Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Environmental Racism + Denial of History

I don't often read much on Alternet beyond the headlines, because such high concentrations of privilege-blind white liberals usually make me nauseous. But every now and then they print a good article--and then the usual White Liberal Guilt pours out in the comments section.

Last week they ran an excerpt of the book Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots, in which the authors interviewed Van Jones, a black environmental justice activist. It's a great interview and a very quick read, so I encourage all of you to take a second to read it. Jones talks about sprawl and its ties to racism, through fear-mongering, media distortion, and classism, and what this means environmentally for people left behind in the city.

He then brings together (in my opinion, at least) two of the scariest things facing black people right now: environmental racism and the prison industry. The amount of money spent on sending disproportionately huge numbers of people of color to prison on trumped up charges could easily be spent thwarting off the environmental throwdown--or at least make cities decent places to live. He uses California as an example--there's a lot of talk in California about energy efficiency, but there's also things like Proposition 184, the Three Strikes Law [the link is a pdf].

If you don't read the interview, please at least read this gem, because it's a situation we all know too, too well:
Those folks [environmentalists] often speak about working together through "outreach" -- outreach in the sense of "outreaching to" these people or those people. Outreaching to the black community: "Well, we outreached to them so 'they' could hear our agenda and get onboard with what we are saying." This, as opposed to saying "let's go make some friends," building relationships, creating relationships. Figuring things out from a place where everyone's views are included. Relationships are give and take, mutual aid and help. Outreaching is the white thing, it's about bringing folks into what you are doing, and does not necessarily convey understanding. [emphasis mine]

My only beef is with what Jones says at the very end, about pushing the federal government into action--two things which I find absolutely antithetical. But, I suppose the anarchist people of color post is one for another day.

The comments, however, are disheartening. According to some, suburbs were not built on racism, and white flight is a thing of the past. Classism is the running theme. None of them are worth quoting here, but if you want to see how much history one can plainly deny while trumpeting their Liberal badge, take a look and keep a barf bag handy.


Anonymous said...

any way white people can take a progressive position - even one that's not "privilege-blind" - without the motivation being "white liberal guilt"?

Camille said...

Absolutely. In any sort of activism, there are certain privileges that each of us has that others do not. Some of these are more obvious than others--skin color privilege or gender privilege, for example--and might pop up more often. To be an effective activist, you have to learn how to navigate these privileges.

That's something that seems hard to a lot of people, but I think that's because of the limits people have on their comfort zones. But stepping outside that bound is actually really rewarding. In the example Jones gave about environmentalists doing outreach, if they had recognized that by being middle- or upper-middle class they had the free time to worry about the environment (outside of their city environment), and that the people they were "reaching out" to did not, they could find a creative way to work together despite differences in class privilege. You can't organize other people to do what you want, but you can work with them to find common ground and common goals. Organizing should be about creating communities with common goals, not forcing goals onto other people through "outreach."

What I meant by "privilege-blind" is that it is an act of privilege to deny or rewrite history. I cannot tell you how many people I've met at Yale who know absolutely nothing about the histories of people of color in the US, or who think racism is over, simply because they have the privilege to believe so. They can ignore day-to-day racism if they want, while I have to put up with it (from those same people, to add insult to injury) and don't have to choice to ignore it. Likewise, the people commenting to the article can rewrite the history of suburbia to take out the very important role racism plays in urban planning and sprawl, because they have the privilege to ignore or change this history. To the rest of us, this is insulting.

But, yes, there are an infinite number of ways anyone can move beyond their privilege in activism.

Joshua said...

Woah. Thanks for this post and comment, Camille.

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