Earth Day Blues: 45 Years Later, The Environmental Movement Still Whiter Than Green

Earth Day Blues: 45 Years Later, The Environmental Movement Still Whiter Than Green


It’s been 45 years since the very first Earth Day, the same day that Environmental Action was born. Since then, the environmental movement has grown in many positive ways. With new challenges, the movement has implemented myriad new tactics to improve and increase mobilization, fundraising, list growth and to inform the public about pressing environmental issues. However, there is one challenge that continues to leave our movement very wanting — the challenge of diversity and inclusion. Despite the precipitous growth in the population of people of color (POCs) in this country, the environmental movement has not kept pace, with the percentage of POCs on boards and general staffs of environmental organizations not exceeding 16 percent. Further, studies have shown that POCs who are hired are commonly regulated to lower level positions, despite their level of experience, and as a result POCs account for less than 12 percent of leadership positions in environmental organizations.

This is a major problem that is often discussed, yet never given the full attention that is warranted. As the country continues to become more diverse and browner, the environmental movement finds itself at a crossroads. It will either choose to relinquish it’s indifference to becoming a browner movement and embrace this trend with exertion and gumption, or it will face increased difficulty serving the needs, desires and demands of the country’s changing demographic. This is very similar to the difficulties that also face the Republican party. And, if this scenario becomes reality, the movement will face a grave schism between the so called “mainstream” environmental movement and the so called environmental justice (EJ) movement — a schism that will be summarily exploited by common adversaries including, but not limited to, Big Oil, King Coal and Big Ag.

In this context, environmental diversity experts Marcela Bonta and Charles Jordan are absolutely correct when they state, “As the nation continues to diversify, the environmental movement is left with one of the greatest challenges it will face this century. In order to become an influential and sustainable movement for generations to come, it needs to successfully address its diversity crisis.”

Where We Are: Still Whiter Than Green

In July of 2014, Professor Dorcetta E. Taylor from the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment produced a report entitled, The State of Diversity in Environmental Organizations. The report offers an excellent account for the state of diversity, or lack thereof, in environmental organizations as well as the reasons why this situation persists.

In some cases, the results of the report are actually encouraging. For instance, women have made meteoric strides accounting for half of the leadership positions and 60 percent of new hires and interns in environmental organizations. Further, women “dominate” the Executive Director position in environmental grantmaking foundations and enjoy the greatest likelihood of becoming the chairperson for the boards of environmental grantmaking foundations. However, and with all due respect to Patricia Arquette, these strides have been almost exclusively realized by White women.

Dr. Taylor’s report paints a much different picture in the context of POCs. As discussed above, POCs make up less than 20 percent of boards and general staff of environmental organizations. Additionally, not one major environmental organization (“major” in this case defined as a group with a budget of $1 million or more) has a president or executive director representing a POC group. I personally find it hard to grasp the fact that the United States elected an African American president and that Darius Rucker won an award for best new Country Music artist before a major environmental group hired a person of color to lead their organization. And, for the POCs who do secure positions with environmental organizations, opportunities for advancement are seldom realized. Environmental organizations are less likely to promote POCs, with the majority of promotions going primarily to White women. While the gender gap narrows, for one specific racial group, the racial gap, especially for leadership positions, is further perpetuated.

How We Got Here

Despite the advent of newer buzz phrases such as “climate justice,” mainstream environmental organizations have always experienced difficulty comprehending the idea that social justice and environmental stewardship are not disparate ideas. POCs have argued that they are one in the same since the 1960s when the environmental movement began  its journey to national prominence. However, the reluctance and/or outright refusal of mainstream environmental groups to incorporate social justice as part of their larger platforms led African Americans to conclude that, “actions of environmental activists were divorced from the environmental issues common in minority communities.” And this attitude even led many POCs to refer to environmentalism overall as a “White thing.”

The lack of interest in social justice was not unfounded. A 1967 survey of the Conservation Foundation conference found that only between 1% and 15% of attendees expressed interest in expanding the environmental movement’s agenda to include social justice issues. Moreover, in 1972 when Sierra Club members were asked to vote on the question, “Should the Club concern itself with the conservation problems of such special groups as the urban poor and ethnic minorities?” members who were strongly opposed topped 40%.

