When Will the Blacks Join the Greens?

by Lorna Salzman

A response to "Is the Green Movement Too White?", by Van Jones, published in Rachel's Environmental & Health News, #908, May 24, 2007.

Like others before him, this writer is probably too young to know what went on in the 1970s and 1980s. Like others, he probably had no interest in environmental issues whatsoever. As millions of people marched and joined environmental groups and formed local and regional activist networks to fight chemical dumps, nuclear power plants, highways, dams, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Army Corps of Engineers, the US Forest Service, strip mines, timber clear cutting, wetlands destruction, land developers, factory fishing, nuclear testing, anddestruction of wildlife habitat, this guy and others like him wwere sitting on the sidelines and dismissing them as racists who didn't care about poverty or other social issues.

I don't know the author and maybe he just wants some publicity for his nonsensical views. On the other hand, I have read similar articles in my forty-year career as an environmentalist, and this one in particular smacks not merely of an angry black guy who wants to mau-mau the whites, but of an extreme leftist who wants to distract serious activists and environmentalists away from their work and onto his special bandwagon.

The accusation of racism and elitism against the early environmental movement is one of those slanderous charges without foundation. No one ever excluded minorities from joining these groups. If a black guy walked in the door and said: I want to join and work with you, he would have been welcomed. No one was ever kept out of the movement. The truth is that blacks never gave a damn about the movement because blacks traditionally, and even today, only join movements or groups that are all black and run by blacks. Nor did they ever notice when environmental groups went to the mat to protect ALL citizens and communities from pollution. This guy still doesn't understand that environmentalism is a PUBLIC INTEREST movement and that its constituents are EVERYONE. This guy hasnt figured out that when environmentalists tried to shut down nuclear power plants, it was to protect the health and safety of EVERYONE, white or black. He still doesnt get it.

Then there is the issue of native Americans. The original conservationists? In a sense, yes, because there were fewer of them and they didn't have the technological means to wreak havoc. But it was they, not the white settlers, who killed the bison off through overhunting. And today we have a new breed of native American, who like uranium mining on their reservation because it will make them rich, who build huge casinos in emulation of compulsively materialistic Americans, and who just completed an enclosed glass platform jutting out over the Grand Canyon so tourists (who pay them for this of course) can get a better view. It reminds me of Dave Brower's ad that lost the Sierra Club its tax exemption, when Glen Canyon was about to be flooded by a huge dam. It said: Would you flood the Sistine Chapel so you could get closer to the Michelangelo frescos?

He then makes an inference that comes close to being an accusation bordering on slander: that whites may have collaborated with industry to put chemical plants and dumps in black communities. This is an outrageous charge, with no foundation whatsoever. It is just more vitriol intended to put whites on the defensive for things they never did but which some of them will apologize for anyway because, as the story goes, we all know that whites are responsible for everything that has gone wrong in this country so they might as well just accept blanket guilt.

He then says that the present movement is segregated, with the environmental justice movement separate from everyone else. This is true, of course, but it is not the fault of white environmentalists. It is a result of the black separatism that has plagued black communities and movements for decades. Black separatism is itself responsible for the fact that the problems of black communities are not on the regular agenda of white environmental groups, because
black communities have always defined their problems as BLACK problems rather than as ENVIRONMENTAL problems. Once you define them that way, no one but blacks will dare to address them. After all, who would interfere with black power and empowerment?

What is this "eco-populist alliance" he calls for? Is this the best he can do? Is there any reason to expect that blacks will embrace ecology after ignoring it for so long? Is there any reason to expect that they embrace anything that isnt initiated and controlled by blacks? I remember Ron Daniels when he was running for a NYS assembly seat, at a debate between him and a green, Craig Seeman, in my district. I distinctly remember Daniels calling for a "multiracial movement controlled by blacks". I was quite amused at this self styled pseudo-populist preaching for a top-down, undemocratically structured movement that would not even have the privilege of picking its own leaders.

I also remember, post-Seattle 1999, after the WTO protests there, complaints from Hispanics and blacks that they were not brought into the planning process for those events. Of course, none of these movements had ever shown interest in or been involved in anti-globalization issues. So why would they have been invited? I mean, why wasn't the Omaha Women's Garden Club invited into the planning process for that matter? Why would anyone invite groups who weren't already involved in the issue?

Why am I taking the trouble to respond to this guy? Mainly because I know that somewhere there will be some whites and liberals wringing their hands over the white complexion of the environmental movement and worrying how they can get more black faces at their next meeting. I have news for you, folks: stop worrying and stop trying. If and when blacks or Hispanics - or gays for that matter - wake up and realize that you are fighting for them (and have been, all along), maybe they will show up at your meeting. When they do, you can say: where have you been all this time? We have been waiting for you.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.