Change at the scale of the crisis: what racism teaches us about our ecological impasse

Posted January 31st, 2013 in Blog, Featured Comments Off on Change at the scale of the crisis: what racism teaches us about our ecological impasse

Fostering Ecological Hope
Reflections on Culture and Meaning

by Margaret Swedish

Please indulge me for a moment. I want to jot down this excerpt from Michelle Alexander’s extremely important book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It comes from the last chapter, “The Fire This Time,” in which she describes how deeply embedded in the economy of the nation our system of mass incarceration of black and brown males has become, so that now millions of jobs and many local economies depend upon it – which has made this immoral, life and family-destroying system seemingly intractable when it comes to changing it.

“The first and arguably most important point is that criminal justice reform efforts – standing alone – are futile. Gains can  be made, yes, but the new caste system will not be overthrown by isolated victories in legislatures or courtrooms. If you doubt this is the case, consider the sheer scale of mass incarceration. If we hope to return to the rate of incarceration of the 1970s – a time when many civil rights activists believed rates of imprisonment were egregiously high – we would need to release approximately four out of five people currently behind bars today. Prisons would have to be closed across America, an event that would likely inspire panic in rural communities that have become dependent on prisons for jobs and economic growth. Hundreds of thousands of people – many of them unionized – would lose their j obs…

“The justice system employed almost 2.4 million people in 2003 – 58 percent of them at the local level, 31 percent at the state level. If four out of five people were released from prisons, far more than a million people could lose their jobs.”

She then goes on to describe how the situation is even more complicated now because of the rapid privatization of the prison industry.

“Rich and powerful people, including former Vice President Dick Cheney [why am I not surprised?], have invested millions in private prisons. They are deeply interested in expanding the market – increasing the supply of prisoners – not eliminating the pool of people who can be held captive for a profit.”

And what does this have to do with our ecological crisis? I’ll bet most of you see it already. Just substitute greenhouse gas emissions and the fossil fuel industry for mass incarceration and the privatization of prisons and you get the exact same dynamic at work, the major reason it is so hard to scale up responses to the crisis commensurate with the level of threat.

At the heart of both of these is disdain for the earth and disdain for African-Americans, Hispanics, and poor people in this nation. These two things absolutely go together, as anyone working on environmental justice can explain. In the same way that pollution and industrial waste collide with impoverished communities – because better-off white communities would never allow the collision where they live even though they create much of the waste and pollution – so does the crisis of mass incarceration of black and brown males collide with our deep-seated racism that somehow makes this all acceptable.

Throw away the people that trouble our conscience or whom we look upon with disdain, do the same to the waste, toxins, detritus, and ecosystem destruction caused by our way of life.

Dig out a vast iron ore mine in the beauty of Wisconsin’s northwoods so that an out-of-state coal mining company, Gogebic Taconite, can make a profit – along with mining machine manufacturers like Bucyrus and Caterpiller – for their stockholders and CEOs, while claiming you can protect the environment in the process and create lots of jobs, many of them union jobs. Where will the toxic waste rock go? Into the environment and into the way of life of the Bad River Band of Chippewa. What will happen to the land where a 1,000 ft deep, four mile long hole will be dug? It will be – empty space, a big hole in the ground – forever. And that’s just stage one of the project!!

The point I want to make here is this, and Alexander’s book really turned the light on this for me:

a destructive way of life is now so deeply embedded within our daily lives, our economies, our livelihoods, our ways of doing business, that addressing the various crises, including the ethical and moral crises with which this way of life confronts us, means change at scales few of us want to consider, or are willing to accept – and I include a lot of the environmental and social justice communities in that critique. I’m part of them, so I am critiquing from within, not from without. We are all part of this awful dilemma that confronts us now.

I want to emphasize this point: we are talking here about a way of life, an orientation of a whole economic culture that shapes nearly every aspect of our lives. And for the very reasons Alexander describes so well in her book, seemingly about a completely unrelated aspect of our cultural identity, one reason that so little changes despite all the good work of so many is that we have a hard time appreciating how much any change that can effect these crises in a meaningful way will mean disruption in our lives, will mean changing how we live, will mean reorienting the culture and the economy and the society – essentially.

