What Does Sustainability Have to do with Racism?

A cow stands in a hilly english road next to some yellow wildflowers

Whew! It’s been a crazy few weeks! How are you?

Black people: I am so grateful for each and every one of you that took time to share resources, explanations, and amplified voices this week. Yet again, you carried the weight of white people’s burdens. Let’s hope this time our society will grow from it.

Other People of Color: I hope you’re doing okay. I know many of you are confused about how to feel and what your role should be in all that’s happening. Keep sharing your resources and taking time when you need it.

White people: Are you tired from information overload? Are you sad about what you didn’t know before? If you’re feeling overwhelmed from all that’s happening, it’s probably a good thing, and it means you’re learning. We don’t get to rest until we’re all equal, and we need to use our voices to lift up the oppressed.

It’s impossible to talk about climate justice without talking about racial justice. I’ve seen lots of resources regarding sustainability and racism, but I wanted to slim it down to the few facts that get the point across. I’ll link other resources from this article if you want to get into the dirty details.

Fast Fashion and Slavery

Only an estimated 2% of fashion workers around the globe are paid a living wage. We all know the stats on why Fast Fashion is bad, but from a labor perspective it often exploits the labor of its workers, too. In fact, garments are the second largest imported product linked to modern slavery.

While there are high-end brands that have been known to use slave labor, an easy way to tell that a piece of clothing wasn’t ethically made is by looking at its price tag. If the price of the clothing doesn’t leave enough room for a fair wage for its creator, it was most likely made using slave labor. Another great resource is Dressember’s Ethical Fashion Directory, or the Good On You App. Supporting sustainable clothes goes hand-in-hand with supporting ethical clothes.

The Meat Industry and Racism

In some areas of North Carolina, pigs outnumber humans at a 40:1 ratio. EW! In the state overall, the ratio is about 1:1. That’s because North Carolina’s factory farming of pigs is a prolific industry. Who’s disproportionately affected by the pollution and runoff in that industry, you ask? That’s right! The largely Black and poor communities.

The (excellent) documentary What The Health is the reason I went vegetarian, because it focuses on what the meat industry does beyond just killing animals. Call me a bad person, but that wasn’t enough of a reason to make the switch for me. Beyond the personal benefits of reducing meat in your diet, you’re also decreasing the demand for horrific situations like in this scene of the documentary, where a woman who lives near the runoff site for a pig slaughterhouse says “Mostly everybody in this neighborhood got asthma or even cancer. My neighbor there died from cancer probably just last year. My nephew down the street, he’s got cancer. He’s in terminal cancer stage four. Not a smoker, not a drinker.” You can read more about that scene and the county it featured in this article.

The Food Empowerment Project rightly points out on its website that the placement of these sites in Black and brown communities is not always due to racism, unfortunately the reality in America is that most rural and poor communities are mostly comprised of people of color. They may also believe that low-income residents need the jobs and won’t complain, which can be seen as a form of economic extortion – they HAVE to accept the negative health consequences just to get a job.

“Eating Sustainably” and Food Deserts

America’s sustainable food movement aims toward eating local and eating organically, as well as buying food in cute jars that you fill up in the bulk section. So what about when that narrative doesn’t exist in largely Black communities?

According to the Food Empowerment Project, food deserts are areas where residents’ access to affordable, healthy food options is restricted due to the absence of grocery stores within convenient traveling distance. Additionally, African-American populations had half as much access to chain supermarkets as white people, and Hispanic populations had one-third the access to chain supermarkets as non-Hispanics.

Food justice activist Karen Washington had an amazing interview with Anna Brones. In it, Anna writes this: Washington is opposed to using the expression “food desert,” which she calls “an outsider term” that calls desolate places, rather than places with enormous potential, to mind. She prefers “food apartheid”, which “brings us to the more important question: what are some of the social inequalities that you see, and what are you doing to erase some of the injustices?”

