The Green New Deal is a vehicle for building the broad movement for structural change necessary to truly make Black lives matter. Racial inequality is part of the broader picture of inequality in America. The richest four hundred Americans own more of the country’s wealth than the bottom 60% of the population, and their share has tripled over the past forty years. Fighting racial inequality benefits everyone in the 99%. The uprising against racial domination provides an opportunity to challenge the broader domination of all working people by the tiny minority we are all forced directly to work for.
Black Lives Matter mural being painted on a street of Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo: Office of Congresswoman Alma S. Adams, Wikimedia Commons)
We are in the midst of the largest mass uprising in half a century. It is a response to the killing of an unarmed Black man named George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman. But it challenges a pattern of Black oppression that goes far beyond one cop killing one Black person, indeed, far beyond the issues of police abuse of the Black community.
Racial inequality reaches every dimension of American life. Median household income is 70 percent higher for whites than for Blacks. White families have five times the liquid assets of Blacks. Inequality in health, housing, education, and longevity is comparably extreme. This deadly inequality has been compounded in the COVID-19 era. Black people are dying at nearly twice the American average. As of April more than half of the adult Black population was unemployed.
Systematic discrimination against African Americans goes back to slavery. The abolition of slavery did not free African Americans, or other Black Americans, from systemic domination and exploitation – it continued as subjugation to racial terrorism, lynch law, poverty, and discrimination in jobs, education, housing, and every other sphere of life. And it was not ended by the civil rights legislation of the 1960s – indeed, even those gains have been rolled back in the Trump era.
Racial inequality is part of the broader picture of inequality in America. The richest four hundred Americans own more of the country’s wealth than the bottom 60% of the population, and their share has tripled over the past forty years. Fighting racial inequality benefits everyone in the 99%. The uprising against racial domination provides an opportunity to challenge the broader domination of all working people by the tiny minority we are all forced directly to work for.
How can a movement that starts with street protests against a police killing become the means to dismantle systematic racial inequality and injustice? That is a question that will have to be answered by the evolving action of millions of people. To probe that question, let’s look at an example of a pathway that might lead from today’s uprising to the replacement of today’s system of racial domination with a society of equals.
Black Lives Matter – Century City Protest – June 6, 2020. Photo Credit: Morrisonbrett, Wikimedia Commons.
On May 24, 2020 more than three thousand Los Angeles residents took part in an on-line “participatory budgeting process” organized by the People’s Budget Coalition convened by Black Lives Matter-Los Angeles. Based on previous research and surveys, they developed an alternative budget that radically reversed the city’s priorities. It allocated
- 44% of the city’s budget to Universal Aid and Crisis Management;
- 26% to the Built Environment; and
- 24% to Reimagined Community Safety
- 6% to Law Enforcement and Police — about one-tenth of the 54% in the city’s proposed budget.
- It happened to be the day before George Floyd was murdered.
The uprising in the days that followed Floyd’s killing was massive. An estimated 3,000 people were arrested in Los Angeles County. The People’s Budget proposal to reallocate funds from the police to community needs was a widespread demand. Actions included rallies outside the mayor’s home calling for such a change. Although he had previously added $600 million to the police budget, the Mayor unexpectedly announced he would now cut the department by more than $100 million dollars.
There is more to the People’s Budget LA than just “defunding” the police. It lays out detailed plans to transform life in the city. Its top priority is “Universal Aid and Crisis Management.” In the short term that means meeting basic needs like housing, food, healthcare, economic assistance and emergency relief. Longer term it involves “long-term housing, renter support and emergency housing, food assistance, support for those seeking work, support for small businesses, providing public health care, offering youth development programs and supporting youth centers, fighting the impacts of climate change and ensuring our city’s environment is protected.” It also invests in physical infrastructure like “public transportation, libraries, parks, public works and the fire department.”
The People’s Budget LA aims for “reimagining community safety” without law enforcement intervention. Communities would determine what they need to be safe, such as family counseling, restorative justice programs, reparations to victims and their families, community-led crisis response programs, gang prevention/intervention/recovery without police involvement, and domestic violence prevention/intervention/recovery without police involvement.
