'Monuments being toppled': A conversation about environmental racism with Brentin Mock
The protest movement that emerged in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain and too many other Black Americans at the hands of police is unearthing, one more time for those in the back, how racism, and anti-Blackness specifically, are baked into American institutions. Into policing and prisons, yes, but also into health care, education and housing. Into the air and water we breathe. Into who runs nonprofit organizations and how they are funded.
This moment is calling for radical — down to the root — transformation. This is the time to study the histories of all institutions, so that we can dismantle and rebuild them for everyone. Brentin Mock, whose archives at CityLab and Grist you need to read, has been writing for many years about these histories.
Here, Mock discusses the legacy of white supremacy in mainstream environmental institutions and urges the larger environmental movement to follow the leadership of — and give up money and power to — vanguard environmental justice organizations.
This is the second in a series of conversations with Mock about justice, both racial and environmental. (Spoiler: It’s the same.) Read the first here. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
KM: You, and others, have written a lot about how mainstream organizations have been reluctant and sometimes pretty oppositional to taking up [racial justice] work and incorporating it into their climate and environmental advocacy. Sometimes, big greens support policies like “cap and trade” that would actively hurt environmental justice [or “EJ”] communities. Why is there a gulf between big greens and EJ groups? Why are some of these relationships so fraught, historically?”
BM: This is vast terrain, so I'm going to try to see if I can do the CliffsNotes version.
When you look at the origin of environmental groups, they were conservation groups. And they were trying to conserve land, plants, trees, flora, fauna, animals, mainly out of a desire to hunt and hunt for sport. And a lot of the hunting groups that predate the conservation groups start to pop up right around the time of reconstruction, right after the Civil War. That's when you get the early hunters pioneer groups that predate, but lead into the founding of the Sierra Club in the 1880s.
But when you question why they wanted to preserve land, a lot of it was because African Americans were free. They're free to roam, to go to whatever state they want. They're coming to your city, they're coming to your town, your village, your whatever. A lot of people are thinking, really, This is my land, this is my country, so I'm going to preserve this for me, not for everyone.
Later, after John Muir, you start to get a fancier idea of what it means to conserve and protect the environment. As we move out of the 19th century into the early 20th century, as reconstruction starts to dissolve and white terrorism takes over, you have white people intentionally using these guarded white spaces — parks, public lands — and, in a lot of ways, weaponizing them against Black people.
One clear example of this is the Ku Klux Klan taking Stone Mountain Park, overlooking Atlanta, and claiming that as their new base of operations and the launch of the new Ku Klux Klan in the 1910s. This is where a lot of lynchings are happening in public parks. People are coming not to go look at the trees, but to go look at Black people swinging from trees. It's there where you start to see actual, clear, direct racial conflict.
Throughout the 20th century, I think there was a diversity of people who joined environmental organizations, whether they were conservation organizations or environmental organizations in general. They may not have all been racist. They probably really did love trees and birds and parks. But it's a fact that they chose to turn a blind eye to the racists among them and the racists before them.
Then affinity groups start to blossom throughout the 20th century, and it's not just for the environment. Everyone has an advocacy organization for their cause or some national association for whatever it is, whether it's manufacturing or construction or homebuilding. But in doing that, you get to black out what's going on in the rest of the world. I'm looking at this one thing. I’m here. I'm in The Audubon Society. I'm just here for the birds. I know Black people are being killed everywhere, Black people are suffering from Jim Crow, mass incarceration is starting to take off, but that's not my issue. My issue is the birds. I'm just here to protect the birds.
That siloing of advocacy, I think, leads to an even more layered neglect of the racial issues that are very visibly tearing the country apart in the 20th century. That lets you turn a blind eye and act like you don't know what's going on, which is its own kind of rank preservation: I'm going to preserve myself by just dealing with this one thing that I want to deal with, even if my fellow Americans are being killed.
