Turning the fight to save the environment into a fight for racial justice
How do we use environmentalism as a strategy to disrupt and even break down systemic injustice and weaken eco-apartheid?
By Teju Adisa-Farrar
Growing up in West Oakland, having asthma did not seem abnormal to me. My brother often had asthma attacks and my parents would have to rush him to the emergency room. I was taken to the hospital several times to do breathing treatments using a nebulizer. When playing sports at Lowell Park across the street from my house, it was common for other kids to have inhalers in their pockets. It wasn’t until high school that I learned from a nonprofit that children in West Oakland have the highest rate of asthma because of the poor air quality caused by truck diesel emissions and other pollution from the port.
Up until recently, West Oakland was a very Black area. There are still some Black folks here, but it has grown increasingly white and middle-class over the past 5-10 years. West Oakland’s past demographics are mainly due to housing segregation spurred in the 1950s, after many Black families migrated from the South to the West to work on the ports during World War II. Black people were not allowed to live in other parts of the city, so West Oakland became a Black working class area.
In the U.S., Black families tend to live near other Black families regardless of socioeconomic status, due to systemic residential segregation, especially in cities. As a result, Black families are more likely to experience environmental injustice caused by spatial inequity—the unequal access and distribution of services, resources, and economic opportunities in areas that have high concentrations of marginalized communities—which allows corporations, industry and local governments to do business that pollutes and poisons our communities.
In most cases, corporations and local governments allow the most undesirable and environmentally dangerous industry to be located in these parts of the city because they think of the people in these areas as being undesirable as well. Gentrification can aid in temporarily displacing spatial inequity, but it simply shifts it to a different geography.
Today, the Port of Oakland website claims it is the “fifth busiest container Port in the U.S., handling 99% of all containerized goods in Northern California.” The largely Black West Oakland community has suffered for more than three decades with the air pollution and subsequent terrible air quality from the emissions made by the Port.
With California’s new commitment to clean energy and young women on The Hill like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, there is trending pressure to commit to more sustainable practices. Over the past few years, the West Oakland community has begun to make headway with stricter air pollution policies. This is in part because of neighborhood leaders and organizations that have been fighting for 20 years, like the West Oakland Indicators Project. But it is also because gentrification and the expansion of Silicon Valley has meant that more white middle-class residents are moving into West Oakland because of its easy access to part and close proximity to San Francisco. These shifting demographics lead to the city and port to take lowering emissions more seriously, to increase the value of living in these neighborhoods for the new residents.
The mainstream environmental movement has largely left out and ignored Black people, Indigenous communities, poor people and people of color. It’s clear that activists in the ’70s in particular were inspired by Black people’s achievements in the Civil Rights Movement and the environmental struggles of Indigenous people since European settlers invaded their land and committed genocide, but it was still largely understood to be a fight for wildlife and national parks, and rarely acknowledged these catalysts.
White middle class people flocked to this movement because, while it seemed noble, there was no racial awareness or push for them to understand how their whiteness has contributed to and privileges them from the degradation of the earth and its people.
This lack of racial analysis and abstraction of racial justice from the environmental movement makes eco-apartheid more possible. One could even argue it is well on its way in places like Flint—a mostly Black city—not having access to clean water, Nestle illegally extracting millions of litres of water from the Six Nations of the Grand River Indigenous reserve in Ontario and leaving residents without any that is drinkable, and 2000 climate refugees that are forced to move to Dhaka—the capital of Bangladesh—every single day.
While Black, Latinx, and Indigenous environmental justice activists and community groups in the U.S. have been bringing our struggles to the forefront, there is still a long way to go to dismantle the racism and privilege inherent in the environmental movement. When we both literally cannot breathe because police are suffocating us and literally cannot breathe because our neighborhoods have some of the worst air quality in the country, we know that all justice movements must be intersectional and ecological.
Even while other issue-based organizations suffer, environmental nonprofits are some of the few that are still well funded by foundations and individual donors, due to the racialized history of this movement. As a Black women geographer, when I think about making the most impact, which requires resources, I realize that using the environmental justice movement the way it was intended by Indigenous peoples is a way to fight some aspects of racial inequality, disrupt corporate power and challenge the legacy of settler colonialism.
How do we use environmentalism as a strategy to disrupt and even break down systemic injustice and weaken eco-apartheid? To frame resources to be in solidarity with and fight next to Indigenous communities who are struggling for rights to their land, for clean waterways and self-determination? To stand with communities of color who are trying to shut down refineries that pollute our communities, and get ports to transition to clean energy so they will stop poisoning our air and our children? To lend support to workers in South Africa fighting big industry that is exploiting labor and degrading their health through dangerous mining operations?
I’m not interested in educating white people on why environmentalism and racial justice are inextricable as much as I am focused on using their resources to support grassroots work that will ultimately result in a better environment and quality of life for all of us.
Our work is about shifting power, disrupting systems, and creating futures outside of this inequitable system—eventually making it obsolete. I intend to use whatever environmental resources I have access to and the environmentalism frame as a way to fund, support, and uplift the work of Indigenous, Black, Latinx, immigrant, and POC communities who are creating a better environment and more equitable planet—because we have to.
In order for the environmental movement to be successful, global structural systems of power have to be broken down. This is something some Indigenous communities, Black communities, and other people of color have been trying to do in our struggles because we recognize that all injustice is connected. With climate change becoming a more widely accepted truth, bridging these issues is going to be the only way we can save ourselves. We are not just trying to save the planet, we are trying to save ourselves. The planet has survived and changed for hundreds of thousands of years—we are temporary. Now we have to do better or else our time here will be abbreviated. As my friend Nadia once said, “there is no separate survival.”
Teju’s is a writer, poet and urban geographer. With a foundation in cultural equity and social geography, she supports artists, activists, initiatives and subaltern communities who are mapping/making alternative futures. Connect with her on instagram @misstej and on Twitter @tejuAF.