So, when you don’t have access to healthy fruits and vegetables, and you don’t have unprocessed food, you certainly won’t have access to bulk or organic food and produce. Karen Washington sums it up beautifully again, saying “the average age of a farmer is 59. The movement is going to be a desert if we don’t get more youth involved. Who is out there? How are we going to get the next wave of farmers? The price of land for new farmers is crazy. So how do we entice a new generation to become farmers if they don’t have access to land? They have credit-card and student-loan debt, and there’s no diversity to encourage the young blood of new farmers with different faces to come into the food system.”

Sustainable Energy and Racism

Sustainable energy sources are things like wind power, water power, solar power, and debatably nuclear energy. When you take a look at something pollution-heavy, like a coal fired plant, chances are you’ll find it in the most poor or most Black neighborhood within a county.

In a city like Detroit, Michigan, where there is a ton of heavy industry, this is extremely apparent. An article in Quartz mapped it out, saying that in Detroit in 2011 “82% of black students went to schools in the most polluted parts of the city, while 44% of white students did. ” Another broader study by the same author found that “more than half of all people in the United States who live within 3.0 kilometers (1.86 miles) of a hazardous waste facility are people of color.”

In another shocking article, a report from the NAACP that African-Americans hold only 1.1% of energy related jobs, and yet 68% of African-Americans live within 30 miles of a coal plant!

Farming and Unfair Labor Conditions

On Eater.com Megan Horst shares an excellent article about how racism has shaped the American farming landscape. She shares that farmers of color (Black, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander, and those reporting more than one race) made up less than 3 percent of non-farming landowners and less than 4 percent of owner-operators. Latinx farmers comprised about 2 percent of non-farming landowners and about 6 percent of owner-operators and tenant operators, a number far lower than their 17 percent representation in the U.S. population. By contrast, over 80 percent of farm laborers (likely under-compensated) are Latinx in the U.S.

Megan outlines several other ways in which racism contributes to the current agriculture system, and ways we can combat it as a society, so I suggest you read her article I linked above!

But why is it that way? An article from the AACU describes what led to the current state of affairs. As most know, the huge agricultural system in the South was built by slaves brought over from Africa, and subsequently their children. After slaves were “freed” the agricultural industry, like many others, found ways to continue exploitation of Black workers and remove their rights. When minimum wage took place, agricultural employers were exempt, so farmworkers were excluded. Some protections came later to farmworkers in the 1960s and 1980s, but it’s a classic case of too little too late, as shown by the statistics above.

So what can I do?!

  • VOTE. If you’re eligible to vote, one of the biggest differences you can make is electing candidates that will make our government more diverse and will represent values such as clean energy and equal access to food. The website Vote411.org can help you understand your ballot.
  • Buy Fair Trade. Fair Trade certification means that the farm provides fair wages, safe working conditions, and gives back to projects such as healthcare, women’s leadership, micro-finance programs, and more. It’s a really cool organization that you should read more about!
  • When you can, eat from black-owned restaurants and buy from black-owned businesses. It’s an easy way to start closing the long-overdue income gap between races, and widen your horizons beyond your own tiny bubble.
  • If your health, location, and budget allow it, try to reduce your meat and dairy intake. I know that for a number of reasons not everyone can go vegan, but if you can, you should! At the very least, try to dedicate a few meals a week to be vegan meals. If you need recipes, check out my Instagram highlights or DM me there for ideas! I also wrote about my favorite vegan alternatives to meat and dairy in this blog post. Watch a few documentaries if I can’t convince you myself.
  • Support organizations that are lobbying and fundraising every day for the groups that need it most, like the ACLU, the NAACP, the Food Empowerment Project, Farmworker Justice, and more!

To wrap up, I’ll include this quote from the Better Future Project:

Often, we hear facts about the effects of climate change without relating them to actual bodies, lives, and families. We get desensitized to facts. Numbers get skewed. We lose our ability to make a connection with our role in the fight against climate change.

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