Protest in "Cancer Alley" Louisiana. (Photo: Julie Dermansky, DeSmog Blog)
Liberalism impacts every movement in the U.S. and climate justice organizations are not exempt.
Prophet and GOAT status holder, James Baldwin, wrote in his opus, No Name in the Street, “Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Clay, is a vivid example of what can happen to a Black man who obeys the American injunction, be true to your faith, but his press has been so misleading that he is also an unwieldy and intimidating example.” Brother Jimmy continues, “Muhammad Ali is one of the best of the ‘bad niggers’ and has been publicly hanged like one…” Without knowing it (or maybe he did, he was, afterall, a prophet), Baldwin adroitly portrayed the baleful conditions associated with being a profound, unapologetic (as it was written by the dear and brilliant sister Charlene Caruthers), and non-tone policed Black person in the United Statesian climate/environmental “movement,” and the nonprofit industrial complex writ large.
Before I continue, it’s important to establish that terminology matters, as does the intentional use of it such that we don’t find ourselves hackneying words and phrases until they become subjective and notional entities bereft of meaning or capacity (i.e. “progressive,” i.e. “ally"). To this end, when I use the term white “Supremacy” Ideology (wSI) I defer to my teacher and brother, Ajamu Baraka, Coordinating Committee Chair of the Black Alliance for Peace (BAP).
Brother Baraka refers to wSI as, “A racialized narcissistic cognitive disorder that centers so-called white people and European civilization, and renders the afflicted with an inability to perceive objective reality in the same way as others.” Baraka adds, “This affliction is not reducible to the race of so-called whites but can affect all those who have come in contact with the ideological and cultural mechanisms of the pan-european colonial project.”
Over the course of years and decades, Black, Indigenous, select people of color, and white folk, have attempted to deracinate the wSI intransigently ensconced in a climate “movement” that purports to align with racial, gender, economic, and other forms of social justice in an effort to arrive at a junction of planetary and anthropic survival. Yet, this “movement,” whose most influential actors are primarily white and affluent, including its bourgeois thought “leaders,” form the intransigent inertia that allows wSI to metastasize and expose it as a perpetrator of the same root systems/causes that allow for runaway climate change in the first place.
You won’t find too many spaces that manifest this more than a certain surreptitious, yet ubiquitous, listserv of majority white “environmentalists” and climate activists/thought leaders.
For the sake of this piece, I shall refer to this listserv as the Nelly List, and to the owner/facilitator of said list as Mr. white. And, for the sake of transparency, along with forthcoming self-criticism, it should be noted that I participated and offered commentary and criticism to the list, intermittently, for the last 6-8 years until Mr. white issued a public communique banning me from it. A breakdown of the composition of the Nelly List, largely white “progressives”/liberals is necessary to grasp how it operates and its impacts on Black, Indigenous, some people of color and more principled white folk. I can think of no one who characterizes white “progressives” better than the brilliant sister, Dr. Robin DiAngelo who in her most recent book, Nice Racism, in part, offers:
“Today’s white progressives may read The Root and the New York Times and listen to NPR or the BBC as they commute to their job at a nonprofit or tech company. They can be any age. They may have a marginalized identity other than race and perhaps were in organizations such as the Peace Corps or Teach for America…. but because they see themselves as progressive in terms of racism, they do not see anti-racism efforts as directed at them; they “already know all this” and are not part of the problem. Thus, they may not involve themselves in anti-racist efforts, but if they do, they can be rather self-righteous as they point out racism in everyone other than themselves.”
“While the de jure (legally inscribed) racism of the civil rights era is somewhat different from the de facto (in practice) racism of today, we see a similar desire to avoid racial conflict in current racial justice efforts. Note, for example, the common guidelines many white organizations use when setting up discussions on race: assume good intentions, respect differences, speak for yourself. Whose interests do these guidelines serve? They serve white expectations for racial comfort: ensuring niceness and warding off direct challenges. In so doing, they are not accounting for the ever-present dynamics of power, assuming a universal (white) experience, and policing BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) people into not engaging with authenticity lest they face the punitive power of white fragility.”
This second excerpt from her book is extremely salient as the Nelly List, generally, and the way Mr. white and his rotating cast of “PoC” “co-moderators” facilitate it, are bonafide manifestations of contemporaneous nice racism and white fragility. This is perhaps most pronounced via the control of the flow and content of narrative on and through the Nelly List, which is almost completely determined subjectively and unilaterally by Mr. white.
