The Magazine

'Environmental Justice'

The Van Jones backstory.

Sep 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 01 • By STEVEN F. HAYWARD
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So Van Jones now takes his place as the Lani Guinier of the Obama administration, undone by his radical views. Like Guinier, the ousted "green jobs" czar will doubtless employ his political martyrdom to transform himself from a minor celebrity of the left into a major celebrity of the left, with a lucrative book contract and Chomsky-level speaking fees on the college lecture circuit. But the Jones case illustrates the confluence of the environmental and civil rights movements in a way that exposes the senescence of both.

I first started hearing about Jones a few years ago from far-left environmentalists--typically Greenpeacers--on college campuses. From their effusiveness I thought Jones must be something new and different. But minimal research revealed Jones to be merely a flamboyant purveyor of the usual green clichés, such as how we can produce "green jobs" in the ghetto if only we massively subsidize uncompetitive technologies. The only thing new and different about him was his skin color, which is precisely what made him so attractive to the overwhelmingly upper-middle class white environmental movement. Jones found it easy to graft civil rights grievances to environmental paranoia in a seamless way that would do Jesse Jackson proud. For this he quickly became, as the Washington Post described him, "a towering figure in the environmental movement."

In charging that "white polluters and white environmentalists" were "steering poison into the people-of-color communities" because they lacked a "racial justice frame," Jones was hitting environmentalism at its weakest spot. Environmentalism has always suffered from the stigma of being predominantly a wealthy, elitist movement. The average dues-paying member of an environmental organization, surveys have found, enjoys a household income more than twice the national median, and the membership of most organizations is overwhelmingly white.

At the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, most civil rights leaders had no use for environmentalism, and many voiced strong opposition to its emergence. Richard Hatcher, the black mayor of Gary, Indiana, remarked: "The nation's concern for the environment has done what George Wallace was unable to do--distract the nation from the human problems of black and brown Americans." Whitney Young of the National Urban League was equally distressed: "The war on pollution is one that should be waged after the war on poverty is won. Common sense calls for reasonable national priorities and not for inventing new causes whose main appeal seems to be in their potential for copping out and ignoring the most dangerous and pressing of our problems." The August 3, 1970, issue of Time quoted someone it identified only as a "black militant" in Chicago: "Ecology? I don't give a good goddamn about ecology!" Not surprisingly, environmental organizations are extremely sensitive to this problem, and go out of their way to emphasize diversity, practicing their own version of affirmative action to boost minorities in their membership and on their professional staffs.

It was perhaps inevitable that the civil rights movement and the environmental movement would eventually merge under the banner of "environmental justice." Some leaders among the new wave of environmental activism that arose in the late 1960s modeled themselves explicitly on the civil rights movement. The Sierra Club's Fred Eissler declared in 1969: "What we need is an environmental rights movement along with a civil rights movement." But it has brought out the worst instincts of both movements, combining frivolous charges of racism with unfounded environmental scares. For much of the civil rights movement, it is always the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma; for much of the environmental movement, the Cuyahoga River is always burning. Christopher Foreman of the Brookings Institution, author of the best dispassionate study of the issue, The Promise and Peril of Environmental Justice (2000), notes that "the flexible locution 'environmental justice' is inherently provocative and was intended to be so." Indeed, it is not unusual to hear industrial siting decisions near minority communities labeled "genocide."