And for most of us, that feels terrifying and impossible.

But is it? Alexander points out that the Emancipation Proclamation did not free the slaves. It still took a Civil War.  And Brown v. Board of Education did not end segregation in our schools. It took a civil rights movement to do that.

Something else from this last chapter I want to share. Alexander asks why the civil rights community has been so quiet about this era of mass incarceration, the new Jim Crow, this vast system of segregation and racial exclusion (not called that because the system’s overlords call it “fighting crime”). She notes that many have been engaged in reform and advocacy efforts aimed at mitigating some of the worst aspects of the system, but:

“Given the magnitude – the sheer scale – of the New Jim Crow – one would expect the War on Drugs [the excuse for this system, what created it at this scale] would be a top priority of every civil rights organization in the country… The rhetoric associated with specific reform efforts would stress the need to end mass incarceration, not merely tinker with it…

“Part of the answer is that civil rights institutions – like all institutions – are comprised of fallible human beings. The prevailing consensus affects everyone… Those of us in the civil rights community are not immune to the racial stereotypes that pervade media imagery and political rhetoric; nor do we operate outside of the political context. Like most people, we tend to resist believing that we might be part of the problem.”

Okay, I don’t want to belabor this too much because there are certainly differences here – and yet, are the similarities not striking? How often have we heard vivid descriptions of just how dire our ecological crisis is, only to have solutions relegated back to our individual consumer choices, as if the solution lay there? How often have we heard that we can find solutions within the very model of the economic system that created it, as if the problem isn’t inherent in the very contradictions of for-profit corporations run largely for the self-interests of its stockholders?

I can tell you this, and it’s a point shared in common with the deep-seated racism that continues to find ingenious ways to disenfranchise and marginalize non-white people – we will not, cannot, find solutions to the scale of the crises within the systems that created them!

Okay, it’s terrifying – but is it impossible? It is not impossible if we are willing to create brave, bold movements prepared to address that scale and then work diligently, over time, eyes on the prize, even when we know many of us will not live to see the necessary at-scale transformation. It is not impossible if we are willing to endure the upset, the massive disruptions, the suffering, the sacrifice (yes, this word MUST be reclaimed as a good thing), the chaos – that have marked every era of profound social change.

Change is wrenching because so many people have a firm grip on the status quo – either because they are its beneficiaries or because they are terrified of uncertainty and insecurity. But systemic change, the kind that wracks a society and recreates it, is also the place where the best within us is invited to come to the surface, the place where our deepest aspirations, courage, and talents are needed and wanted. I can affirm this from my 24 years working at the national level in the Central America solidarity movement. I witnessed extraordinary change within “ordinary” people, myself included, because of our encounter with the liberation struggles in that region. Veterans of the civil rights movement will tell you the same thing.

So, if reform and recycling won’t do it, we need to get busy creating what will. Making changes in our personal lives is important because it is how we begin to practice a new way of life as the old collapses. These changes become “spaces” where we begin to create the new human/eco-community.  But we have to remember that what needs to change is more than our personal lifestyles. We are embedded within a whole cultural system that has brought us to this moment of crisis, when so much depends on the choices we make now – as a people, as a society.

Every one of us is needed to address our predicament to the scale of the crises we face, not because I can change the world, but because I can make my singular contribution toward that change. It’s going to be really hard. And that will mean we will have the opportunity to do and give our best.


A last word. Alexander’s book is one of the most important contributions I’ve seen recently on racism in the U.S., so I hope you will read it. I have written this before here:

We cannot solve our ecological crises if we exclude the reality of racism in our midst. Ecology is about the interrelationships and interconnections of all that is. If we think we can heal the planet without healing this grievous wound among the human community, the planet will not be healed.

Alexander recalls Martin Luther King Jr.’s “stern warning that racial justice requires complete transformation of social institutions and a dramatic restructuring of our economy, not superficial changes that can be purchased on the cheap.”  She quotes King, words that ring with truth for our work on both ecological wholeness and racial justice:

“White America must recognize that justice for black people cannot be achieved without radical changes in the structure of our society. The comfortable, the entrenched, the privileged cannot continue to tremble at the prospect of change in the status quo.”

To which I say: Amen!


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.