The Importance of Black Organizing Spaces in the Environmental Movement

The History of the Color-Line

To understand that question, we first need to reach a certain level of understanding about the construction of race within the context of the United States. Luckily for us, our good old friend Frederick Douglas breaks it down quite simply. In 1881, Douglas wrote about the origin of the “Color Line”– a simple concept: those who were deemed white were human, and those who were deemed Black were not. This clearly defined racial binary meant that if white was beautiful, then Black was ugly, if white was innocent, then Black was guilty, if white was intelligent, then Black was incompetent, if white was deserving, then Black was undeserving. And we would see these socially constructed narratives play out on all levels of society, from the media to the courts to the classroom.

Now of course this ‘Black/white’ binary leaves us with a huge elephant left standing in the room: what of the people who were neither Black nor white?

They were racialized based on their proximity to whiteness. To be white was very clearly defined- and you probably know this picture well as it still exists to this day: fair-skinned, English speaking, Christian-practicing, straight-haired, round-eyed “American” people. And though we know that the color-line is a socially constructed concept, we can look back throughout history and see very real waves of immigrants coming to this country and assimilating to whiteness in order to benefit from its privileges and survive. 

Assimilating to Whiteness

Here’s a quote from a recent article posted on NBC news shortly after George Floyd was murdered: “…But Sanz, an Afro-Latinx from Washington who works with women overcoming domestic and sexual violence, said it’s also time for something else — for her fellow Latinos to confront the racism and anti-blackness within the community. ‘Proximity to Eurocentricity and whiteness is how our ancestors survived through oppression, a painful legacy that still prevails and needs to be eradicated’, Sanz said.”

However, it’s important to understand that everyone’s ability to assimilate to whiteness was not equal. It depended on things like your behavior, how light or dark you were, how fluent of an English speaker you were, how curly your hair was, and even how big your nose was!

In Political Scientist Claire Jean Kim’s paper on The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans, Kim discusses the Model Minority narrative: “…incremental White gestures of acceptance prompted Chinese Americans in Mississippi to dissociate from Blacks over time. Many Chinese Americans discouraged intermarriage with Blacks, ostracized group members who interacted with Blacks, gave their children White names, attended White churches, and made donations to White organizations in a deliberate bid to become White. If the Black struggle for advancement has historically rested upon appeals to racial equality, the Asian American struggle has at times rested upon appeals to be considered White (and to be granted the myriad privileges bundled with Whiteness).”

Similarly, in a stand up comedy show calling out the Asian community’s failure to be an ally in the movement for Black lives, Hasan Minhaj discusses the horrific photo of officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd’s neck, “that’s why I can’t get this photo out of my head, because it’s cropped wrong. Zoom out: who else is in this photo? The officer who’s blocking people off? He’s Hmong American- he’s my age, he’s 34. The guy who owns the store- did you know this? He’s Arab American- his clerk called the cops on Floyd. THAT is America. A Black man was murdered in cold-blood and we were on the fucking sidelines watching.” 

You’re probably wondering why I’m going on and on about this racial nuance. It’s because it is critical in understanding why anti-Blackness persists in not just the white-American community but in all races and cultures across the United States. The nature of the Black/white color-line structure in this country means that to distance yourself from Blackness (defined as being inhumane on the racial binary) puts you at a closer advantage to societal acceptance and success. To straighten your hair, to intentionally not teach children their native language, to bleach your skin, to find anyway to disassociate from your ethnic group and from Black people, put you at a closer advantage to societal acceptance.

So, let’s run that back. White people created the color line to justify the dehumanization and enslavement of African people. 400 years of legalized Black dehumanization pass while simultaneously, other people of color are immigrating into this country and are being racialized and sorted based on their proximity to socially constructed definitions of whiteness. Countries around the world have been stripped of their wealth and independence by white colonizers, and immigrants are fleeing to the U.S. with the promise of achieving the American Dream- only to realize that those dreams were built on the backs of African slaves. Giving into the drive to survive by any means necessary, they teach their kids to disassociate from their culture and “not to hang out with those Black kids across the street”. The news and media affirms this narrative and… the rest is history. To strengthen our environmental justice movement, as “people of color” it’s important that we recognize and understand these racial hierarchies and anti-Black cultures so that we can move forward from them and build community with each other in a just way.

Come On, It’s 2020! What has changed? And what hasn’t?

