I remember an interview I had once, when I was Mayor of Charlotte, when a reporter came to question me about the city’s violent crime and murder rate. Doubtless it was a story fanned by my opponents’ claims that murders were up and I was to blame. From my perspective, no matter what that number is, it is not acceptable, and it should be something we pay attention to whether or not there is an election going on. The reporter did not write at all about one of the main points I tried to make – which was the fact that racist, discriminatory systems underlie much of the anger and violence in our city and country today. And the environment plays into that. Research shows that aggression and violence spike on hotter days, which are increasing as the planet warms, and children do not learn as well when it’s hot. Notably, many public schools and homes in poor neighborhoods – which are often Black and Brown communities – are not air conditioned. Some of my staff who were listening said that I was being too “woke” for the story, and upon reflection I wonder whether I connected the dots well enough at that time for that White reporter.
The storming of the Capitol that took place on January 6 was another reflection of America’s original sin. Because we have built systems – of commerce, education, justice, voting and even housing – on the original lie that some people – White men, to be precise — are more valuable in a capitalist democracy than others, we continue to be a nation divided.
Everyone is weighing in on the events of last week with their own lens. Who were the people who invaded the Capitol, threatened our elected representatives, destroyed property, and contributed to the death of 6 people? Were they freedom fighters or seditionists? Protestors or terrorists? Is there an actual reason to doubt the outcome of the election? Doubtless more truths will unfold as investigations continue.
But one thing is already clear: these folks feel like they are losing something. With their Confederate flags, Nazi tattoos, FB posts, and Don’t Tread On Me banners, they have shown what that something is – their White supremacy. With the recent election, which some (astonishingly) believe was so fraudulent that it created a false gap of 7 million votes (just think for a minute how much effort it would take to get the names of that many dead people and undocumented immigrants into voter rolls and machines), our country thought it was turning the corner on the Era of Trump. Some Americans probably thought that White Supremacy as a movement was losing steam, but President Trump showed in his instigation of the storming of the Capitol – and the violence that ensued – that bigotry and racial oppression is alive and kicking, and willing to bash in skulls with fire extinguishers.
I truly believe it is a small minority of Americans willing to turn to actual violence in support of White Supremacy. But I also believe that far more Americans are willing to support the existing structure of racist systems, from our criminal justice system to housing and employment practices, without change – and with no real recognition of the pain, trauma, poverty, and lives that they have cost over the years. Coupled with this is a lack of awareness of the continued damage caused by environmental racism. Children who grow up in redlined neighborhoods, where there are more toxins and greenhouse gas emissions, fewer trees, and warmer temperatures (as much as 10 degrees warmer in poor neighborhoods), cannot perform as well in school, miss days because of chronic illnesses exacerbated by polluted air, and are more likely to drop out, and thus continue in a cycle of poverty with barriers to opportunity. These unhealthy neighborhoods are also the ones more likely to suffer from increasing climate impacts like extreme weather, flooding, damaged water systems, and even our current coronavirus pandemic.
With the inauguration today of President-Elect Joe Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris, we as a country have the rare opportunity to make deep progress on our racial and tribal divisions. We can truly administer some balm to this gaping wound – and there is a role for each one of us to play, progressive and conservative, White and Black and Brown, Indigenous and immigrant, rich and poor, college educated and high school drop-out, gay and straight, and more. The first step will be recognizing and admitting that there are racist underpinnings in multiple systems – from healthcare to criminal justice to the way we build our cities and neighborhoods – and then working to multi-solve and correct these unjust and harmful disparities. We must embed racial justice and equity into every department and aspect of government, business, and our own lives in order to truly solve multiple concurrent challenges. At ecoAmerica we plan to hold to our stated principles of justice, equity, diversity and inclusion as we build support for equitable and ambitious climate action and solutions.
After four years of our country’s backsliding in dangerous ways, racial justice and climate change have a similar urgent time frame. Now is the moment. If we cannot make dramatic changes and improvements to both in the next few years, our lives, our country, and our planet will be altered forever in harmful ways, the extent of which we may not yet comprehend.
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