Dr. L. Nathan Hare

Dr. L. Nathan Hare

Despite the resistance of mainstream organizations to embrace social justice, prominent African American leaders persisted in attempting to eviscerate the false dichotomy between social justice and environmental stewardship. For instance, Nathan Hare released a 1970 article in the publication, The Black Scholar. The article made explicit connections between racial and environmental inequality, specifically highlighting the lack of opportunities for African Americans to participate in environmental affairs. Hare argued that the environmental movement had “blatantly omitted” African Americans and their environmental interests and that there was little exchange between African Americans and Whites. He also noted the profound difference in opinions between these groups about what caused environmental problems and how to solve them. Hare concluded that the mainstream approach to solving environmental problems fell short of the social and political revolutionary environmental changes that African Americans sought. As such, African Americans were alienated from the environmental discourse, a trend that has continued and could arguably be responsible for the ostracizing of other POC groups including Latinos.

The first Earth Day celebration was by no means a day of celebration for POC groups. Some Native American tribes even used the day to disrupt events in Michigan, highlighting the fact that White environmentalists left them out of the decision making process involving the conversion of tribal lands into a national park. While former senator Gaylord Nelson, who is considered the founder of Earth Day,  was speaking at an event, Native Americans threw trash at him on stage, accusing him of sponsoring legislation that would take land away from the Chippewa tribe for the creation of a national park. While Senator Nelson assured the crowd that Indian lands would not be appropriated to create a national lakeshore, he had in fact spent a decade working on a plan to incorporate two small reservations (Red Cliff and Bad River) into the proposed Apostle Island National Lakeshore in Michigan.

As such, from its genesis, Earth Day seemed to represent two different ideas depending on an individual’s race, ethnicity and socioeconomic standing. Unfortunately, it does not appear that much has changed, with some viewing this day as one of celebration and others viewing it as a day to highlight the many ways that the environmental movement is still too homogeneous and not nearly inclusive enough. One of the questions we must ask ourselves is how we are still at this point despite the changing demographics of this nation and readily accessible information that proves that POCs are disproportionately impacted by climate change and other forms of environmental degradation.

Why We’re Still Here:  The Conscious Effects of Unconscious Racism

Dr. Benjamin Chavis Lead Author of Toxic Waste and Race

Dr. Benjamin Chavis
Lead Author of Toxic Waste and Race

I have been given the honor on numerous occasions to present a talk entitled, Browning the Green at various conferences throughout the country. While presenting, I always make reference to a landmark report that sent shockwaves through the environmental movement and adroitly showcased the schism between the mainstream environmental movement and the EJ movement. This prescient report still retains a profound relevancy and deserves to be referred to as the environmental movement struggles to become diverse. The report, Toxic Waste and Raceproduced by the United Church of Christ in 1987 is a seminal work that points to the “marginality of POCs in the mainstream environmental movement and their alienation from it.” The report also discusses the issue of the demographic characteristics of the environmental movement, and implicitly raises the question of whether an upper-middle class, predominantly White, movement would or could have the best interests of POCs and their communities at heart.

While the report includes a wealth of information, it’s the report’s definition of racism that mainstream environmental organizations and the movement as a whole must consider to understand why this movement is still whiter than green:

Racism is racial prejudice plus power. Racism is the intentional or unintentional use of power to isolate, separate and exploit others. This use of power is based on a belief in superior racial origin, identity or supposed racial characteristics. Racism confers certain privileges on an defends the dominant group, which in turn sustains and perpetuates racism. Both consciously and unconsciously, racism is enforced and maintained by the legal, cultural, religious, educational, economic, political, environmental and military institution of societies. Racism is more than just a personal attitude; it is the institutionalized form of that attitude.