A Platform for Black Lives
A supermajority of the Minneapolis City Council committed to de-funding and dismantling the Minneapolis Police Department before a crowd gathered at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on June 7, 2020. The decision came after peaceful protests and rioting in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. The event, “The Path Forward: Community Meeting with City Council Members,” was organized by Reclaim The Block and Black Visions. Photo Credit: Tony Webster, Wikimedia Commons
Defunding the police and using the money to fund community needs has rapidly emerged as a core demand of the Black Lives Matter uprising that has spread over the last two weeks to hundreds of cities in every state in America. A petition circulated by the Movement for Black Lives and more than 100 other black rights organizations asks local officials to
- Vote no on all increases to police budgets
- Vote yes to decrease police spending and budgets
- Vote yes to increase spending on health care, education and community programs that keep us safe.
In New York City, 48 city council candidates are calling for a $1 billion cut to the NYPD’s $6 billion budget over four years to help fund programs like summer employment for youth. Minneapolis, Dallas, Philadelphia, Nashville, and are witnessing similar campaigns—and the number is growing every day. Most dramatically, following calls from activists to ‘defund the police,’ the Minneapolis City Council voted to disband its police department and invest in community-based public safety.
Transforming the position of Black Americans in American society requires systemic changes in the American economy.
The call to “defund the police” is only one piece of a far wider comprehensive program advocated by the Movement for Black Lives. The Movement for Black Lives had its origin in 2016, when fifty organizations that had been involved with the Black Lives Matter uprising issued a Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform that included scores of concrete proposals to reverse structural inequality. Its “Economic Justice” program, for example, calls for:
- A progressive restructuring of tax codes at the local, state, and federal levels to ensure a radical and sustainable redistribution of wealth.
- Federal and state job programs that specifically target the most economically marginalized Black people. Job programs must provide a living wage and encourage support for local workers centers, unions, and Black-owned businesses which are accountable to the community.
- A right to restored land, clean air, clean water and housing and an end to the exploitative privatization of natural resources — including land and water. We seek democratic control over how resources are preserved, used and distributed and do so while honoring and respecting the rights of our Indigenous family.
- The right for workers to organize in public and private sectors.
- Financial support of Black alternative institutions including policy that subsidizes and offers low-interest, interest-free or federally guaranteed low-interest loans to promote the development of cooperatives (food, residential, etc.), land trusts and culturally responsive health infrastructures that serve the collective needs of our communities.
And its “Invest-Divest” program calls for:
- A reallocation of funds at the federal, state and local level from policing and incarceration (JAG, COPS, VOCA) to long-term safety strategies such as education, local restorative justice services, and employment programs.
- Real, meaningful, and equitable universal health care that guarantees: proximity to nearby comprehensive health centers, culturally competent services for all people, specific services for queer, gender nonconforming, and trans people, full bodily autonomy, full reproductive services, mental health services, paid parental leave, and comprehensive quality child and elder care.
- A constitutional right at the state and federal level to a fully-funded education which includes a clear articulation of the right to: a free education for all, special protections for queer and trans students, wrap around services, social workers, free health services (including reproductive body autonomy), a curriculum that acknowledges and addresses students’ material and cultural needs, physical activity and recreation, high quality food, free daycare, and freedom from unwarranted search, seizure or arrest.
- A divestment from industrial multinational use of fossil fuels and investment in community-based sustainable energy solutions.
- A cut in military expenditures and a reallocation of those funds to invest in domestic infrastructure and community well-being.
Transforming the position of Black Americans in American society requires systemic changes in the American economy. These programs spell out the kinds of changes that must happen if we are to truly ensure that Black lives matter.
Black Lives and the Green New Deal
The Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform is strikingly similar to the goals laid out in the Green New Deal resolution submitted last year by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey. That relationship is made explicit in a recent statement by the Movement for Black Lives, which demanded
A Green New Deal that advances comprehensive structural reform toward national climate resiliency and preparedness; ensures public control of key industries, utilities, and natural resources; and catalyzes people-oriented public spending that transforms the national economy to one that is just, equitable, and sustainable.
The Green New Deal Resolution lists five goals to be accomplished through a 10-year national mobilization:
- Achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers;
- Create millions of good, high-wage jobs and ensure prosperity and economic security for all;
- invest in the infrastructure and industry to sustainably meet the challenges of the 21st century;
- secure clean air and water, climate and community resiliency, healthy food, access to nature, and a sustainable environment for all for generations to come; and
- promote justice and equity by stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous communities, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low-income workers, women, the elderly the unhoused, people with disabilities, and youth.”
