Jacqueline Luqman talks with Prof. Willie Jamaal Wright and Eddie Conway about how the many facets of anti-Black racism contribute to environmental racism, and whether enough is being done to elevate this discussion in and for communities of color.

Story Transcript

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network.

Climate change, environmental collapse, climate catastrophe. The environment is finally front and center in much of the conversation and consciousness of the American population. But as we examine what it means to pursue critical environmental policies, are we doing enough to ensure true environmental justice when we’re not clear on how deep racial injustice really goes into the very soil that we claim we’re trying to protect?

Joining me to discuss this topic are, in the studio with me, Eddie Conway. Eddie Conway is a former Black Panther and a producer here at the Real News Network. And from Houston, Texas, Professor Willie Jamaal Wright. Professor Wright is Assistant Professor of Geography and Africana Studies at Rutgers University. He studies the spatial practices of urban black communities and is the author of the essay we’re discussing today, As Above, So Below: Anti-Black Violence as Environmental Racism. Eddie, Professor Wright, thank you for joining me.

EDDIE CONWAY: Thanks for having me.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: All right. Professor Wright, I need to start with you. Because you write in this essay, which is amazing, that the idea of racial violence has a connection to natural environments, and that in itself is a form of environmental racism. Like when we think of racial violence, the first images that come to mind might be lynchings and cross burnings that were committed not only to terrorize black people but to drive black people off of the land. Right?

WILLIE JAMAAL WRIGHT: Yes. I should say that that essay came out of me attending an annual EJ Summit held by the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network in North Carolina. Each October, they hold these sessions where they bring in community groups and political representatives to talk about various forms of environmental injustice happening in North Carolina, and also to share tactics on how to address them. And what I found was common is that often the conversation around environmental justice is about the kind of immoral and the illegal dumping of waste in black and people of color communities.

But this was around the time that the assaults and the murders of black men, women, and children were becoming very hyper-visible within society. And for me, it was apparent that there was a kind of environmental component to anti-black violence that stems back to enslavement through to Jim Crow. One of the arguments I make in the paper is that throughout history, the environment has been used to assault black people, to assault black communities, to conceal assaults and murders of black folk, as you mentioned, right? Lynching. So I wanted to kind of bring that out to kind of tie the environmental justice movement to what was becoming the movement for black lives.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I felt that that was really interesting as I read this paper. Because you talk about the connection between anti-black violence against black people using the environment as a backdrop. We’re thinking of lynching from trees in the woods and how nature itself was used against people of color, but also how that translates. And you bring this out in your essay, how that’s not just a Southern rural kind of phenomenon, where you noted that the environment is used to conceal this kind of anti-black violence. But you convey that also to what happens in urban areas with the placement of certain groups of people. Is that correct, and can you expound on that a little more?

WILLIE JAMAAL WRIGHT: Yes. I think oftentimes when we think about environmental racism, we think about pollutants being poured into lakes and riverways, into the soil, into the atmosphere, and we often may see that as a kind of a rural occurrence, which it is in many cases. Throughout rural America, we see the proliferation of hog CAFOs or these confinement feeding operations. But what I try to make the argument for in the essay is that… And I think a lot of scholarship is coming out that corroborates this. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor has a book coming out, Race for Profit, where she and others are talking about how what is known as the ghetto was actually a project that was created by the federal government as well as private industries like the real estate industry and banks. Black communities and black families were spatially contained in these communities and kept from accessing the kind of housing subsidies that white, upwardly mobile, and working class communities were given access to, say, in the 40s and 50s.

So what I argue is that in the present context, what we see is the generations of spatial containment and lack of access to subsidies, lack of access to adequate public schooling is in and of itself creating this environment that is a form of environmental–it’s creating this dejected environment or this environment that people think of as having no value. For me, I argue that that too is a form of environmental racism because it’s impacting the life expectancy of black families, black communities. But it’s also impacting the environment itself, because then we see that certain kinds of pollutant industries and landfills and waste transfer stations are sited in those same communities.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: So now Eddie, I see you nodding your head and I want you to weigh in on this. Because we see this here in Baltimore with the fight of many poor and particularly black residents in Baltimore who are fighting industries that are dumping in their areas that are, as Professor Wright said, wanting to introduce incinerators. And this doesn’t just happen in Baltimore, but it happens in urban areas across the country. So what other ways does the–I guess for lack of a better term–the corralling of undesirable or undervalued people in a particular geography play out in the perpetuation of racial violence that’s also environmental violence?

EDDIE CONWAY: You know, I want to always step back when you look at these kind of things. And I’m thinking about Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. One of the things that you see that he’s reporting is that–this was the psychiatrist that looked at the Algerian Revolution–is that there’s a piece in there that says that over the weekend, the natives in their villages are killing each other, and the colonialists outside don’t know that this stuff is happening down in that area. And it’s creating–in this particular case in urban cities–creating open-air jails. There’s certain areas that’s designated to be policed and oppressed and keep those dissidents in there. Because they’re not even citizens. Keep them in there and let them do all of the stuff that they need to do.