20 years after the first Earth Day, EJ and civil rights organizations released a letter that was printed in the New York Times highlighting environmental issues related to POCs and low-wealth communities and the lack of diversity in the environmental movement. The letter went as far to accuse mainstream environmental organizations of racist hiring practices. The response to the letter by mainstream environmental groups engendered an attitude I refer to as the Mainstream Myopia. That is, that POCs are not interested in issues associated with environmental stewardship and the lack of diversity in the movement was more the fault of POCs than environmental organizations. For instance, in response to the letter, then Director of Environmental Defense Fund Fredrick Krupp argued that, that minorities are “cause-oriented,” attracted to issues such as discrimination and poverty rather than to environmental issues. At the same time, some environmental leaders contended that environmental groups did not recruit minorities consistently and that lackluster recruitment efforts played a role in lack of diversity.

In my experience the mainstream myopia has absolutely no truth in lived reality; and statistics back up my contention. For instance, a 2009 bi-partisan report entitled, Voters of Color and Conservation concluded that voters of color (VOCs) are significantly more concerned than White voters about a wide range of conservation issues. Specifically, 60 percent of VOCs vs. 46 percent of White voters view the pollution of rivers, lakes and streams as an extremely or very serious problem; 57 percent of VOCs vs. 39 percent of White voters view global warming as an extremely or very serious problem; and 60 percent of VOCs vs. 38 percent of White voters view pesticides in food and water as an extremely or very serious problem.  More recently, the New York Times released an article that reported Latinos view climate change as both a serious and personal issue. To this end, mainstream environmental organizations would do well to point the finger at themselves rather than the people who seek to be included and considered.

In the context of Dr. Chavis’s definition of racism, the environmental movement must accept the fact that there are indeed forms of unconscious or inadvertent biases that can lead to or perpetuate institutional homogeneity. One process that perpetuates this bias is known as “filtering.” Filtering occurs through the practice of hiring staff who originate from the same social and professional networks. Further, according to extensive research,”filtering promotes reliance on homophilous networks, using practices such as word-of-mouth recruitment or insider referrals to recruit from among networks of similar people. Reliance on such networks results in the homosocial reproduction of the workforce— a replication of the demographic and social characteristics of the existing workforce—because people tend to refer others similar to themselves for jobs. Such practices allow race and class to influence recruitment and hiring practices either consciously or unconsciously.” To this end, Dr. Chavis’s 1987 thesis is not only vindicated, but it also offers an explicit challenge to mainstream environmental groups and the movement as a whole; indeed the time for excuses and specious rhetoric is over and the time for immediate action to repair this trend that is upon us.

Getting from Here to Where We Need To Be

In addition to homogeneous hiring practices, the environmental movement also has an issue with who and where it allocates its resources. Some organizations are given large amounts of support in the form of grants and technical assistance, while others are largely ignored. The same can be said for communities, in what appears to be selective attention given to certain communities while others are left fighting on their own. For instance, national attention and support was offered by mainstream environmental organizations for the fights to ban fracking in communities like Longmont, Colorado (83.3% White) and Denton, Texas (73.8% White). However, mainstream groups have not offered the same support/resources, the same outrage or  sense of solidarity with communities of color and low-wealth populations in cities such as Richmond, California, Kettleman City, California, nor frontline communities in Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and New York City. This sends a message of complacency to these communities who have been fighting everything from racist dumping practices, situating of toxic facilities, gentrification and the effects of climate change on their own for over 45 years.

Gulf South Rising Commemorating 5th Anniversary of BP Oil Spill

Gulf South Rising Commemorating 5th Anniversary of BP Oil Spill

I have had the honor of working with some of these organizations who include, but are not limited to Uprose Brooklyn, WEACT, and Gulf South Rising. And I can say, without hesitation, that the work they are doing is incredible, especially considering the lack of funding and resources they enjoy. As Elizabeth Yeampierre, Executive Director of Uprose Brooklyn (and my mentor) once remarked, “These communities that are underrepresented, under sourced, who experience the impacts of climate change disproportionately, are taking the lead in developing solutions from the ground up. We need to pay more attention to these communities and include them in the discussion and the process.” Van Jones echoed Ms. Yeampierre’s statement, suggesting that the mainstream environmental movement would only be strengthened by increased diversity and inclusion stating, “Environmental justice groups are the ones serving populations that are often most vulnerable to climate change and affected most by pollution — Americans who are low income, live in cities and are often people of color. The mainstream donors and environmental organizations could be strengthened just by recognizing the other ‘environmentalisms’ that are already existing and flourishing outside their purview.”