I think the big greens, as you call them, like a lot of industries and organizations, have a responsibility we're just now seeing today. They should have been speaking out about Jim Crow back then. They should have been speaking out about the lynchings of African Americans back then. They should have been speaking out about racial segregation. They should have been speaking out about the dismantling of reconstruction and how that led to convict leasing and that led to the mass incarceration crisis we have today.
But none of these organizations did. The big greens, in particular, conveniently said, We're not even concerned with people, let alone Black people.
All of these problems metastasized. The birth of the modern environmental movement is pegged to Earth Day in 1969. That was supposed to be this rekindling of the fire. Now, there is more focus on people. But the Civil Rights movement had to die for that to happen. Martin Luther King, Jr., gets killed, the Civil Rights organizations dissolve in 1968, and then the environmentalists come out in 1969 and say, Now we're about people's rights, and they’re still ignoring the environmental justice activists among them.
There's a lot more history to go in there, but we can say starting around the Obama era, environmental organizations started to let some other stuff in. They started to make a stand on immigration, especially when they had such a horrible history on immigration before that. But now they're saying human rights and immigration and humane immigration is an environmental cause.
But there's still this thing. Well, police violence, that's not our cup of tea. We can't make an environmental case for that. Maybe it’ll just go away.
And it doesn't. Black people keep getting killed by police. Cities are being torn apart. All of those public spaces and parks that you were trying to defend are being torn apart because no one would listen.
Now, we are, literally, just now, in 2020, seeing not just environmental organizations, but medical associations, corporate associations, all kinds of organizations that have siloed themselves off for so many years finally taking these stands on racial justice, against police violence. They're not even saying, There has to be some link to what our core mission is. They're finally just saying, No, we're standing up for this because it's wrong. Period. These are our fellow Americans.
In some ways, it's been mixed emotions, for me. I love seeing organizations coming out and saying, “Black Lives Matter” emphatically and unequivocally, speaking out against police violence emphatically and unequivocally. It's also sad it took us 20 years into the 21st century for them to finally realize that they had to say something. This answer started with the end of the Civil War, and we’re just getting 20/20 vision on these things.
KM: If you're an organization that has a history of willfully turning a blind eye to the things that are happening to Black people, Indigenous people and other people of color in this country, and you're just now getting to the point in 2020 where you're realizing that there has to be massive change in how your organization runs and how funds are distributed, I’ve been thinking about the statements that are coming out. “We must do better,” they say. It’s so vague. I haven’t seen many that reference the history you are talking about and include any specifics.
BM: Look, I'm not going to call out the name of any organization, but I was hired last year to literally write the apology for this environmental organization.
They came to me and said, We're going to take this hard stance on racial justice, and we want you to write this piece for us that details and lays out the history of our organization and the environmental movement.
I did that for them, and that piece hasn't seen the light of day. I was told that part of it was because some of the leaders of the organization either didn’t believe that the details of this history exist, or they didn't want it made public. And they probably don't. Because you don't want to risk losing donors and donor money. But you probably should lose donor money. Donors should probably see that, and they should say, I've been giving my money to this organization all this time, and this is ugly. Maybe I should give my money to an organization that has actually been fighting for racial justice.
I'm glad that organizations are making statements, but Green 2.0 puts out a report every year showing that leadership, the executive and management levels, of all of the major environmental organizations still are severely underrepresented in terms of people of color, and definitely of Black people. Green 2.0 has been putting these reports out for at least the last five years, if not longer.
They're not going to outside consultants. They're talking to Black people in the organizations. I made the point in an article for Outside Magazine that, in many ways, the environmental movement either aided and abetted the dismantling of reconstruction or they were directly complicit in it, and there should be a reconstruction of the environmental movement. There should be, where white men who have been in charge for too long should step down, should literally relinquish the reins. And Black people should fill those positions. Money should be redistributed. Land should be.
It blew my mind when I found out that some of the larger environmental organizations own land. It’s not just the money they have in the coffers, but huge lots of land. When you look at environmental organizations and philanthropies, there are a lot of resources that are kind of stuck that probably should be freed up for racial justice issues.
