Civil Rights and Environmental Progress Go Hand in Hand

By Cornell William Brooks & Annie Leonard

When people hear the names NAACP and Greenpeace, they likely have a set of ideas and preconceptions about who we each are and what the organizations we lead do. Oftentimes we find ourselves stereotyped or compartmentalized. One of the reasons that this weekend’s Democracy Awakening is so exciting, is that it helps demonstrate how many of our respective goals and values are shared: environmental progress is deeply tied to racial justice and vice versa.

That’s what has inspired us to write this blog together, reflecting on what our communities can learn from one another, and how much stronger we can be when we work together.

I’m Cornell William Brooks, President of the NAACP.

For years the NAACP has been clear that big money is the main reason Congress is increasingly out of step with the interests of hard working, everyday Americans, particularly on issues of economic insecurity, and particularly with racial and ethnic minorities and low-income Americans.

Working with Annie Leonard on the Democracy Awakening, has given me new insight into the corporate fortunes that are dominating our democratic space. Major polluters like the fossil fuel industry pour millions of dollars into lobbyists to fight climate and energy legislation, millions more on politicians, and still more millions on organizations denying climate change. ExxonMobil is a prime example: the company has spent over $30 million on climate denial, while contradicting this with its behavior behind the scenes by asking its own scientists to figure out how business as usual can continue in a changing climate. Even in the current presidential election race, almost every candidate has accepted fossil fuel funding.

This troubles me deeply, since it’s African-Americans who disproportionately live in communities most vulnerable to disaster and urban areas most affected by heat, Native Americans whose lands and health are defiled by processing of fossil fuels, and countries in the global south that are ravaged by disaster, displaced by rising sea levels, and starved by drought, who suffer the most.

Shocking evidence shows that the most significant determinant of which zip codes will host toxic facilities is race. An example of these toxic facilities is the thousands of coal fired power plants that are the number one contributor to the carbon dioxide emissions that drive climate change. Over 78% of African Americans live within a 30-mile radius of coal fired power plants, which also emit sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, mercury, arsenic, and lead.

In a democracy where money didn’t do all the talking, the fossil fuel industry wouldn’t be allowed to buy favor with its corporate cash. The people of Flint would have clean, affordable water coming from their taps. Children in Chicago wouldn’t have trouble breathing because they live in the shadow of toxic coal fired power plants. And the many injustices, disproportionately suffered by African Americans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, would not have happened. I can’t think of more compelling reasons to get big money out of our democracy, and people’s voices and votes back into it.

I’m Annie Leonard, Executive Director of Greenpeace USA.

For years I’ve been encouraging people to be active citizens rather than allowing the corporate world to define them as consumers. And I’m not referring to people that have the privilege of citizenship papers. To me, being a citizen is about how we show up in our communities; giving our time and energy to something bigger than ourselves, and helping to build a better future for everyone.

A cornerstone of being an engaged citizen is voting. So I’m deeply concerned by what I’m learning from Cornell William Brooks as we collaborate on the Democracy Awakening, about the many obstacles being put in the way of people that want to vote and have every right to do so.

Since the Election of Barack Obama there’s been a significant backlash in state legislatures across the country to restrict the right to vote, this coming on the heel of one of the greatest turnouts of African Americans in a general election.

This unprecedented, well coordinated, well funded, and well targeted attack on the voting rights of African Americans, Hispanics, low income, young people and senior citizens in state legislatures across the country has been dramatically spurred by the Supreme Court invalidation of a key provision in the Voting Rights Act. Across the country, misguided state legislatures have proposed and passed laws that would add unnecessary obstacles to people’s ability to cast their ballot. Here’s just a few of the examples that I’m learning more about every day.

Voter ID laws have been implemented in 36 states requiring voters to show some form of identification at the polls. 33 of these voter identification laws are in force in 2016, as we prepare to elect our next President and Congress. Many American citizens lack the documentation these laws require. In fact, more than 1 in 10 voting-age citizens do not have current, government issued photo ID. There’s many reasons for this:

  • Many low income voters don’t have driver’s licenses or passports, and will be unfairly burdened by the $75-and-up cost of obtaining birth certificates and traveling to a government agency to secure a photo ID.
  • Young people are the most mobile segment of our population; especially college age voters who keep their parents’ address but attend school in a different area. Their ID’s are often deemed not valid.
  • Elderly citizens are less likely to possess government issued photo ID and therefore less able to vote, which is a serious concern given America’s aging population.

In conjunction with the voter ID requirements being implemented across the country, states have also sought to reduce the number of early voting days, eliminate same day registration and pre-registration.

With communities of color disproportionately suffering from environmental injustice, we need as many voters as possible to be able to speak their minds through the ballot box. But our corporate money marinated Congress, and growing obstacles to keep voters out, make it harder than ever to pass environmental legislation — just when we need it most. President Obama’s recent attempt to introduce the Clean Power Plan legislation that would reduce poisonous carbon pollution has been blocked by Congress. Upholding voting rights could only help represent more of the voices from communities threatened by this pollution. That sounds to me like one of many good reasons why we need to stop voter suppression and fix our democracy.


Cornell William Brooks and I will both take part in the Democracy Awakening weekend of action, this coming weekend in Washington DC. Sign up here to join us!

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Annie Leonard’s story.