Environmental justice expert Dr. Beverly L. Wright, Ph.D. explains that addressing the climate crisis in the U.S. begins with unpacking centuries of inequality rooted in racism.
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In January 2021, Biden issued an executive order to center fighting climate change in every agency of the federal government. The policy goal included authority to deploy the full capacity of its agencies to deliver environmental justice. The order established the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council with clear directions to develop strategy and coordinate with the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), a group comprised of environmental justice leaders from around the country. Section 219 of the order specifically states, “Agencies shall make achieving environmental justice part of their missions by developing programs, policies, and activities to address the disproportionately high and adverse human health, environmental, climate-related and other cumulative impacts on disadvantaged communities, as well as the accompanying economic challenges of such impacts. It is therefore the policy of my Administration to secure environmental justice and spur economic opportunity for disadvantaged communities that have been historically marginalized and overburdened by pollution and underinvestment in housing, transportation, water and wastewater infrastructure, and health care.” Section 223 of the order established the Justice40 Initiative, which calls for 40 percent of federal investments to fight climate benefit disadvantaged communities.
Yet when the Biden Administration publicly shared a draft of the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool, administered by the Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ), which is meant to serve as a resource for the fair implementation of Biden’s Justice40 Initiative, critics immediately noted that race—one of the most important factors to determining and measuring environmental and climate justice—was missing. It begged the question: How do you take race out of environmental injustice?
Dr. Beverly L. Wright, Ph.D., is an environmental and climate justice expert who has worked on the frontlines of climate change in her home state of Louisiana for over 40 years. Wright is the founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and the author of award-winning research that considers the environmental and health inequities in Cancer Alley, the nation’s largest chemical corridor located along the lower Mississippi River. Her achievements include the Heinz Award and the U.S. EPA Environmental Justice Achievement Award.
Wright is a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and sat down with DAME to discuss the importance of race as a vital component necessary to determine how and where to best meet environmental justice needs. Our conversation started with a question of the White House’s decision to exclude race but ended with a much deeper conversation about race in America, and who is responsible for eradicating racism in our country.
Heather McTeer Toney for DAME: The Biden administration released a screening tool that excluded race as a metric. What makes this such a big problem?
Dr. Beverly Wright: It’s about more than just the toolkit. The WHEJAC also recommended a scorecard of sorts. We are recommending a matrix to determine if the various agencies are actually reaching their Justice40 goals. Well, how do we tell “who” is being reached without the metric of race? If we are to grade an agency for the work that is done, how can we do that without knowing who? Race has to be scored if we’re talking about community. Race is a factor when we determined who is discriminated against, but that same factor can’t be used when determining who should be compensated for that same past discrimination? The most important factor is race.
DAME: Do you think the administration simply ignored the recommendation of WHJAC? Or that the exclusion of race as a factor is their process of working to figure out a way around conservative courts and appease the opposition?
Wright: I think it’s not so much to appease the opposition but to avoid what they see as a legal challenge, because they don’t trust the legal system at all to rule on our side. It’s more the legal stuff driving this than anything. Their take is that all of the statutes and law say that you cannot appropriate moneys by race… but you can discriminate by race. But you can’t put anything in place to alleviate discrimination by race. It’s just crazy.
This whole response by the other side [those opposed to the Justice40 Initiative] is racist. But it is also well thought out. It’s a way to stop funding from going into areas where people really need it. And it opens the door for white people (implied those who are not within a Justice40 category of need) to get any money that’s coming down whether it’s designed to help a particular community, a racial minority group…this decision stops you from doing it. It’s like you can’t win.
With a dirty vessel…that and any great project that’s put through…the strainer sets it in the direction that institutionalizes racist attitudes and cultures influencing outcomes. So you end up with the same thing that you’re trying to alleviate.
So, all of this is tough because you have politics wrapped around racism, cultural biases, fear and greed. All of that is entangled in this. And trying to find a way to implement Justice40 so that it reaches the people it was designed to reach.
Take a state like Louisiana. It’s so dirty, so polluted, so impacted by climate change that they could get billions of dollars. But they are willing to get nothing [if] it means they have to address the needs of poor people in the state. They’d rather have nothing. Even though these programs would come to states like Louisiana, they[anti Justice40 advocates] would go to court and fight the appropriations money because they say it’s based on race. But all the money would be coming to the state, and it would certainly be more than Black people benefiting from millions of dollars coming to ameliorate the problems due to the fossil fuel industry and climate change.
DAME: Do you think everybody else—I mean, you and I get this because we’re so close to environmental and communities and work this space all the time—But for this audience, an audience of women, online, looking at issues that come from women and impact women, do you think the rest of the country gets what’s happening in the discussion about leaving race out of an environmental justice conversation? There is so much happening in the world, environmental and justice issues can get lost. What is it the average person needs to understand about why this is so critical to engage in right now?
Wright: You know the thing is that our community [the United States and our American culture and history ] is so disengaged when it comes to things that directly affect their lives. You would know we are talking to an audience that gives a care by virtue that they’re reading this right now. And to me, these are the people that truly understand and so it’s (the disengagement) understood on both sides. Disengagement…It’s understood on the right and that’s why they’re ready to fight about it. They know they can win. And it’s (the disengagement) is understood on the left that’s why they’re willing to acquiesce because no one is paying attention. And I’m saying to you that if we dodge every fight the way we’re dodging this one Black people would still be picking cotton.
