a Tesla car, solar panels and windmill in a collage style illustration
Illustration Terran Kim for DAME, Tierney/Adobe

Hot House

Photo by Illustration Terran Kim for DAME, Tierney/Adobe

Black Buying Power Could Transform the Climate Movement


People of color are more affected by the climate crisis than any other group, and they’re ready to put their money in the hands of businesses that will solve it.



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What do Beyoncé, South African rapper Da L.E.S., and my 73-year-old dad have in common?

Besides the fact that they’re all Black, they all drive electric vehicles; Tesla to be specific. That’s right, Queen Bey herself is “Flawless” in her Model X with Jay-Z and the kids. Da. L.E.S. just dropped a single titled “Elon Musk,” complete with a music video highlighting the car. Meanwhile, my dear, sweet, civil-rights fighting, teacher-trained, retired parents are happily running errands in their new 2021 Tesla X Long Range. It was with great joy that my dad expressed how, when driving up to the charging station, he saw other Black people, playing hip-hop while politely putting on their masks before approaching and asking about his car. My husband and I are considering a pretty cool used Model 3 we found on Carvana.

While this is not an endorsement of Tesla, it is an example of the trend now being followed by GM and other major automobile manufacturers: There has been a seismic cultural shift in the acceptance of alternative fuel/climate-friendly vehicles in minority communities, and it spans across generations and geographic locations. At the same time, environmental justice is a social justice issue in our households because, similar to Latino and Indigenous people, Black people are disproportionately impacted by environmental pollution and the effects of climate change. If Americans take full advantage of the Biden-Harris climate plan for clean-energy investment, our country can embrace a clean electricity standard and begin to advance environmental justice and infrastructure stability in Black and Brown neighborhoods, one charging station and electric vehicle at a time.

African American buying power in the U.S. continues to increase, and we are anything if not loyal to a brand. Racial equity matters to us, and we will spend our dollars accordingly. The 2020 Nielsen report showed that, despite COVID-19, African Americans did 11% more shopping online than the average household, are three times as likely to show support of their favorite brands on a social media platform, and expect those brands to take a stance on issues including the planet, social justice, and wellness. To top it off, it is estimated that between 2020 and 2060, African Americans will add more than 20% to the total U.S. population growth. In other words, Black folks are carrying a whole lot of untapped leverage, and the environmental industry would be wise to take note. The EV movement could benefit from a little “soul” power, which is exactly what Tesla is giving.

Black people set trends, and we can make or break it on a moment’s notice. Ask a member of any Black household about the purple velvet bag with a gold rope, and I guarantee recognition because somebody’s uncle, dad, or cousin collected the “Crown Royal bag”. At age 11, I was bopping around the house singing along to Pebbles, “Mercedes Boy” as if I had my own Benz and the checking account to match. Lord knows I was not supposed to be listening to Prince’s 1999 album but, honestly, who didn’t know the lyrics to “Little Red Corvette”? In 2003, the radio stations played, Lil’ Kim’s “The Jump Off” on heavy rotation with a solid chorus: “This is for my peeps, with the Bentleys, the Hummers, the Benz, Escalades 23-inch rims, Jumpin out the Jaguar with the Tims…” It seemed like every hip-hop video for the next 10 years featured one of these cars, regardless of affordability or the gas-guzzling expenses associated.

But by 2011, when electric vehicles really began gaining attention, there was no real marketing to minority communities. The Chevy Prius, GM Volt, and Nissan Leaf were geared toward middle-income white people based on the idea of affordability. Charging stations were scarce and certainly not in Black communities. Did the research and marketing team not look at the data of what Black people were driving? (And no offense but, no one wants to hear, “Hey man, wanna go for a ride in my Leaf?”—not sexy).

Now the tables have turned. Studies show African Americans and Latinos are more concerned about climate impacts than any other demographic. Combined with increased Black buying power and the emphasis from the Biden administration on clean energy, environmental justice, and infrastructure development, Black communities have a clear shot at leveraging our support to strengthen our communities economically, socially, and culturally in the name of climate action.

And the work has already begun. Through the executive orders signed by Biden, the administration is set to ensure that federal infrastructure investments are based in clean energy versus fossil fuels, with a focus on addressing environmental disparities that have existed in disadvantaged (often Black and brown) communities. In addition, the Biden administration has set a goal of pushing 40% of the investments directly to these communities and employing an “all of government approach.” This means that every agency of the federal government is tasked to incorporate climate actions into the daily mission and push funding to the frontline, marginalized communities that need it most. What’s even more exciting are the prospects around the use of electricity as both a clean fuel alternative for the power and automobile sector. Earlier this month The Clean School Bus Act was introduced into the Senate to provide over $1 billion dollars in funds to replace dirty, pollution-spewing diesel school buses across the country. In addition, the Biden clean energy plan calls for a $2 trillion investment, the largest of any administration, directly to cities and towns across the country—creating jobs and providing long overdue access to economic opportunities by way of acting on climate.

Ultimately, it means that communities could be transformed. Imagine the abandoned basketball court next to the old gas station in town being revitalized into a greenspace, with fresh courts made from recycled materials. A space that also acts as a hub for internet access that’s connected to an electric school bus that powers the basketball court lights while it is idle in the middle of the day. It’s the chance to normalize charging stations as an infrastructure standard, seen at both Whole Foods and McDonalds. It is a chance to offer subsidies to first-time car buyers that move them toward EV cars over gas-fuelled vehicles, a move that could provide further economic independence as opposed to the idea that electric public buses in Black neighborhoods are sufficient. This is a pivotal moment to honor the history of how Black Americans encounter environmental challenges and collective culture while embracing a Black future filled with opportunities through alternative fuels and clean energy. Think about it, a little “soul” may be just the kick-start the entire industry needs.

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