It’s Time For a Black New Deal

Also see

People’s Platform for Energy Transition and Climate Policy Equity Framework, 

Movement for Black Lives Policies and Platform – Here for all People of Color

Also see Movement for Black Lives Policy Platform and Call for Reparations- adapted for all People of Color

CHRIS WINTERS, Yes Magazine, June 8, 2020

Circa 1941 photograph by Barbara Wright. National Youth Administration (NYA), Works Progress Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Image from Library of Congress/Prints & Photographs Division.

It’s been two weeks since George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who kneeled on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes until he died. It’s been almost as long since protests erupted in all 50 states and numerous countries across the continents of Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, and South America—amid a global pandemic—calling for an end to police violence against Black people in the United States.

But surrounding the central demands of the moment—of stopping police killings and holding them accountable when they don’t—there are systemic issues of racism and poverty that, if not addressed comprehensively, will ensure that any “reform” effort today will be short-lived.

What kind of a solution born in this moment would address those systems?

Turns out, it looks a lot like the New Deal.

Franklin D. Roosevelt’s palette of policies and programs was designed to guide the U.S. out of the Great Depression. Unemployment reached nearly 25% during the period from 1929-1939, and the various initiatives put together under the New Deal label were essentially make-work infrastructure programs that benefited both Black and White Americans: The Works Progress Administration employed nearly 350,000 African Americans in 1935, or about 15% of the total number of participants, according to the Roosevelt Institute. The Citizens Conservation Corps had about 11% Black representation at is peak. The Public Works Administration for the first time included racial quotas for hiring Black laborers.

Young Black men working for the Civilian Conservation Corps dig holes to build a fence in Greene County, Georgia, circa May 1941. Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images.

This isn’t the 1930s or 1960s, but we are confronted with a similar set of issues.

The New Deal wasn’t specifically aimed at achieving racial equity, however, and some aspects had the opposite effect. The Federal Housing Authority laid the groundwork for the postwar housing boom, but it helped to cement discriminatory housing practices such as redlining and race-based covenants, which led directly to White flight from urban centers to the new developing suburbs.

Even the Great Society programs of the late 1960s amounted to patching big holes in a leaky ship.For example, Medicare and Medicaid provided access to health care for many older and poorer Americans, but it left intact the for-profit health care system that impoverishes too many people outside of those programs, and let businesses decide what kind of health insurance to offer (or not) to their employees. It’s no surprise that working-class and part-time workers in which Black Americans are overrepresented receive the least amount of coverage, and those workers are the least able to afford the high deductibles and low maximum payouts associated with those plans.

When the presidential Kerner Commission looked into the 1967 “race riots” that took place in many cities, and came to the conclusion that poverty and systemic racism were root causes driving the violence, and proposed massive investments to provide equal opportunities, President Lyndon Johnson shelved the report, deeming it too controversial.

This isn’t the 1930s or 1960s, but we are confronted with a similar set of issues: high rates of poverty and inequality, Depression-level unemployment rates thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, and critical infrastructure needs in the form of a lack of affordable housing, ineffectual mass transportation, and crumbling bridges. And, at least until January 2017, we were trying to refocus our economy away from fossil fuels to take on global climate change.

All of that would take a massive injection of money from the federal government, which for the past 40 years has been controlled by politicians from both parties adhering to a political philosophy that says government must not interfere in the economy.

As a result, we now have years of evidence to show how neoliberalism has failed.

In a widely circulated video, author and activist Kimberly Jones explained, with all the pent-up rage and despair stemming from centuries of racial oppression, why Black people are demonstrating, and why some are looting when many outside (White) observers chastise them for harming their own cause.

Black people, she said, have been playing a rigged game, and every time they begin to succeed or pull ahead, White America comes in and slaps them down, as they did in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1921 and Rosewood, Florida, in 1923.

“So, when they say, why do you burn down your community? Why do you burn down your neighborhood?” Jones asked. “It’s not ours! We don’t own anything!”

Real wealth, defined as assets minus debts, is beyond the reach of the vast majority of Black Americans. The Institute for Policy Studies has projected that, by 2053, the average net wealth of Black families is expected to fall to zero, while in the same timeframe, White households would see theirs rise to $137,000.

And while it is true that the unemployment rate for Black Americans in August 2019 reached 5.4%—its lowest point since 1972, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began separating the data by race—you only need to scratch the surface of that data to find the inequities buried in the system: The White jobless rate for August 2019 also was near its all-time low (3.4%, slightly higher than the low point of 3.1% last seen in February this year).

And while the difference of a couple percentage points might not seem like much, it matters a lot when you see that, on average, the Black unemployment rate has been 6.4 percentage points higher than the White unemployment rate since 1972.