Scientific studies will show you that when you crowd any species together, there’s always violence within that species itself, you know, because of the overcrowdedness. This is what’s happening in our environments. We’re being put in those environments, and then there’s violence in those environments. Then in turn, there’s massive policing in those environments. And then the people that can flee those environments, and this is where the devastation come in, that the people that can flee with degrees, with skills, with upward mobility intentions, the people that can get out, get out of those environments and go into environments with more space and relaxed policing and so on.

But what’s left in our environments then is pretty much people growing up with no role models, people walking around unemployed or halfway unemployed. There’s a certain amount of apathy there, because there’s always a powerful presence of police. Then there’s that transferred aggression among each other in that environment. So all of those things are designed, and they’ve been designed since the concentration camps, since reservations, and they’re directed to not only keep this out of sight of the people that’s benefiting from it, so they don’t see it on Saturday, Sundays, or at late night. You know, they hear about it and say, “Oh, it’s really bad. Don’t go in there.”

The value of that whole area is lowered, and even though now what they’re finding out is that there’s million-dollar blocks. They’re making money off of locking up people in those areas, and the criminal justice system and the… Well, the criminal justice system and the prison industrial complex are getting rich off of that. So it really goes way past–like Professor Wright said–way past the dumping or putting polluting industries in the community. It’s really how you contain and cause that community to deteriorate and those people to deteriorate, and use that as an excuse to devalue them just like you devalue the community.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And eventually move those people, whoever is left, off of that or out of that million-dollar geography that was allowed through all of those different seemingly unconnected policies that you just mentioned. The lack of resources, the poorly funded public schools, the over-policing, the police abuse, the expansion of the surveillance state, the willful neglect of infrastructure, that the people there who are devalued, and they’re corralled there because they’re devalued; are kept out of sight, largely.

So back to you, Professor Wright. This hiding of this geography of devalued people is how these environmental and different kinds of environmental racist practices, or different expressions of environmental racism, play out outside of the purview of the rest of society. So from your perspective, does the environmental justice movement actually do justice to these issues when they talk about the issue of environmental justice?

WILLIE JAMAAL WRIGHT: The intent of the paper was not to critique the EJ movement, and more so to kind of push the conversation along. Because there are so many people–organizers and researchers–that have been doing work before I came along that influenced me. But what I was hoping to do, as I stated before is to kind of merge these two continuums, this long history of EJ mobilizing. Because I initially started to write this paper in 2014, so what was then emerging as the movement for black lives has now crystallized as that. So I do feel as like there’s still organizations that are doing great work in terms of addressing environmental injustices and environmental racism. But that all varies based on the landscape. An organization in North Carolina is going to be doing a little different work than, say, an organization based here in Houston or an organization in Los Angeles, for instance.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: I want to ask you about something that you did bring up in your paper about the environmental justice movement and sort of their focus on addressing regulations that provide redress to healing the land; but not paying as much attention to the issues that you brought up, Eddie, where people are being affected by these ancillary issues that they’re not really focusing too much on. You just said that different organizations are going to focus on different things in different areas. How do we bring these seemingly disparate issues together for a holistic and lasting climate justice if we’re really going to be serious about a true climate and environmental justice for all people?

WILLIE JAMAAL WRIGHT: I’ve been thinking about that. Because this push for climate justice, this push to address climate change is growing and becoming very palpable. It’s almost like we can feel it growing. And there are various perspectives being brought to the fore, whether that’s a carbon neutrality by 2050 or reducing emissions by 40% to 60% by 2030. What I feel like is missing in this conversation are the arguments that were being made by various organizations coming up through the movement for black lives, the push to build better black futures that the Black Youth Project 100 stated in their agenda, Black Lives Matter.

I think on the face, many people just saw what was being done and stood by these organizations as a push against police brutality. But black communities don’t have the luxury of just focusing on one issue, right? And that police brutality issue is tied into a housing issue. It’s also tied into an environmental issue. And I think for me, what’s missing right now in this conversation is bringing back into the fore arguments that were made by these organizations, by BYP100, by Black Lives Matter. Because those issues around police brutality were also an issue around climate justice and environmental justice.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Eddie, what are your thoughts on that? Do you think that in the current movement for black lives and black liberation movements, and even the reparations movement, which is actually a component of the Green New Deal, which I want to ask you about in a minute, Professor Wright. Do you think that the focus is too heavily on the side of the obvious social issues, and there needs to be more attention on the connection to environmental justice, or what are your thoughts on that?

EDDIE CONWAY: Well, I think people organize protests or come up with solutions around issues that directly impact them. I think if black people want environmental justice to be a major component of the environmental movement itself, then we black people have to get out and engage and invest and explain. Because what happens is, you kind of struggle from where you are and what you see. And if people aren’t there, if we’re down in the village, we can’t expect people that’s not in the village to understand what’s happening to us. We have to get out there and we have to be the engine behind environmental justice in the black community, and we have to educate other people. Then we have to do coalition. We have to join them about the CO2 or whatever. We have to join them about the water rising, even though it’s going to affect black and brown people all over the planet. We have to join in what they’re doing and be supportive of that in order to get them to join in with what we need to do and be supportive about efforts.

