In the Environmental Movement, Black Voters Matter


Photo: Florida Rights Restoration Project

By Miro Korenha and Monica Medina, Co-Founders and Co-Publishers, Our Daily Planet

As Black History Month draws to a close today, it is important to take stock of the environmental movement’s progress when it comes to environmental justice.  Suffice it to say that today may be the best of times in terms of recognition of the problem, but also the worst of times as well.  Environmental and climate injustice in this country are as bad as they have ever been given the Trump administration’s policies favoring corporate polluters and particularly fossil fuel companies.

In 2020, our nation is still at a point where white Americans cause the majority of pollution, while minorities are disproportionately forced to grapple with the detrimental consequences. Land and water in black and brown communities across our country are still used as waste dumps by industries. This pollution takes an immense toll on human life, as is the case in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley where residents face a cancer risk of 50 times the national average due to the manufacturing of toxic chemicals.

It’s this type of injustice that lawmakers like Senator Cory Booker and the late Chairman Elijah Cummings have fought so hard to right through legislation and oversight. In fact, Booker said it most clearly in that “We cannot achieve economic justice or social justice in this country without simultaneously addressing environmental justice.”

But most specifically, when we don’t have strong safeguards for environmental justice we’re robbing millions of children of their opportunity to grow and flourish as Cummings expressed during a House Oversight hearing last year, Our children are the living messages we send to a future we will never see. The question is how will we send them into that future.”

That’s why it was so instrumental this week that House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) introduced the landmark Environmental Justice for All Act which would help support communities and workers as they transition away from greenhouse gas-dependent economies as well as strengthening the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). This bill would finally bring frontline community stakeholders into the policymaking process, listen to their feedback and ensure that their needs are prioritized in government decision-making.

Frankly, a bill like this is long overdue but it creates an important framework for how our government should function to ensure that in America, your zip code doesn’t determine whether you’re being exposed to dangerous pollution.

Chairman Grijalva said in a statement that

“For too long, low-income communities, tribal and indigenous communities, and communities of color have been shut out of the decision-making process and left without the tools to fight back when big corporations set up shop in their back yards. We cannot turn a blind eye as communities suffer. Today we’re turning the page to give the power back to impacted communities, where it should have been all along.”

In order to get progressive environmental and climate justice laws passed, we will need to change the occupant in the White House and toss out conservatives who favor fossil fuel companies and polluters over people.  That will be tough to do as long as there are many states that make voting very hard, and those rules disenfranchise minorities and young people at disproportionate levels. We know that voter suppression and disenfranchisement of minority communities and young people are having a negative impact on many important issues like criminal justice reform, immigration reform, and the growing economic disparity in this country.  However, there are other ones that people don’t ordinarily think of at the top of the list of minority issues– at least until now – and those are climate change and pollution.  And rarely does anyone tie these issues to the fundamental injustice of disenfranchisement of Latinx, black and young voters.  But we should.

We can’t get pro-climate action and environment candidates elected to office unless we bring all our collective voting power to the ballot box.  And we need to do it in places where voters are most likely to be disenfranchised – like Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and even Wisconsin — where Republican Governors or state legislatures or both have made voting really tough for minorities in particular.

Nathaniel Stinnett of the Environmental Voter Project told ODP that he is concerned “about voter suppression having a particularly big impact on environmental voters in Georgia and Arizona. In 2018 in Georgia alone, over 25,000 of the environmentalists we were speaking with were purged from the state’s voter rolls at the last minute, making it almost impossible for them to vote.”  In South Carolina, in order to register to vote a person must provide their full social security number (one of only four states with this requirement) and thus over a million eligible voters there won’t be able to participate in today’s primaryNearly 30% of South Carolina’s population is African American – so even if these rules do not disproportionately impact black Americans, there are roughly 300,000 black voters that may not be able to vote for pro-climate action, pro-environmental protection candidates.

When minority and youth votes are suppressed, all environmental voters are frustrated.  When Latinx and young people struggle to vote because of ID requirements and voter registration difficulties, we all lose the chance to see real progress addressing climate change and pollution in our country.  We need to focus on these disenfranchisement challenges to minority and young voters as impediments to all of us in the environmental movement and help to overcome them by November if we want to tackle climate change before it’s too late.  We need to look beyond our own issues and expand the environmental movement by joining forces with the movement for racial justice and voting rights in this country.  And if we do, we will all win.

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