And while the Black unemployment rate occasionally topped 20% in the early 1980s and is often above 10%, the White rate has only crested 10% twice in the past 48 years: in April and May 2020, when the national economy effectively shut down because of the pandemic.

Then consider the kind of professions Black people work in. The nonprofit, nonpartisan Economic Policy Institute notes that Black workers are more likely than those of other races to be in front-line job sectors: grocery, convenience and drugstores, public transit, trucking, warehousing, postal services, janitorial services, child care, social services, and, of course, health care workers—what we’re now calling “essential services.”

Racial equality is the great unfinished task of America.

And to re-emphasize a point that was dominating the national conversation until two weeks ago, Black Americans, while making up 12.5% of the U.S. population, account for 23% of COVID-19 deaths so far. While the exact mechanism by which one person dies from the disease and another is hardly effected is not understood, the COVID case and death disparities have exposed the way in which poverty and inequality exacerbates illness among Black and Brown people.

The conviction of a few White police officers isn’t going to address that kind of inequality.

But a progressive set of policies will. We’ve seen a recent example of that with the Green New Deal, as proposed by progressive members of Congress. It incorporates an intersectional view of social progress, in that it outlines that programs be directed toward stopping and reversing the historic oppression of people of color, reducing economic inequality, and weighing the effects of future policies on the most vulnerable front-line communities. The word “Green” would give the impression it’s all about the environment, and indeed, we’d have a much cleaner and sustainable nation if it were implemented. But we’d also find ourselves in a more equitable nation, especially if we started the process of transforming our economy with a Black New Deal.

It’s not a replacement for reparations for the enslavement of African people and the subsequent centuries of discrimination against their descendants, but it’s a step in that direction. And a New Deal that benefits Black America ultimately benefits all of America.

This won’t happen under Trump’s watch. Even Joe Biden, pragmatic centrist that he is, has acknowledged that the work of achieving racial equality would outlast his administration—but at least it shows he’s thinking long-term about the problem, and he did sign on to the initial Green New Deal proposal.

Racial equality is the great unfinished task of America. Smart people who have studied these problems have left road maps that can get us to solutions. We have the money—in our federal defense budget and in our militarized police forces. The missing element has always been political courage.

We’re seeing that courage in the streets right now. What we need next are the leaders who share it.


Yale Environment 360

Published at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies

A residential street alongside a major oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, a city that is more than two-thirds African American and Latino.
A residential street alongside a major oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas, a city that is more than two-thirds African American and Latino. AP PHOTO/DAVID GOLDMAN


Unequal Impact: The Deep Links Between Racism and Climate Change

Activist Elizabeth Yeampierre has long focused on the connections between racial injustice and the environment and climate change. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing and the outsized impact of Covid-19 on communities of color, she hopes people may finally be ready to listen.


The killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans have cast stark new light on the racism that remains deeply embedded in U.S. society. It is as present in matters of the environment as in other aspects of life: Both historical and present-day injustices have left people of color exposed to far greater environmental health hazards than whites.

Elizabeth Yeampierre has been an important voice on these issues for more than two decades. As co-chair of the Climate Justice Alliance, she leads a coalition of more than 70 organizations focused on addressing racial and economic inequities together with climate change. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Yeampierre draws a direct line from slavery and the rapacious exploitation of natural resources to current issues of environmental justice. “I think about people who got the worst food, the worst health care, the worst treatment, and then when freed, were given lands that were eventually surrounded by things like petrochemical industries,” says Yeampierre.

Elizabeth Yeampierre
Elizabeth Yeampierre

Yeampierre sees the fights against climate change and racial injustice as deeply intertwined, noting that the transition to a low-carbon future is connected to “workers’ rights, land use, [and] how people are treated,” and she criticizes the mainstream environmental movement, which she says was “built by people who cared about conservation, who cared about wildlife, who cared about trees and open space… but didn’t care about black people.”

Yale Environment 360: You’ve spoken about the big-picture idea that climate change and racial injustice share the same roots and have to be addressed together, and that there is no climate action that is not also about racial justice. Can you describe the links you see connecting these two issues?

Elizabeth Yeampierre: Climate change is the result of a legacy of extraction, of colonialism, of slavery. A lot of times when people talk about environmental justice they go back to the 1970s or ‘60s. But I think about the slave quarters. I think about people who got the worst food, the worst health care, the worst treatment, and then when freed, were given lands that were eventually surrounded by things like petrochemical industries. The idea of killing black people or indigenous people, all of that has a long, long history that is centered on capitalism and the extraction of our land and our labor in this country.