If you're a gatekeeper, and you're a white guy, your whole life has been invested in the image of the white guys who came before you, then you're not going to let Black people or anybody else come into leadership to dismantle that. You are invested in this institution created in your image, this monument created in your image, and you don't want that chiseled or toppled. Even if you do hire Black people, you're going to find the one who thinks like you. You're going to find the one who’s going to preserve the monument.
If African Americans come into these positions, and they say we should start looking at racial justice, police violence, climate justice, environmental justice, the sword and shield for gatekeepers has been to say, Oh, that's mission creep. That's how they deflect. But your mission should creep, because your mission has been exclusive, your mission has been ineffective, your mission has been out of sync and out of alignment with what's going on in the rest of the country. It's possibly even been complicit in the destruction of Black people and people of color. Your mission should creep.
That's why we're seeing monuments being toppled. It's what they represent. It’s why people are losing faith in institutions. It's because of what these institutions represent. These institutions have built themselves up by being heavily invested in their own mission, their own cause, their own image, their own policy, and those have not served people of color well. So, people of color who have been excluded have no investment in it now, because they've never been invested in them. They're like, So, why should this continue to exist?
They're going to burn it down. And if you're not prepared for that, then you're going to be caught out there, saying, Well, gosh. I didn't even know I was part of it. I don't know why they burned my building down.
If you're only seeing these things through one particular worldview, you will get caught by surprise. For better or worse, we’re in a phase of institutional crumbling, dismantling. Constitutional reconstruction. And you can go down with your Titanic and die on your own hill if you want, but that's just where we're at.
KM: You talked about things shifting in the Obama era. Newer organizations like the Sunrise Movement and 350, to a certain extent, are definitely thinking about racial justice, climate justice and environmental justice differently. I'm curious about what you think about the importance of youth-led movements, shifting us into a different mode of operating.
BM: When the Obama administration came into play, you already had a bunch of environmental justice and climate justice organizations already sounding these notes. You had WE ACT in New York City, the broader New York City Environmental Justice Alliance, Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans. There's so many to name. There was a broad coalition of environmental justice organizations in California. Another that was instrumental was the organization run by Van Jones, who was one of the main pushers for green jobs.
Again, this is before Obama came in. And a lot of these organizations were very instrumental in getting the Obama administration to not only reinstitute environmental justice at the EPA, but to make it a central policy tenant even at the White House, which is how we ended up with Lisa Jackson at EPA.
What you saw in the Obama administration was the government no longer siloing. They're starting to create task forces and coalitions that had the leaders of Housing and Urban Development, Energy, Transportation, all coming together, seeing the intersectionality of all of this, and often under an environmental justice rubric.
There was no way the EPA could be doing environmental justice policy without the Department of Energy and the Department of Transportation at the table, because a lot of the injustices came from the way that public transportation was being constructed. A lot of it was coming from the way energy was being produced. The Department of Energy had to know that support of extractive industries has an environmental impact on poor people and communities of color.
That's when we start to see these departments come up with intersectional policies, or at least policy guidance. I think 350 was a clear example of an organization, from its birth, seeing the intersections. And Sunrise is the latest iteration, with a lot of youth energy behind it. And it's great. But it's funny, every time, that the vanguard environmental justice organizations have to step to them the same way they had to step to the big greens, and say, Hey, y'all didn't come up with this. We started this. And I know you're getting a lot of money, but you’re going to have to put us on the front lines.
I hope that we don't have to keep repeating this. Someone needs to recognize that the vanguard environmental justice grassroots organizations haven't gone anywhere. WE ACT is still there, the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance is still there, t.e.j.a.s. is still there, Bridge the Gulf. All of those organizations are still there. Whoever comes up with the next iteration is going to have to go and do their homework, learn the history and make sure that these organizations are at the front lines with them, so we can have a smoother transition in the future.
Moore is a climate and environmental justice advocate who worked previously at Environmental Defense Fund and Louisiana Bucket Brigade. She can be found on Twitter @klmoore42.
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