The People’s Budget transfer of funds from policing to community needs might be a starting point for realizing the broader goals of the Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform and the Green New Deal. And the Green New Deal may be a vehicle for building the broad movement for structural change necessary to truly make Black lives matter.
Jeremy Brecher is an historian, author, and co-founder of the Labor Network for Sustainability. A new edition of his most recent book, Climate Insurgency: A Strategy for Survival, is available for free download at his personal website. His previous books include: Save the Humans? Common Preservation in Action; Strike!; Globalization from Below; and, co-edited with Brendan Smith and Jill Cutler, In the Name of Democracy: American War Crimes in Iraq and Beyond (Metropolitan/Holt).Our work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License. Feel free to republish and share widely.
 “Analysis: George Floyd, coronavirus and inequality stealing Black lives,” Center for Public Integrity, June 5, 2020. https://publicintegrity.org/inequality-poverty-opportunity/george-floyd-coronavirus-and-the-inequality-stealing-black-lives/
 Christopher Ingraham, “ ‘Wealth Concentration Returning to Levels Last Seen during the Roaring Twenties,’ According to New Research,” Washington Post, February 8, 2019.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/us-policy/2019/02/08/wealth-concentration-returning-levels-last-seen-during-roaring-twenties-according-new-research/
 “The People’s Budget: Los Angeles 2020-2021” https://peoplesbudgetla.files.wordpress.com/2020/05/peoplesbudgetreport_may26.pdf
 James Queally, Ben Welsh, “Arrests during George Floyd protests swell to near 3,000 in L.A. County; many are locals,” LA Times, June 2, 2020. https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-06-02/george-floyd-protests-los-angeles-arrests-locals
 Jack Brewster, “LA Mayor Slashes LAPD Budget As Calls To ‘Defund Police’ Slowly Pick Up Steam” Forbes, June 4, 2020. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jackbrewster/2020/06/04/la-mayor-slashes-lapd-budget-as-calls-to-defund-police-slowly-pick-up-steam/#3e75c86b1ba3
 “SIGN: Celebrities & Community Are Calling to Defund the Police and Invest in Black Communities.” https://www.defendingblacklives.org/defund-police-sign-on/
 Jack Brewster. http://19thwardchicago.blogspot.com/2020/06/defund-policewhat-great-way-to-cut-taxes.html
 Jeremy Brecher, “The Living Legacy of Black Lives Matter,” Labor Network for Sustainability, June 3, 2020. https://www.labor4sustainability.org/strike/the-living-legacy-of-blacklivesmatter/
 “House Resolution Recognizing the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal” https://cleantechnica.com/2019/02/08/heres-the-full-text-of-congress-green-new-deal-resolution-introduced-by-rep-alexandra-ocasio-cortez/
Why Low-Income Households Need to Be Part of the Clean Energy Revolution
Researcher Tony Reames focuses his work on the growing energy divide between rich and poor Americans. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, he talks about why it is important to provide low-income communities with better access to affordable clean energy technologies.
BY KATHERINE BAGLEY • MAY 16, 2019
Nearly a third of U.S. households struggle to afford their energy bills, with one in five cutting back on or forgoing necessities such as food or medicine to pay for electricity and heat, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Some 14 percent have received a disconnection notice, and 10 percent keep temperatures at unsafe levels to reduce costs. Of those struggling, about half are black and 40 percent are Latino.
This growing divide in energy affordability and accessibility highlights the need for what University of Michigan researcher Tony Reames refers to as “energy justice.” For decades, low-income households have tried to cope with rising energy costs. Yet, as Reames’ research shows, they often have the least access to energy-efficient or clean energy technologies. He and colleagues have found that the cost to upgrade to energy-efficient lightbulbs is twice as expensive in low-income neighborhoods as it is in more affluent areas. They have also found that for every dollar Michigan utilities spend on energy efficiency programs targeted at low-income consumers, they spend as much as $4.34 on programs for higher-income consumers.