For us, as part of the climate justice movement, to separate those things is impossible. The truth is that the climate justice movement, people of color, indigenous people, have always worked multi-dimensionally because we have to be able to fight on so many different planes.

When I first came into this work, I was fighting police brutality at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund. We were fighting for racial justice. We were in our 20s and this is how we started. It was only a few years after that I realized that if we couldn’t breathe, we couldn’t fight for justice and that’s how I got into the environmental justice movement. For us, there is no distinction between one and the other.

In our communities, people are suffering from asthma and upper respiratory disease, and we’ve been fighting for the right to breathe for generations. It’s ironic that those are the signs you’re seeing in these protests — “I can’t breathe.” When the police are using chokeholds, literally people who suffer from a history of asthma and respiratory disease, their breath is taken away. When Eric Garner died [in 2014 from a New York City police officer’s chokehold], and we heard he had asthma, the first thing we said in my house was, “This is an environmental justice issue.”


Connecting the dots between environmental injustice and the coronavirus. Read more.

The communities that are most impacted by Covid, or by pollution, it’s not surprising that they’re the ones that are going to be most impacted by extreme weather events. And it’s not surprising that they’re the ones that are targeted for racial violence. It’s all the same communities, all over the United States. And you can’t treat one part of the problem without the other, because it’s so systemic.

With Hurricanes Maria and Katrina, the loss of lives came “out of a legacy of neglect and racism.”

e360: Can you more explicitly draw the connection between climate change and the history of slavery and colonialism?

Yeampierre: With the arrival of slavery comes a repurposing of the land, chopping down of trees, disrupting water systems and other ecological systems that comes with supporting the effort to build a capitalist society and to provide resources for the privileged, using the bodies of black people to facilitate that.

The same thing in terms of the disruption and the stealing of indigenous land. There was a taking of land, not just for expansion, but to search for gold, to take down mountains and extract fossil fuels out of mountains. All of that is connected, and I don’t know how people don’t see the connection between the extraction and how black and indigenous people suffered as a result of that and continue to suffer, because all of those decisions were made along that historical continuum, all those decisions also came with Jim Crow. They came with literally doing everything necessary to control and squash black people from having any kind of power.

You need to understand the economics. If you understand that, then you know that climate change is the child of all that destruction, of all of that extraction, of all of those decisions that were made and how those ended up, not just in terms of our freedom and taking away freedom from black people, but hurting us along the way.

It’s all related. You can’t say that with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans the loss of lives was simply because there was an extreme weather event. The loss of life comes out of a legacy of neglect and racism. And that’s evident even in the rebuilding. It’s really interesting to see what happens to the land after people have been displaced, how land speculation and land grabs and investments are made in communities that, when there were black people living there, had endured not having the things people need to have livable good lives.

These things, to me, are connected. It’s comfortable for people to separate them, because remember that the environmental movement, the conservation movement, a lot of those institutions were built by people who cared about conservation, who cared about wildlife, who cared about trees and open space and wanted those privileges while also living in the city, but didn’t care about black people. There is a long history of racism in those movements.

Demonstrators march in Sunset Park, Brooklyn last September in support of community-led climate justice initiatives.
Demonstrators march in Sunset Park, Brooklyn last September in support of community-led climate justice initiatives. ERIK MCGREGOR/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

e360: So how do you have a fight for climate action that is intertwined with a fight for racial justice? What are the steps, the policies, that we should be thinking about looking forward?

Yeampierre: With the Green New Deal, for example, we said that it wasn’t a Green New Deal unless it was centered on frontline solutions and on ensuring that frontline leadership would be able to move resources to their communities to deal with things like infrastructure and food security. When that happens, we’ll be able to move the dial much more efficiently. In New York, for example, we passed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, which is aggressive legislation that looks at how you move resources to frontline communities and how you invest in those communities.

Nationally, we need to be looking at stopping pipelines — reducing carbon but also reducing other pollutants. We need to start focusing on regenerative economies, creating community cooperatives and different kinds of economic systems that make it possible for people to thrive economically while at the same time taking us off the grid.

In every community there are different things people are doing, everything from putting solar in public housing to community-owned solar cooperatives. This is not the ‘60s or the ‘70s or the ‘80s where we follow one iconic leader. This is a time where we need to have numerous people really taking on the charge of directing something that’s big and complex.

e360: Can you talk a little bit about the idea of a just transition to a low-carbon future and how that dovetails with anti-racism efforts?

Yeampierre: A just transition is a process that moves us away from a fossil fuel economy to local livable economies, to regenerative economies. Those are different economies of scale that include not just renewable energy but healthy food and all of the things that people need in order to thrive. The word justice here is important because for a long time people would talk about sustainability, that you could have sustainability without justice, and the climate movement focused on reducing carbon but didn’t really care about other pollutants.

