Climate Voices

Whiteness and the Climate Crisis

This month's contributor is Samuel James. Samuel James is a world-touring musician and storyteller. His long-running column Racisms is featured monthly in Mainer and he is the staff writer for . Learn more at .

This month's contributor, Samuel James. Photo provided by Samuel James.

As Americans, our main difficulty when dealing with the climate crisis is the act of facing our demons. Not just our past wrongs, but our current tack as well. Oftentimes our best attempt at this is a sort of public self-flagellation without any actual course correction. For example, in 1994 President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12,898, which reads: "Its purpose is to focus federal attention on the environmental and human health effects of federal actions on minority and low-income populations with the goal of achieving environmental protection for all communities."

That sounds like the right idea, but as stated by the United States Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), "Executive Order 12,898 does not create legally enforceable rights or obligations."

Since then Presidents Bush, Obama, and most recently Biden have all made similar gestures toward environmental justice and yet, as former Director of the Office of Environmental Justice at the EPA Barry Hill puts it: "The fact is that minority and/or low-income individuals, communities and populations continue to be disproportionately exposed to environmental harms and risks as compared to others."

Why can't we seem to get this right? Obviously there is a long list of corporations, lobbyists, and wealthy individuals that have access and influence beyond the scope of the average individual, communities, and populations. But there's something else. There's something underneath all that money and access and influence, giving permission to bad actors, distracting the greater population and prohibiting America from facing its demons.

That thing is...whiteness.

Does that seem like a bit of a jump to you? I understand if it does. Let me tell you what I mean. What I am talking about is a social status. I am not talking about the intent or character of any individual according to skin color or heritage. I am talking about a systemic permission structure that allows for the presence of some people, while excluding others. This exclusion can be obvious, like segregation or redlining. It can also be more subtle, like the need for the 2019 CROWN Act, actual legislation designed to protect Black people against workplace and school discrimination based on hair texture.

Of course, status and permission structures are all around us, but there are problems with whiteness that are uniquely destructive. One of those problems is that whiteness permeates everything. From physical spaces to social constructs, from the halls of government to systems of finance, from spoken language to beauty standards, from police precincts to congressional district maps, whiteness reigns.

A deeper problem with whiteness is that it exists in one's identity. More than providing tangible benefits, whiteness eliminates obstacles. Since most people believe their view of the world to be universal, if their world is lacking obstacles, those obstacles must not exist in the world at all.

Rotting Whiteness

Generations of whiteness combined with growing wealth inequality have created a sort of distilled rot within whiteness. Yes, white people are still more likely to be born into generational wealth and no, you're not getting pulled over for being white; whiteness just isn't worth what it used to be.

In many cases, whiteness exists solely as personal status. It's never named as such, but our 45th president was able to unify voters across religious, wealth, and class lines exclusively with promises of protecting whiteness. Border walls, Muslim bans, "shithole countries," and "very fine people" were all ways of making whiteness great again. And they brought white voters out to the polls in record numbers.

This commitment to whiteness also brought people out to raid the capitol on January 6th, baselessly believing that the election was stolen - a belief still held by a majority of Republicans. And so, here we are with one of two political parties wholly prioritized on their personal status of whiteness. There is no shared reality. They don't believe in election results. They don't believe in masks or vaccinations. And they don't believe in climate change.

President Biden has a lot of plans to combat the climate crisis, but they will all need legislative efforts beyond executive orders. Any plan forward will require far more than the potential term limits of even the most progressive future president. To keep this planet sustainable for human life, long-term committed action is necessary, but how can we do that when half the country is so averse to a shared reality?

The answer is not easy, but it is simple.

First, half the country isn't actually averse to a shared reality. Republicans aren't half of the country, they're just disproportionately represented. By example, the senate as it stands right now has 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats, which at first glance seems even. The reality however, is that the Senate Democrats represent 40 million more people than the Republicans.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice there are currently 361 voter suppression bills in 47 states. Republican redistricting efforts in Georgia alone could put Republicans in control of the US House of Representatives without gaining a single vote from the last election. In short, the simple-but-not-so-easy answer is more democracy.

While there is a growing surge of whiteness putting us on a path to global disaster, it is not a majority. It's not even half. It's not even close, but their disproportionate representation in our institutions gives them disproportionate power. More democracy can stop them. More democracy can save us and save the world, so do your part. Keep yourself informed. Vote. Donate your time and money to organizations empowering democracy. Support candidates who believe in democracy. Or run for office yourself.

Let's face our demons. Fight whiteness and let's share reality.