In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Reames, director of the Urban Energy Justice Lab at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, talks about the idea of energy as a basic right, the history of energy justice issues in the United States, and the need to improve low-income Americans’ access to the clean energy revolution.
Yale Environment 360: Last year, you and your colleagues published a study that found the cost to upgrade to energy-saving light bulbs was twice as expensive in low-income neighborhoods as it was in more affluent areas. How did the idea for that study come about?
Tony Reames: I used to own a rental house in Kansas City. A lot of my energy justice ideas came from having that house over several years and understanding the energy issues of my tenants. This particular idea came up because one tenant called and asked if I could buy some light bulbs for the house, because she had gone to the local store and they only had, she said, “the squiggly bulbs” [compact fluorescent lightbulbs], and they were too expensive. That price shock for a low-income tenant pushed her to ask me if I could find them at a lower price.
I kept that idea with me for a couple of years. I had been reading the food justice studies looking at the cost of fresh fruit in poor and urban neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color. Then I heard a story about drugstores charging more for medications… in zip codes that were either poor or primarily communities of color. Bringing all those different ideas together, I wanted to try to look at this issue of access and affordability of energy-efficient technology. When we talk about simple ways to improve energy efficiency in people’s houses, if something as simple as a light bulb is going to cost you two times more, then we have some other challenges we need to address.
“About half the stores that we surveyed in poor neighborhoods didn’t even have LED bulbs on the shelf.”
e360: The study also found that even just finding one of these light bulbs in a low-income neighborhood or a neighborhood of color was surprisingly difficult.
Reames: About half the stores that we surveyed in poor neighborhoods didn’t even have LED bulbs on the shelf. It says something about how cities develop and commercial development. Also, if utility companies are benefiting from or being required to do energy efficiency improvements or install energy efficiency measures across their customer base, they need to partner with some of these smaller retail stores in urban areas, instead of just going after the major players like Lowe’s and Home Depot. They, a lot of times, aren’t located in the urban core.
e360: The term “energy justice” is still relatively new. How exactly would you define the concept?
Reames: Energy justice started out as this broad “developed” versus “developing” nation idea, thinking about the responsibility of developed nations to ensure access to modern energy technology in developing countries. But we have seen that there are disparities even within developed countries like the U.S. that should be addressed and should be understood from a justice perspective. When I think about it, I think about fair and equitable access to energy technology, fair and equitable participation in energy decision-making, and also this idea of energy as a basic right, because it’s so important to everything we do in life. That means energy needs to be affordable, and also clean and efficient.
e360: Do you think that policymakers and the energy industry are aware of these disparities?
Reames: One of the interesting things that pushed me into this area is that we have these two large, federal energy assistance programs: the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, known as LIHEAP, and the Weatherization Assistance Program, known as WAP. We’ve been doing these since the ’70s and ’80s. In the era of the oil crisis of the ’70s, we recognized this affordability disparity between poor households and non-poor households. Government action at that time was to create these programs that have been long-running. But I think there is a lack of recognition that we need to be a little more innovative and that it can’t just be these federal programs.
e360: Your team examined where the money that utilities spend on improving energy efficiency goes — the distribution to low- versus middle- and high-income customers. In Michigan, the difference was for every dollar spent on low-income customers, utilities spent $4.34 on middle and higher income customers. That’s pretty startling.
Reames: This study was in response to questions that some community groups had about whether funding for energy efficiency was being equitably distributed across the utility service territory. We looked at the two largest investor-owned utilities [in Michigan] that are required by the state to do energy efficiency programs and also have a carve out for low-income households.
Basically, we wanted to look at what is the proportion of low-income households within the utility territory and does that match the proportion of [energy efficiency] funding? We found that a lot of the money goes to higher income households. Sometimes utilities say it’s easier to reach those households; we know that there are challenges reaching low-income households.
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In a larger study [looking at utilities in more states], we found that basically each state does it differently. Some states may say, “Ten percent of your investments this year need to go into low-income households, regardless of what percentage or proportion of your customers are low income.” Michigan has no limit or no floor in what utilities have to spend. Some utilities have taken it upon themselves to say, “We’re going to spend more based on our proportion of low-income households.”