Narrative is a requisite tool for any efficacious organizing, mobilizing, and advocacy strategy. And in the context of climate change, for a narrative tool to enjoy efficacy, it must be inclusive, it must be representative of the people most impacted by the climate crisis, and, if the goal of the climate “movement” is to truly increase its base such that it becomes an actual multi-racial and multi-class movement, it must deracinate anglo-centrism and anglo-conformity, and quickly:
We do not believe it possible to form meaningful coalitions unless both or all parties are not only willing but believe it absolutely necessary to challenge Anglo-conformity and other prevailing norms and institutions. Most liberal groups with which we are familiar are not so willing at this time. If that is the case, then the coalition is doomed to frustration and failure. - Kwame Ture
That the Nelly List is saturated with anglo-centrism and anglo-conformity - white folk’s posts commonly enjoy markedly more participation and accolades - seems innocuous, but this actually has far reaching consequences that continue to invisibilize and marginalize climate change issues specifically impacting Black communities as well as the contributions of Black people to the advancement of environmental and climate justice.
For instance, if you ask the everyday white climate activist to list the most influential climate authors, journalists, and scientists, the vast majority of the people named are white. In addition, if you ask these same climate activists to name the most important books on climate change/climate justice, it’s extremely likely they will name 1989’s The End of Nature and/or 2014’s This Changes Everything. To be clear, both are excellent pieces of literature that make salient, hard hitting, and veracious points - that they are named as primary books on climate change/climate justice isn't necessarily my issue.
My problem is with a book that isn’t named nearly enough - Dr. Robert Doyle Bullard’s 1990 Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. For whereas The End of Nature and This Changes Everything both name and provide key examples of what drives the climate crisis (though I’d posit that This Changes Everything, some flaws aside, provides a deeper and more holistic analysis), neither provides a framework of the root causes of the climate crisis, nor who is disproportionately impacted by it as a result as Dr. Bullard does. And similar to the authors of The End of Nature and This Changes Everything, the participants who dominate the Nelly List are as white, affluent, and liberal/”progressive” as characterized by DiAngelo…this has major consequences.
It’s irrefutable that the Anglo-centric dominant narrative of the climate community can too often act as an exercise in misinformation and a toxic form of availability heuristic. This, in turn, allows far too many, maily white folk to name not only inaccuracies, but flat out fabrications about climate change, the so-called Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and other pieces of environmental policy that are not rooted in anti-racism, nor anti-colonization. Yet, while white-led environmental groups, white scientists, and the white liberals/”progressives” who dominate the Nelly List and the climate narrative are seen as the experts on the IRA, including their takes, interestingly worded poll questions, and “scientific” studies are promoted and exalted as the standard.
Meanwhile, the scholarship of formations like Indigenous Environmental Network and Just Solutions Collective, as well as the expert opinions of groups like the Climate Justice Alliance get treated like a bass player in a one hit wonder music group from the 1980s (and don’t lie, you have NO IDEA who the bass player was on Come on Eileen) by the climate “movement” - cited and heralded intermittently and inconsistently to show how “allied” its majority white “progressive” roster is with racial, environmental, and climate justice. However, just like the non profit industrial complex, Mr. white and too many others have shown time and again, allyship is a complex entity and has its own complex at the same time. Lest we forget what our Indigenous siblings Xhopakelxhit remind us, “everyone calls themselves an ally until it's time to do some real ally shit.”
The Nelly List’s anglo-centrism also has consequences for which grassroots, frontline fights garner the most attention and investments, and which ones are rendered downright ineffable. Take Cancer Alley and Cop City for instance - two of the most execrable examples of environmental racism, abuse of judicial powers, militarism against Black folk and their allies, economic inequality, and anti-Blackness and Indigenous-pessimism writ large have never been given the same transmission of urgency on the Nelly List, nor the entire climate “movement” as the issue du jour or acts of ephemera like the marches, rallies, “actions,” and sign on letters that majority white folk deem the priority for national attention and financial investment.