I think that might be the piece that’s not really in place right now. Black Lives Matter and the couple other organizations that the Dr. Wright is talking about is doing it, but not enough of us is looking at how this whole environment is impacting… It’s already a generation has been wiped out through the prison system. There’s a generation growing up in these environments right now that’s being destroyed, and we need to look at that and look at how just the houses, just the boarded up houses itself is environmental racist. Because you don’t see that anywhere else except in our communities, and you don’t see it being addressed. And we’re not addressing it. We just walk past it and we see it. And we have to do something about that, because that’s us in our village.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Right. Now, I want to stick a pin in that, because I’m going to leave you with a last question. But I want to come back to you, Professor Wright, about the Green New Deal and reparations, and the way that has been presented as a step further in addressing racial justice in the environmental justice, climate justice movement. What are your thoughts on the reparations component of the Green New Deal?

WILLIE JAMAAL WRIGHT: Through my reading of the Green New Deal, there is language in there that acknowledges that the original New Deal, in order to be passed, concessions were made that left black workers on or receiving subsidies–particularly agricultural workers and domestic workers, which at the time of the original New Deal, were us. So there’s language in the Green New Deal that acknowledges that there have been historical wrongs in terms of what those groups black folk and immigrants, other people of color that were left out of the original New Deal… And are wanting to not rewrite that history with what this Green New Deal, could potentially be. When it comes to reparations, I would ask and require much more. But this is at least an acknowledgement that the kind mythic life of comfort that much of America has–particularly those who grew up in the suburbs from the ’40s onward–this mythic life was based on the exclusion of black men, women, children, and families. And this is just a small acknowledgement of that.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: Now I want to leave you… I want to give you the last word, I think maybe, on this particular issue. Because you brought up, I think, an incredibly important point: the fact that black people need to be at the forefront of this discussion on how the environment and environmental injustice and climate change impacts us. There have been maybe 19 or 20 young black or other activists of color, native, First Nations, Asian, activists of color who have been sounding the alarm for climate change, for the governments of the world to do something about climate change, for quite some time. Representative Ilhan Omar’s daughter is just one of those young people who’s had an organization for quite some time. But Greta Thunberg is the face and the voice of the youth climate movement.

Now, this is… I have to preface this by saying this is not a criticism of Greta Thunberg. I do not want people to respond saying that Jacqueline Luqman hates Greta Thunberg. This is not a criticism of her. My question, though, is is the propensity for–at least in in the United States–for us to pay more attention to someone like Greta Thunberg than the 15 to 19 other youth activists of color who came before her who were saying the same things. Is that a form of environmental racism that society needs to look at also; who we value to be the face and the voice of this movement?

EDDIE CONWAY: Well, two things. One is that the media, the major media networks, determines who’s going to get publicity, who’s going to get recognition, what face you will see advocating this position or that position. And because the media is in the hands of six major multinational corporations who work in the interests of white supremacy, there are always going to be a “white representative” of whatever movements that exist. But in all fairness, and I can recognize that there’s people around the world that’s been talking about this climate thing, when you look at the demonstrations, when you look at the people out there, when you scan the crowds, you have to come away with the conclusion that these young white people are the ones that’s out there in the streets, pounding the pavements, making the demands now.

And we’re sprinkled­­–we meaning black people, of course, African sAmerican–throughout the crowd. But we’re not the engine and we’re not the body that’s pushing this. So of course they’re going to have someone that’s representative of what those huge crowds look like, and that’s around the world. And we’re struggling for survival. So we’re struggling about eating, we’re struggling about paying rent, we’re struggling about being safe, we’re struggling about getting clothes. And right now, that keeps our hands full. So we don’t have the luxury or the disposable income to be taking the day off and go out and do this kind of stuff. That’s why we’re not engaged. But the planet goes down, we go down, too. So we need to start figuring out how to get involved more.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And see, that was another great point that I wish we had time to continue to parse out, because that is also a part of the discussion. But we have to leave this discussion here. I encourage you to read Professor Wright’s essay, As Above, So Below: Anti-Black Violence as Environmental Racism, to get the full spectrum of this conversation and all it entails. And I want to thank you, Professor Wright, for joining us today.

WILLIE JAMAAL WRIGHT: Please, thank you.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you Eddie, for joining us today in the studio.

EDDIE CONWAY: OK. Thank you.

JACQUELINE LUQMAN: And thank you all for watching. This is Jacqueline Luqman with The Real News Network in Baltimore.

Jacqueline Luqman

Jacqueline Luqman is a host and producer for TRNN. With more than 20 years as an activist in Washington, DC, Jacqueline focuses on examining the impact of current events and politics on Black, POC, and other marginalized communities in the US and around the world, providing a specific race and class analysis at the root of these issues. She is Editor-In-Chief and a co-host of the social media program Coffee, Current Events & Politics in Luqman Nation with her husband, and is active in the faith-focused progressive/left activist community.