In light of these statements, my good friend Colette Pichon Battle with Gulf Coast Rising has issued a request and challenge to mainstream environmental groups. She is requesting $25,000 to assist her organization with the long road ahead to assisting frontline communities with fully recovering from the effects of the BP Oil Spill and climate change resilience. Environmental Action is excited to assist as much as we can with this request and will be informing members of our partnership with Gulf Coast Rising. I sincerely hope that other groups will respond in kind, as this is one of many steps that can and should be employed to repair relationships and help pave a path to greater diversity and inclusion.

Representatives of Frontline Communities Leading 2014 People's Climate March

Representatives of Frontline Communities Leading 2014 People’s Climate March

But one fundraiser is not going to erase decades and a culture of neglect and indifference. The movement and environmental groups must make more than perfunctory efforts to change course. It will certainly take more than “permitting” POCs to lead a great march in New York City, which was great for photographs but does nothing to really contribute to inclusion. The environmental movement must simply stop missing opportunities that are right in front of them. For example, last month in Louisiana was the third annual Historic Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Student Climate Change Conference. Here is a conference that is specifically designed to “Educate HBCU students to become leaders and advocates for climate-impacted communities. The conference will address issues related to climate justice, adaptation, community resilience and other major climate change topics (i.e. transportation, energy sources, carbon emissions, green jobs/green economy, just transition, and community economic development). The conference will bring together students and coastal community residents impacted by severe weather events to build safer and resilient communities for all. The goal of the conference is to fully engage African American students through education and training on issues related to climate change and its adverse impacts,” and not one mainstream environmental group attended or sponsored the conference. This is unacceptable and perpetuates the message that POCs and low-wealth environmental groups and communities are on their own as it pertains to climate justice and edification.

Moreover, when mainstream environmental organizations and White members do choose to engage these communities, they must do so with a sense of humility in lieu of privilege. What I mean is, Whites cannot go into these communities with an attitude of, “we’re going to tell you what you need to do and show you how it needs to be done.” An example of this is a recent announcement of liberal/environmental groups’ intent to register one million climate voters. Part of the program includes efforts to “educate minority voters on the effects of climate change.” Really? As nice as it is for liberal/environmental groups to take on this initiative, are they really in a position to “educate” POCs and their communities on the effects of climate change? I personally think it will be humorous to see a bunch of White canvassers  from the Upper West and Upper East Side, or Palo Alto and Berkeley, going into communities like Far Rockaway, Staten Island, Richmond and New Orleans trying to “educate” residents on the effects of climate change. How can they educate people who have disproportionately experienced and still experience the effects of climate change and other forms of environmental degradation?  It would be as ridiculous as Kanye West or Jay Z announcing an initiative to teach Appalachian citizens about the roots of Bluegrass music. Inclusion does not mean dictating to POCs what they need to do, it means listening and learning what they have been doing largely on their own, and then determining the best way to catalyze these efforts to be even more successful.


I am an African American, currently the Policy and Organizing Director of a respected mid-sized environmental organization. At the same time, despite the fact that I have an advanced degree and nearly 15 years of experience, my salary is lower than many of my White counterparts with less credentials and, statistically, so are my prospects for advancement. Trends like this must change if our movement is to become more inclusive and, quite frankly, continue to be a driving force for change. I recently took a picture of an environmental conference I attended (where I was the only African American in attendance) and showed this picture to friends. Next to this picture I had another picture of a Republican National Committee event and asked them if they could determine which picture was which. None were able to do so. This is embarrassing and unacceptable. We not only can do better, but our movement must do better.

So, while I use this day to celebrate and reaffirm my commitment to continue protecting our mother and only place we call home, I remain vigilant and concerned that 45 years after Earth Day one, our movement still remains whiter than green. Our movement has a great chance to change this moniker; but it must first make the choice to embrace this chance.