Don’t get me wrong, said “acts of ephemera” can be and are effective for short-term awareness generation and energizing, but they simply cannot be the basis for the long-term movement building and organizing (not to be confused with advocacy and mobilization) requisite to confront and dismantle a racialized, classist, and patriarchal climate crisis. True movement building requires at least witnessing, first hand, Cancer Alley and Cop City - two places I infer Mr. white and the majority of the Nelly List’s majority white participants have never been to, nor have any plans to visit any time soon.
Mr. white’s recent unilateral decision to “ban” me from the Nelly List also acts as an admonishment for Black and other melanin-blessed folk who have the temerity to stand up to his behavior and that of the climate “movement” writ large. For if you are too uppity, too profound, or ipso facto deemed a bad nigger (of any non-white race), reject the practice of tone policing, and name, challenge, or confront the climate “movement’s” latent wSI, there are consequences, which could be, and have been very life altering for many Black, Indigenous, and some people of color. To this end, Mr. white, once literally admitted to me that white participants of the Nelly List have attempted to coordinate efforts to defund the work, and, therefore, livelihoods for Black and Brown folk deemed to be too outspoken, and even asked me how I could be surprised by these actions - now that’s gangster AF.
This is the same vindictive and colonizing mentality that fostered concerted efforts to dismantle radical Black formations in the 1970s, which, in turn, engendered the foundation of a Black Misleadership Class of Black Democrats who continue to coordinate with on one of the biggest culprits of Cancer Alley and fossil fuel racism taking the lives and health of Black people, the American Petroleum Institute.. And if this mentality, that of Mr. white’s, that of the Nelly List, and that of the climate “movement” doesn’t transform, we won't be having debates about what or who is “Left/progressive,” because there ain’t gonna be anyone left, just embers of a climate “movement” that never graduated from an inchoate stage due largely to its refusal to address and deracinate the wSI that defines, shapes, and operates within it.
Chairman Fred Hampton was, of course, correct when offering the veracious aphorism, “you can’t solve capitalism with capitalism.” This is irrefutable, and, pursuant to the Associative Law of Mathematics you then can’t dismantle white “supremacy” ideology with a white “supremacy” ideology; and, since it’s irrefutable that the larger climate “movement” continues to allow itself to be dominated and driven by anglo-conformity and anglo-centrism, it’s, therefore, doomed to lack the requisite efficacy to save lives and effectuate any semblance of climate justice. This is exactly what Brother Ture admonished in his discussion on the “Myth of Coalitions”:
The major mistake made by exponents of the coalition theory is that they advocate alliances with groups which have never had as their central goal the necessarily total revamping of the society. At bottom, those groups accept the American system and want only—if at all—to make peripheral, marginal reforms in it. Such reforms are inadequate to rid the society of racism…
In the end, I actually don’t wish to see the cessation or dissolution of the Nelly List or other majority-white formations that act as deleterious elements for an ailing, unfocused, and, too often, shambolic climate “movement.” They actually provide profound examples of how wSI drives the nonprofit industrial complex and within climate spaces specifically. Paradoxically, this is actually quite beneficial as the Nelly List and many other aspects of the climate “movement” serve as a reminder of why we need to establish and operate alternative systems that will dismantle the climate crisis with more efficacy than majority white focus groups that act as no more than vacuous virtue signaling and empty pontifications to make majority white climate actors feel better about themselves and their praxis of nice racism.
We are all complicit, myself certainly included, in the systemic consistency of nice racism and wSI within the climate “movement.”
Whether we are driven by fear of ostracization, loss of income/livelihood, the need for unconditional conformity, or, for some, straight up willful ignorance, we all should understand that we have a collective responsibility to sanitize our spaces as much as we purport our collective responsibility to sanitize our planet and our communities, as well as our hearts, souls, and minds.
I can really only end this necessary opprobrium by regurgitating one of my favorite James Baldwin quotes, "The truth which frees Black people will also free white people, but this is a truth which white people find very hard to swallow.” Mr. white, Nelly List participants, and the climate “movement” best figure out how to swallow this truth expeditiously, or it’s gonna get hot in there, and much, much hotter everywhere else.
Please consider donating to our comrades and siblings who are facing execrable and trumped up charges for standing up to militarized police and environmental racism associated with Cop City: https://linktr.ee/weelauneearresteefundraisers
Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright is a national racial and climate justice advocate. He is a proud member of the Black Alliance for Peace (BAP) and is blessed to be the father of his eight-year-old son, Zahir Cielo. The opinions expressed in this piece are his own.