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From Climate Oppression to 21st-Century Leadership: What Will the New Black Economy Look Like?

02/02/2015 10:35 am ET | Updated Apr 04, 2015
Mario Tama via Getty Images

I still remember the shock when Kanye West blurted "George Bush don't like Black people" during the nationwide Red Cross fundraiser. Even more, images of Black people stranded, swimming, struggling on roofs are still branded onto my memory. I remember how our people were packed into the Superdome and labelled refugees. Churches and organizations as far away as Detroit opened up their doors for survivors.

Later, I heard stories of Black survivors being turned away from majority white Gulf towns. I learned later about previous flooding incidents, that many folks to this day think were intentional. Years later I found out how the Katrina super storm was influenced by human impact on weather patterns -- "global warming" is not just higher temperatures but erratic extremes in a variety of climate conditions. Furthermore, unsustainable development along the gulf stripped away the natural buffer zones and made the storm's damage much worse than it had to be.

Hurricane Katrina was the "perfect storm" for climate injustice: extreme weather patterns made worse by development and pollution. Climate injustice affects folks disproportionately based on socio-economic status and value within society. For Black folk in the United States, that usually means we face the blunt end. For working class and poor folks that don't have the money to pay their way to safety, it's the rough side of the blunt end.

Climate injustice is more than one-time events and calamities. The same development pressures that add greenhouse gases to our environment which cause chaotic weather patterns have stripped away protective wetlands and naturally occurring barriers. These economic trends and political rationales place polluting, dirty facilities too often in our neighborhoods.

"Environmental racism" is the term describing the fact that communities of color are disproportionately chosen as sites for toxic facilities -- even considering income. This aggravates health conditions in our communities from allergies and asthma to cardiovascular disease and cancer.

Detroit does not fight climate change in the abstract. It's a daily struggle because the oil refinery and trash incinerator are literally in our backyards. Climate injustice is not just a "one day it will happen" event; we feel it when we bury and mourn our sons and daughters. Detroit's asthma deaths are three to five times higher than Michigan's average.

The East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC) has joined with Climate Justice Alliance, a nationwide coalition that seeks to advance leadership of communities of color and other communities that have been historically dumped upon. Frontline communities such as Detroit have been located in the proximity of environmental pollution, industrial waste, toxic spills, explosions, and other harmful byproducts of the energy, waste, and production system we live under.

CJA's Just Transition framework acknowledges that there are economic and political incentives beyond environmental racism that must be restructured. We must transition from being frontline communities and dumping grounds to leaders in this 21st century movement towards economic, environmental, and social justice. Each community will have to decide what institutions it will need to destroy, what must be transformed, and what should be built up in the future. From what I see in Detroit, our Just Transition must include:

  • Recognizing and Challenging Extreme Energy -- Coal burning, trash incineration, oil refining is killing us in the short-term and harming the planet in the foreseeable future. Workers in these facilities, especially those from our communities- should be included in widespread planning for decentralized energy and reduced individual consumption.
  • Challenging Economic Exclusion -- As communities we must fight the gentrification and destruction of our communities taking place nationwide. Let's link with indigenous struggles against displacement and resource theft. Foreclosures represent a historic loss of our homes and community wealth. Katrina showed the vulnerability of our poor and working-class community. We must create collective care through institution building for quality of life.
  • De-Silo our Organizing -- We can't look at issues in isolation. We definitely can't afford to think that some issues are more important than others. The anti-Blackness of this world uses myriad means and tactics against us. We must stay rooted in our vision, yet committed to syncretic thinking.
  • Healing our Culture -- Our culture is a multi-billion dollar industry because it is powerful and it has the ability to change lives. Let's reclaim our culture from being a profit extracting mechanism for others to being our channel for healing, expression, and institution building.
  • Reclaiming the Commons -- Public infrastructure such as tap water, education, and roads has been built up with our collective investment. These systems should not be privatized, chartered, or sold off to corporate owners. The answer is more community responsiveness and accountability. The answer is NOT selling off to companies whose (only) concern is their return for shareholders.

In this land where our individual survival is not a given, we assert our highest self. We work towards collective well-being, respect for this planet that has birthed us, and our own ways of being full of dignity and self-awareness. No, we aren't there yet but we are making this Transition with our arms wide open for our allies and our eyes wide open for any obstacles in our path.

This essay is dedicated to my friend David Blair, poet, activist, artist, and a local casualty of climate injustice who passed in the heat wave of 2011 when his home did not have air conditioning. This essay is also dedicated to Nicole Cannon, a water warrior who recently passed from health related conditions from her water being shut off at home. Her children are fundraising burial expenses here.

This post is part of the "Black Future Month" series produced by The Huffington Post and Black Lives Matter for Black History Month. Each day in February, this series will look at one of 28 different cultural and political issues affecting Black lives, from education to criminal-justice reform. To follow the conversation on Twitter, view #BlackFutureMonth -- and to see all the posts as part of our Black History Month coverage, read here.