC communities from being fully engaged in the fight for environmental justice. Moreover, the historic focus of the environmental movement on abstract threats that appeal to wealthy donors both failed to address immediate needs of BIPOC communities and alienated a demographic that should have been obvious allies. Our service next week will feature Paula Cole Jones and will focus on this important topic.
Climate change is an existential threat to us all, but the most immediate impact is disproportionately being felt by BIPOC communities. Traditional ways of living are threatened by rising sea levels, falling water tables, and shrinking sea ice.
On opposite sides of this continent coastal communities are threatened. The Mi’kmaq people are losing their land on Lennox Island off the coast of Canada. As the sea level rises, their island is disappearing and what is left is more exposed to storms. Similarly, the Inupiaq people in Alaska are watching their houses fall into the sea as the level rises and the lack of ice increases the impact of storms.
Whether we look at reservations that were originally situated on marginal lands, or nations in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska that rely on traditional subsistence practices, livelihoods and lives are already being affected by climate change. Water is becoming scarce in many areas, affecting the viability of farm lands. Sea ice is retreating, making seal hunting more difficult for both humans and polar bears.
Indigenous peoples, especially in the US, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, have been saddled with treaties that they must adhere to, but the colonialist governments frequently ignore. These treaties, even if honored, restrict nations to agriculturally marginal lands, control their ability to leverage natural resources for subsistence, and limit their ability to access and control water rights. While they are the most directly and immediately affected by climate change, they have little political power to address either the causes or the impacts.
When we speak of racial justice and environmental justice, we must see them as inextricably linked. Addressing climate change equitably requires addressing the systemic racism that treats members of indigenous communities as second class citizens with no voice and few rights.
One part of our 8th principle is learning the history of our community. Kramer Manor in Scotch Plains was established as a Black neighborhood. It grew and thrived despite obstacles, including the refusal of federal funding for mortgages, the deprivations of the Great Depression, a World War, and systemic racism to become the multicultural community we know today. The history of the Kramer Manor neighborhood community is not widely known. Founded in 1924, this community is approaching its 100th anniversary. The Kramer Manor Project is conducting oral interviews of long-time Scotch Plain and Fanwood residents to collect these historical stories.
As we are part of the Fanwood/Scotch Plains community we should be aware of its history. Our country was colonized through conquest of Native Americans and enslavement of African Americans. As white supremacy developed in our country, people were included or excluded from history based on the color of their skin. Communities like Kramer Manor are everywhere yet have gone unnoticed by many. Their histories need to be revealed and celebrated by the entire community.
We all know that person who makes every discussion about themself. It could be as blatant as a man inserting his sprained ankle into a discussion by a group of women about difficult labor, or it could be as subtle as bringing up a financial loss from a real estate crash when the subject is the multi-generational impact of red-lining.
When the topic is about the impacts of racism and the response is to make the story about white people it is called “white centering”. Perhaps the most blatant example is when someone responds to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter”. The effect is to silence the victims; to minimize their pain; to cause new, fresh injury.
Saying “all lives matter” is often an intentional effort to draw attention away from the impacts of racism, but white centering can also happen as a result of good intentions. White allies must be careful about attempting to show empathy through sharing what they perceive to be similar experiences.
Perhaps one of the most difficult challenges we face in living up to our 8th Principle is how to not white-center our discussions, including the discussion about white centering. First U is a diverse community, not as diverse as we’d like, but diverse nonetheless. Every 8th principle minute, every racial justice discussion, every sermon, every activity must be undertaken with that knowledge. We must go to great pains to avoid linguistic assumptions about our composition.