“Climate activists talk about moving at a big, grand scale, and we talk about moving at a local scale.”

A just transition looks at the process of how we get there, and so it looks at not just the outcomes, which is something that the environmentalists look at, but it looks at the process — workers’ rights, land use, how people are treated, whether the process of creating materials that take us to a carbon-neutral environment is toxic and whether it affects the host community where it’s being built. It looks at all those different kinds of things.

I can give you one example in New York City. We have been advocates of bringing in offshore wind. One of the things that we learned is that in order for that to happen, the pieces have to come from Europe and be assembled in New York and they would be coming in these huge container ships. Now these ships operate by diesel, and so what happens is they park themselves on the waterfront of an environmental justice community and the climate solution becomes an environmental justice problem. The climate solution is we reduce carbon, but the environmental justice problem is we dump tons of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides and PM2.5 [particles] into the lungs of the host community.

We need the climate solution, but then we need to talk about how we electrify the industrial waterfront and how these ships can plug in so they’re not burning diesel. While we’re doing that, we also need to look at how we create the market instead of following the market — wind turbines that are built in the United States so we don’t have to bring the parts in from Europe.

These are the kinds of things that we think about when we’re thinking about a just transition. A climate activist will be like, “Okay, we need offshore wind” — right, that’s it. But a climate justice activist will be like, “Okay, let’s look at it a little closer and let’s figure out what the process looks like and how we can engage in remediation to make sure we are not only reducing carbon but we’re also reducing co-pollutants, and let’s make sure that the people that are hired are hired locally.” So there are all of these other pieces that are involved in a just transition. Climate activists talk about moving at a big, grand scale, and we talk about moving at a local scale, and then replicating those efforts.

e360: Racial justice would presumably have to be at the heart of that.


Energy Equity: Bringing solar power to low-income communities. Read more.

Yeampierre: It has to be at the center. For example, in Sunset Park [Brooklyn, where Yeampierre runs the Latino community group UPROSE], we just launched the first community-owned solar cooperative in the state. Okay, we want renewable energy. We need to be able to prioritize the people that are going to be most impacted. Low-income communities. People of color. It has to matter to white folks because when our communities succeed and get what they need, everyone benefits from that.

“These [environmental groups] have to get out of their silos and out of their dated thinking.”

With the cooperative, the community actually owns the utility, owns the energy source. People will be able to access renewable energy, at a reduced cost, be hired locally to build it — and have ownership. So it’s really exciting. We’re hoping this model will birth more projects like this.

Now, we’re is reaching out to small businesses. They’re struggling because of how Covid-19 has affected the economy. When we started this project, we were thinking it would provide resilience to disruptions of the grid and other systems from extreme weather events. We hadn’t anticipated the disruption would be something like Covid. But these models become a real benefit in moments like this where you don’t know where your next paycheck is coming from. You have access to energy that is both renewable — which means it has a health benefit — and also benefits your pocketbook.

e360: With the pandemic and its racially disparate impact, and then the killing of George Floyd and the protests that have followed, we’re at this moment where these longstanding racial disparities and racism are on vivid display. What would you hope the climate movement and the environmental justice movement take away from this moment and apply going forward?

Yeampierre: I think that this is a moment for them to start thinking internally and thinking about some of the challenges that they’re having. I think it’s a moment for introspection and a moment to start thinking about how they contribute to a system that makes a police officer think it’s okay to put his knee on somebody’s neck and kill them, or a woman to call the police on an African-American man who was bird-watching in the park.

These institutions [environmental groups] have to get out of their silos and out of their dated thinking, and really need to look to organizations like the Climate Justice Alliance and Movement Generation and all of the organizations that we work with. There are so many people who have been working with each other now for years and have literally put out tons of information that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. It’s all there.

ALSO ON YALE E360: Why low-income households needs to be part of the clean energy revolution. Read more.

There has to be a fundamental change in the culture of these institutions. If they were thinking strategically, they would be saying, “Hey, let me see. I’m in New York. Who’s doing this and how can we support them?” We’ve had groups of white young people who have contacted us and have said to us, “How can we support you? How can we best use our resources and our skills to support the work that you’re doing?” And, we’ve been like, “You know what? That is the right question. Let’s do this together.”

Beth Gardiner is a journalist and the author of Choked: Life and Breath in the Age of Air Pollution (University of Chicago Press). Her work has appeared in publications including the New York TimesThe GuardianNational Geographic and Smithsonian, and she is a former longtime Associated Press reporter. MOREABOUT BETH GARDINER →