There are all these social challenges that play into how these inequities manifest. I’m not saying they’re intentional, but they’re real and I think they need to be recognized. That’s where you see $1 in low-income programs versus $4, because some of those low-income programs are like passing out light bulbs, which are lower cost, versus higher-income households getting rebates on furnaces and hot water heaters and AC units and things like that.
“The UK and other European countries have actually said that energy poverty is a distinct form of poverty.”
e360: How does the U.S. compare to other developed nations in terms of energy equity?
Reames: One of the reasons I got into this work is the “Fuel Poverty” concept in the UK and other European countries. They’ve actually said that [energy poverty] is a distinct form of poverty that has all these other health implications, social implications. They view it as a national issue. It’s codified in law. There are agencies that are working on ways to address this. They have maps, they have research funding for this topic. What that does is allow them to identify a number of households and a target, so they look to reduce fuel poverty by X percent every year. That’s something I would really love here in the U.S.
e360: Polling has shown that minorities and low-income communities are often the most concerned groups of people about the impacts of climate change, yet they also face significant obstacles if they want to go green. What are the biggest challenges?
Reames: One of the first studies I did for my dissertation was looking at the barriers that continue to exist operating the [federal] low-income Weatherization Assistance Program. People often say the first barrier to greening your home is the cost. I wanted to know what barriers still existed once that first one was removed. This project in Kansas City called The Green Impact Zone was using some of the federal dollars through the stimulus to go around and improve the energy efficiency of homes in an urban, low-income, majority African American, 150-block area. One of the big challenges that stuck out was the issue of trust. Minority communities have experienced a lot of predatory financial actions, so anytime this idea of free or low cost, or the idea of someone having to come in your house to do something, there’s a huge barrier there. Diversifying the field of people who do this type of work, so it could be people who look like those who live in the neighborhoods you’re working in could be one way.
Also, using community anchors or trusted community partners. I know some communities have done solar installations on churches, so then you get people in the community that attend the church to learn about solar from a trusted partner.
The second major barrier is some of the institutional structures that make it so difficult for, especially poor people, to access programs. You have to bare your heart and all your information and be completely vulnerable just to be able to get assistance. You have to go from one office to another office, so there’s a lack of coordination between programs. Even with the two federal programs that I was talking about, LIHEAP is operated by Health and Human Services, and WAP is operated by the Department of Energy. Sometimes those programs are operated by the same agency at the state level or even the county level. But because of the reporting structures to the federal government, it makes it difficult for an agency to see that someone’s been getting energy bill assistance through LIHEAP for four years, so maybe we ought to go and use WAP to make that person’s house more efficient.
e360: How much of this energy injustice is related to home ownership? You’ve talked about replacing furnaces and similar actions, but if you rent, you seemingly have no course of action other than to change your light bulbs.
“You can see through the data that there’s a difference in the efficiency between houses owned and houses rented.”
Reames: That’s so true. You can definitely see through the data that there’s a difference in the efficiency between houses owned and houses rented. With the weatherization program, we notice that about 80 percent of those funds go to owner-occupied housing, and about 80 to 90 percent of renters pay their own electricity bill. There’s no real incentive for landlords to participate in these programs, especially as they come with restrictions on raising the rent for a few years. Finding ways to entice landlords to do this is one of the conversations we’re having.
e360: Much of the research that you and your group has done has been based in Detroit or in the surrounding areas. Detroit has been highlighted as the shining example of a Rust Belt community reinventing itself through the lens of sustainability and green innovation. Is everyone benefiting equally in this reinvention?
Energy Equity: Bringing solar power to low-income communities. Read more.
Reames: Based on my assessment, the answer is no. But it takes some time, and that’s always a challenge when you’re trying to revitalize a city, especially when you’ve lost population. It’s like the focus is getting people back in, sometimes less than on the people who have stayed through the devastation. It seems like the tide is turning. I feel like the two things can coexist. You can have new development, but you can also have healthy, thriving, existing neighborhoods. I hope that’s where we’re going.
Katherine Bagley is the managing editor of Yale Environment 360. She was previously a reporter for InsideClimate News covering the intersection of environmental science, politics and policy, with an emphasis on climate change. She is co-author of the book “Bloomberg’s Hidden Legacy: Climate Change and the Future of New York City.” MOREABOUT KATHERINE BAGLEY →