So here we are in the year 2020. Many believe racism to be nothing more than ancient history. However, not only is it still alive and well, but it exists in the very movement which claims to fight for the betterment of humanity and the planet. Racial justice: a true reconstruction that was transformational and authentic, never took place. The legacy of slavery and white supremacy are alive and active within our environment to this day in the form of Environmental Racism. We can see that clearly when we examine a history of Black land theft, and urban renewal: a time when the country embraced labeling vibrant working-class Black neighborhoods as slums to justify tearing them down. We can look to the intentional use of zoning laws and housing discrimination, sacrifice zones, urban deforestation, food apartheid, unsafe drinking water, toxic soil and air. The United States continues to brutalize Black bodies in ever-evolving systems of exclusion and exploitation. So yes, even in 2020, the age of “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion”, Black people in CT are nearly five and a half times more likely than whites to go to the emergency room because of asthma, and African-Americans are 75% more likely than others to live near facilities that produce hazardous waste and that more than a million Black people live within a half mile of existing natural gas facilities, because we have yet to deeply address these wide-spread anti-Black American foundations alive within the movement.

And it’s not to say that racism against other communities is not important but rather that one can’t become anti-racist without first addressing anti-Blackness. It’s foundational to the movement for racial justice, as anti-Blackness is at the root of all other forms of racism and discriminiation in this country.

I can’t tell you just how powerful it was to see- after George Floyd’s horrid death- and no sooner- the widespread use of the word “BLACK” in mainstream conversations and movements across the country. No more consistently lumping Black people in with “people of color” – who don’t always share our unique history of oppression. No more using melting-pot terms like “minorities”, “urban populations”, or “marginalized communities”- because a lot of the time, those very same “marginalized community members” are the ones standing by as we are being silenced, discriminated against, and killed.

As we know from our understanding of the color line, due to the extensive anti-Black foundations in this country, many other forms of racism have been based around it. As such, centering anti-Black racism in any movement will only strengthen and make it more powerful. So moving forward, in an effort to get to the root of racism, let’s destigmatize the word “Black” and be proud to use it when we mean it- rather than trying to avoid it by using sweeping statements like “People of Color”.

Graphic Design by Leah Thomas {@GreenGirlLeah on IG}

It’s no longer enough to have surface level conversations about how Black people are “disproportionately affected by climate change”. We’re “disproportionately” affected by everything! That’s the nature of the system, remember? If white was innocent, Black was GUILTY.  If White was human, Black was not – and the world around us and our country, was built accordingly. So when we talk about a garbage plant being placed in a historically Black neighborhood – we first have to talk about the legacy of slavery, segregation and housing discrimination.

We cannot continue to have these surface level conversations about environmental justice anymore. Organizations need to put their money where their mouth is. You want to have more diversity in your meetings? You first need to talk about the roots of why Black people were never included in the first place. In other words- stop sharing stats about racial inequality without naming how racism has caused those inequalities in the first place. In doing so, you’re skipping over the real work of racial justice by failing to provide non-Black environmental activists with an understanding of why Black people are facing such environmental oppression in the first place. 

Next Steps + Being an Ally

Having to constantly navigate overwhelmingly white spaces and deal with racism while doing work for a movement that should, by nature, be socially just is draining. And the racism I’m talking about isn’t always overt (Lynching, Hate Crimes, Blackface, Etc.). A lot of the time, maybe even most of the time depending on where you live, it’s covert– and can be perpetuated by non-Black people of color too. This might look like: an inability to take direction from Black colleagues, believing stereotypes about Black people or silence when Black people experience racism. It could look like white people and non-Black POC being condescending towards Black people, practicing colorism within their community, or enforcing anti-Black dating preferences- the list goes on and on (see graphic above). This work of dismantling white supremacy and anti-Blackness being perpetuated by everyone in this movement is part of the work of fighting for a Just Transition.

So to conclude, it’s time that the environmental movement acknowledges its racial biases which come from centuries of deeply established anti-Blackness, and then ask itself what role it can play in the fight against structural racism. I’m proposing one possible solution: in effort to take some of the burden off of your Black colleagues and combat anti-Blackness within the movement, help fund the creation of Black organizing spaces. This act also pushes the movement to be in authentic community with Black people in a way that holds it accountable. We, as Black people, seldom have space to come together as a collective and understand what our priorities even are. The Black community needs its own empowering spaces away from mainstream environmental organizations and organizers to heal and seek out the true meaning of restorative environmental justice.

And to my fellow Black Environmental Activists, I encourage you to take initiative and organize a space like this in your own community, town, state or region where you can come together and build strength and community amongst each-other. In a movement that has failed to value you, create a space where you can finally set the priorities that matter to you.

One last shameless plug- if you’re in CT, we’ve begun to organize a group called the Black Environmental Activist Movement (BEAM). If you’re interested in learning more about it or in joining, feel free to contact me at [email protected].

Aisha K. Staggers
Author: Aisha K. Staggers

Provider of "proactive and strategic communications" with a solid background in print and digital journalism. Communications Director of Connecticut Roundtable on Climate and Jobs.