Recent thoughts on racism, intersectionality and the climate movement

I’ve been in a massive funk of sorts these few months after US Power Shift, a grassroots organizing conference that was touted as an environmental justice event, yet was overshadowed by controversies regarding tokenism and general perpetuation of historical oppression/marginalization by Energy Action Coalition staffers. My personal experience at and after the conference has left me skeptical of mainstream environmental groups such as Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and the EAC, and their effectiveness in addressing/confronting environmental issues.

I’d meant to post this on January 10 but I decided to wait, as I was about to head to DC for a Sierra Club-sponsored retreat. I thought, maybe, I would get some questions answered and walk away feeling empowered about the work we’re doing, but that ended up not being the case, so here it is. (More on all that in a future post…)

“How the Sierra Club learned to love immigration”:
I’ve been a volunteer with the Sierra Student Coalition, the youth arm of the Sierra Club, for the last few years; I’ve only known about the Club’s racist and exclusionary history for… IDK, maybe a year or so. That being said, this headline is a little tame compared to the story’s content.

Sierra has more than two million members, many of them white and elderly. In order for their numbers to grow, recruitment will have to reflect what America looks like today and in the future, which is younger and more racially diverse. For Sierra to do that, though, they have to reconcile their history, which didn’t always endorse open pathways to U.S. citizenship, or even its own membership.

Sierra Club founder John Muir, a nature conservationist, wrote about Native Americans in the late 19th century in ways that many people of color consider offensive, if not racist. Even worse were the people he befriended, like the naturalist Henry Fairfield Osborne, a leader of the racial “eugenics” movement, and Madison Grant, another eugenist whose early 20th century writings were literally the bible for the Nazi Third Reich government.

Grant and his peers believed that population growth—and non-white growth in particular—would lead to an apocalyptic mess, like something out of “Planet of the Apes.” Grant—who is also considered the godfather of wildlife management—believed that the white “Nordic” race of the United States needed to be preserved by limiting the reproduction of non-white peoples, and also controlling, if not eliminating, the immigration of non-white people into the country. Grant’s ethnic cleansing doctrine was the blueprint for the exclusionary Immigration Act of 1924, an official door closing to Eastern Europeans, Jews, Asians and Indians.

Basically, the Club has only cared about immigration (and people of color, to an extent) when it was in the best interest of the Club. Subsequently, this is why I have no idea what I’m doing anymore in the climate movement.

“Why is the GOP honoring the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act?”:
Apparently Republicans are paying lip service to Asian issues because our demographic is the “fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population” and is seen as “a natural fit” with the GOP. (My grandma hates Obama and loves Fox News, so there may be some truth to that.)

But it hasn’t translated into votes. In the 2012 election, 77 percent of Asian-American voters voted for Barack Obama, and support for the Democratic president swung upwards of 95 percent for some segments of the population. It turns out that Asian-American voters care deeply about immigration, and are paying attention to how both parties handle the issue.

This is why I love you, Colorlines – you tell me everything (or at least the things that matter) mainstream media outlets don’t.

“Anatomy of a hashtag: #NotYourAsianSidekick”:
An amazing infographic on the conversation that, in just 72 hours, generated 50,000 tweets and reached 90+ million people in 60 countries. Like I said: AMAZING.

I hadn’t seen this while the conversation was actually happening, but I will speak to the surge of empowerment I felt while participating in this discussion. It was different from tweeting about climate change or some other political issue; these were real-life experiences of oppression that people were sharing.

Even further: it was a discussion started and dominated by people of color. For me this sort of space was almost entirely missing in the mainstream climate movement; rather than waiting for folks to give us a platform/make space for us, #NotYourAsianSidekick was our way of making our own space.

More on this later – but yes, communities of color are connecting and finding solidarity with each other on Twitter. I can’t wait to see where this goes!

“This land is ours: African-Americans should claim their place in the great outdoors”
This is just a great piece dispelling the notion that black people don’t like the outdoors or have no connection to nature:

It’s undeserved because African Americans have lived with nature since we were brought here as enslaved captives. Escaped and marooned slaves banded with indigenous people during those times and started communities in the woods. During Reconstruction we built towns based on farming, forestry, and fishing knowledge passed down from our African ancestors. Many of those towns were located in woodsy areas, away from cities where white supremacy was still firmly entrenched, despite Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. …

Put any city kid in the sticks and they may turn craven, but black kids are aware that this is the same environment where Emmett Till, a 14-year-old from Chicago visiting family in Mississippi, was tortured and killed.

These are the backwoods where black people were once found swinging from trees like “strange fruit,” as depicted in the recent film, 12 Years a Slave. …

Still, to succumb to those fears would allow for another kind of segregation that keeps black people in the concrete jungles while nature is free range for whites to explore exclusively. That kind of segregation is exactly what early conservationist Madison Grant had in mind when he urged for the creation of the national park system. If you read any part of Grant’s book, The Passing of the Great Race, which Adolf Hitler adopted as his bible, you will understand that Grant wanted to reserve these natural landscapes not for all Americans to enjoy, but as an asylum for white people who feared a growing black planet.

So, basically even more reason for the mainstream environmental movement to be mindful of its campaign messaging and outreach/engagement tactics. (I hesitate to say “this is why the black community needs to be involved in ‘this’ movement” because that implies that the mainstream climate movement is the most important over all the other environmental/social justice movements, which it obviously isn’t and is just really oppressive in general.)

“Radio Disney’s pro-fracking elementary school tour sparks outrage”
One: let’s all take a moment to enjoy that headline, shall we? Alright.

Two: yes, this happened. Disney made a really stupid, obvious mistake in partnering with an industry group. Since when do kids and natural gas mix?

Shout-out to the 80,000+ signatures (I’m assuming many are awesome, concerned parents) on this CREDO petition.

Here is Disney’s response to the controversy:

“The sole intent of the collaboration between Radio Disney and the nonprofit Rocking in Ohio educational initiative was to foster kids’ interest in science and technology. Having been inadvertently drawn into a debate that has no connection with this goal, Radio Disney has decided to withdraw from the few remaining installments of the program.”

This is another great lesson on intersectionality, i.e. don’t assume that just because kids like Disney doesn’t mean that they (or their parents) will also like pipelines and fracking.

“#DisneyFracked takes Radio Disney to task for its pro-industry propaganda”
Basically: the Sierra Club, Josh Fox and other major climate entities started a hashtag surrounding the Radio Disney-fracking partnership. Despite not having that many participants (at least not compared to #NotYourAsianSidekick, for example) #DisneyFracked was what elicited a response from Radio Disney – not the thousands of concerned parents and petition signatures.

Mind you: this wasn’t an intense, drawn-out campaign against Disney; it seemed almost like an afterthought, a casual Twitter session, for those involved.

This got me thinking: if it was so easy for the Club and other ol’ boys in the climate movement to use their clout to “win” this fight, why weren’t they using it (and collaborating with each other) more often, and on larger-scale campaigns?

The Hill’s coverage included a statement from the pro-industry nonprofit Ohio Oil and Gas Energy Education Program.

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