You look at trying to integrate the public schools. How many years did it take with justices that were racist to the core and didn’t even recognize their racism? It’s just the way they did things and what they thought was the right thing to do. Keep the races separated. So everyone that’s involved with this, really involved with this, understands that people who don’t know it yet but you talk to them, they will understand what you’re saying. If they’re engaged. The general public, the uninformed, the… whatever you call the stupid and ignoramouses… they’re not reading the same thing. They’re just apathetic, not involved and you know, the sky would be falling and they wouldn’t know it until they got hit in the head. That group, I hope is not this one! But if the audience is women who read magazines to determine what issues are out there what their concerns should be. They will get it.
DAME: What do they need to do? Like, if it’s the average white woman … I don’t want to target white women, but let’s say a white woman sitting in Oregon…
Wright: Oh yeah… I got an answer for that! My thing is that they need to start the movement. It needs to be a white movement against racism. That is what we are missing. It’s always Black people trying to convince white people not to be racist and what, how we need to act so that people will respect and finally agree that we are human. That has not worked. This movement needs to be a white led movement against racism. And all these people who are sitting in their kitchens moaning and groaning how terrible this is, they need to start organizing around these issues. And I see where a few white groups have. It’s called… Something that with wine…. [The organization referred to is Red Wine and Blue] It was a cute-cute name… but it was led by white women in suburban neighborhoods organizing women having discussions about going on with school boards and you know the push against truth telling and books and burning books. It was just a cute name where women come together, drink wine, and talk, but this is the only way things are gonna change because white people are the problem. We keep asking people who are the victims not the problem to change something.
Wright: We can’t change it. We tried that. They have to change. They have to lead the movement. They need to start having hard discussions with their parents, aunties, and their grandparents. This is work for white people, and we need to start saying it more and more.
You know when you talk about integration, Black people are not against integration. But when we move in a neighborhood, they move out. So you can’t integrate if white people keep moving out, even though we tried to integrate. And I think that what’s happening with Black people and people of color all over, they’re saying, “Okay! Go! You know it’s alright for us to be by ourselves and work together as long as you don’t keep putting up these blocks to stop us or destroy everything that we’ve built.” You can’t have it both ways. If you don’t want to integrate, then we can’t change your mind, but stop destroying our communities, with drugs, with police brutality, with lowering our property values, moving in Airbnb’s where our property values sink… I mean, all the things that they do to us regardless of how hard we work. This is their job and they will have to save America. They will have to save democracy. We’ve done our work. But it’s on them. And I just believe that.
Wright: I just believe that. I mean I just… I don’t just believe it, I know it, I’ve lived it. I’ve tried all those other things, that shit don’t work! This is your [white people] problem too! I tell people, go home and talk to your own families. Start challenging them on these racist thoughts and ideas. You cannot just not bring it up. What I hear is, “Oh I can’t talk to my momma and them about this… they still use the N word so I stopped taking my children to my mother’s house.” No! Have the conversation!! Start training and educating them both.
I have someone who works with me… She said that she had to tell her mother that it wasn’t true that slavery was humane and that they [white people] saved Black people from the savagery of Africa. They tell this to their children. That was told to her, taught to her as a child. From little children, they started educating them,the children of confederates, that big lie. And she said that her mother didn’t know. She said, “Well, baby, this is all they told me.” She said, “But mama it’s a lie”. And she’s worked to change her mother’s attitude. She said, “Oh my God, I didn’t know…”
I mean, can you believe that people still don’t know how bad slavery was?
DAME: Oh! You know that’s one thing… Dr. Wright today, just today! My daughter is in AP U.S. History, and they’re studying the period of the Civil War and she said the question that her teacher posed was which did enslaved Africans prefer? A big plantation or a small plantation?
Wright: Oh you have got to be kidding me!
DAME: I am not lying to you! So you know there was a whole conversation in my house today.
Wright: My God! On the other hand, what difference did it make? We didn’t have a choice of plantation…preference. As if there was one better than the other…
DAME: Right! There was no preference! That is just the point! Preference! The fact that there could even be a preference? The preference was to not be enslaved!
Wright: There’s a special, I believe, on MSNBC where they’re in Dixie [Also known as the Confederate States] and [specifically] Mississippi is a focus… The one that I watched was with a son and a father. The young man looked like he just couldn’t breathe, he was so angry listening to his father.
DAME: Yes…! I’ve seen that. They were sitting together in a wood-paneled den. It’s called, “Civil War: Who do we think we are?”
Wright: That’s right. And that boy… I saw it in his face, he was almost embarrassed. Just couldn’t believe what was coming out of his father’s mouth. But he was respectful, and he said, you know… we just disagree. But these are the conversations children need to have. This is the conversation if we really want to get past racism.
I sat quietly waiting for Wright to share any additional thoughts on the responsibility of eradicating racism, especially when it comes to environmental justice. But after a few seconds, I realized there was really no additional question that I could ask. The silence was enough, and we needed to sit in this moment. She was right: Americans cannot bury race under the guise of different metrics. Wright has experienced racism firsthand, and she calls on all of us to simply talk about it.
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