How Strategic Racism Has Thwarted Climate Progress for Decades

Book Review: “Winning the Green New Deal” (Part 1 of 3)

If accelerating carbon pollution is turning Earth’s climate into an unlivable, churning hell, shouldn’t promptly stopping that pollution take priority over other problems such as healthcare, education, inequality and systemic racism? In “Winning the Green New Deal,” a collection of essays compiled by Varshini Prakash and Guido Girgenti, co-founders of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, diverse activists, academics and journalists reply with a resounding: HELL NO!

Their message: These struggles are inextricably linked; we must unite to re-take our country and save our planet.

Varshini Prakash, co-founder, executive director, Sunrise Movement
Varshini Prakash, co-founder, executive director, Sunrise Movement

Their arguments are not merely political (e.g., the need to build broad coalitions) and moral (climate policy should not make other problems worse, especially for the disadvantaged). Their case also rests on economic footings (with record-level unemployment and mountains of cash parked on sidelines, we have plenty of idle labor and capital available to rebuild and “green” our infrastructure), and psychological grounds (human civilization depends on cooperation at least as much as competition).

Ultimately, the book challenges us to re-imagine the role of our government as much more than a tool to foster economic growth.

The book is organized into three sections, describing the “why,” “what” and “how” of winning the Green New Deal. In Chapter One, “The Crisis Here and Now,” reporter and author David Wallace-Wells sounds a “deafening, piercing alarm” about the “cascade of cruelties” already buffeting humanity. One example of the ferociously-accelerating pace of global warming: In the past five years, Houston has been hammered by five disastrous hurricanes of a magnitude that was previously expected only once every 500 years.

In Chapter Two, “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” Kate Aronoff lays groundwork for a major thrust of the book: We need a full-scale, government-led intervention even to mitigate the climate crisis. Urging a renewal of the cooperative spirit of the New Deal, she quotes FDR economist Rexford Tugwell (1934): “Laissez-faire exalted the competitive and maimed cooperative impulses. It deluded [us] with a viciously false paradox: the notion that the sum of many petty struggles was aggregate cooperation. The cooperative impulse [must now] assert itself openly.”

Naomi Klein, author, social activist, filmmaker.

In Chapter Three, “Market Fundamentalism at the Worst Time,” Naomi Klein sifts through the rubble resulting from four decades of neo-liberal policy, showing how the ideology of “free” markets and government austerity has systematically demolished the New Deal structures that fostered the kind of cooperation now needed to tackle climate breakdown.

Prof. Ian Haney Lopez, author of “Dog Whistle Politics” (2014)

Chapter Four, “Averting Climate Collapse Requires Confronting Racism” forms a linchpin of the book. In just 14 pages, law professor Ian Haney Lopez traces the GOP’s strategic use of racism over the past 4 decades. Ronald Reagan peppered his speeches with dog whistles like, “Cadillac driving welfare queens” or “strapping young bucks buying T-bone steaks with food stamps” to sow distrust in government, shattering the original New Deal coalition. Lopez reveals the dirty trick of dog-whistle politics: coded racial messages that benefit plutocrats by prompting enough white people to vote their racial fears over their own interests, values and beliefs. In a stunningly candid 1981 interview, Lee Atwater, Reagan’s political adviser and later chair of the Republican National Committee, confessed the strategy. As overt racism, such as chants of  “nigger, nigger, nigger” became unacceptable, the wording shifted to “states’ rights” then to “forced busing,” and now to “cutting taxes” built on the coded (and false) subtext that “blacks get hurt worse than whites” when government is hamstrung. Now, strategic racism, funded by fossil fuel interests, including climate-science denying coal magnates like Koch Industries, is thwarting efforts to end the fossil fuel era.

Prof. Lopez takes pains to point out that it’s not necessary for dog whistlers to personally harbor racial animus in order to make strategic use of coded racial messages. Debate about what’s “in someone’s heart” (i.e., whether a particular politician hates people of color) is beside the point. If we know what to listen for, it’s clear that Donald Trump and nearly all GOP politicians (and, alas, too many Democrats) use racial code to motivate their base, regardless of their personal attitudes toward any particular racial or ethnic group.

Lopez outlines three elements of these coded racial messages: “1) Fear and resent people of color, because they’re basically violent and lazy, 2) Distrust government, because it coddles and refuses to control these undeserving minorities, and 3) Trust the marketplace because markets reward hard work. Support the very wealthy and large corporations because they are the job creators.” So when we hear politicians describe the George Floyd / Black Lives Matter protesters as “violent looters,” the same politicians who call for more tax cuts, austerity and abandonment of the social safety net while extolling “free markets” and global trade deals that outsource jobs, we know what’s going on. They’re dividing voters along racial lines in order to grab more power and profit for the top one percent.

Lopez concludes that creating the progressive wave needed to win a Green New Deal requires mobilizing a broad movement that “rejects division in favor of cross-racial solidarity.” That movement must, he says, tackle racism. He offers a countervailing narrative: “1) Distrust greedy elites who sow division. 2) Join together across racial lines. 3) Demand that government work for all racial groups, whites included.”

Next: Part II “Why We Can’t Afford NOT To Do the Green New Deal — NOW!


Author: James Handley

James Handley coordinates the Carbon Tax Network. From its inception in 2007 until 2016, James served as policy analyst and Washington representative of the Carbon Tax Center. In that capacity, he attended Congressional hearings, studied and digested climate economics and climate policy literature; providing timely reports, summaries and blog posts for CTC's website while building a network of activists, academics and policymakers to support and advance transparent taxes on carbon pollution. Prior to CTC, James represented environmental and citizen organizations, including Beyond Pesticides and the National Organic Consumers Association in public interest litigation. Prior to private law practice, he served 14 years at EPA, enforcing environmental law, where he also served as an officer in EPA's union, representing science and legal professionals, especially whistleblowers. Before law school, James specialized in environmental and energy-efficient design at Brown & Root, Inc. and Scott Paper Co. James holds degrees in Chemical Engineering (Economics minor), Law (JD), and Environmental Law (LLM, highest honors).

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