Like all of his predecessors, Joe Biden is in the pocket of fossil fuel corporations and other polluters. Environmental racism is a byproduct of this corruption.
That Black people are less safe today than they were 365 days ago cannot be fully placed on the shoulders of Joe Biden. Whether it’s his inability to curb a pandemic due to a capitalist healthcare system more concerned with the health of profit than the well-being of people, his ineptitude at increasing peace and untying knots of war gripping the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and the African continent, or his approach to racial justice that’s specifically inimical to the very Black and Brown people who voted to put him in office, Joe Biden is a but a flickering spark that was allowed to become a flame of iniquity due in large part to members of the plantation-minded Black Misleadership class.
And while some Black-led formations and their allies expressed their mordancy last week in Atlanta when they skipped the President and Vice President’s specious remarks on voting rights, we have seen a similar level of chagrin from national Black leaders about one area where the Biden administration has failed Black folk the most - increased environmental justice through efficacious action to address and confront a racialized and gendered climate crisis that feminsit scholar Françoise Vergès appropriately refers to as the racial capitalocene.
As Black folk, we have become all too accustomed to what Dr. Cornel West refers to as the Santa Clausification of Dr. Martin Luther King. We are force fed whitewashed, out of context Dr. King quotes handpicked like cotton by neoliberal white lawmakers, white moderates, and their handpicked negro representatives in the Democratic party. We’re rarely offered the full spectrum of the radical preacher’s life who, by the time of his death, was castigated by many Black folk who engendered the Black Misleadership class for his epochal 1967 speech at Riverside Church when he remarked, “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government.”
Since there was a United States government, it has distributed myriad forms of violence culturally, socially, economically, militarily, and so forth. That said, it’s environmental violence that called Dr. King to Memphis just before his life was snatched via white supremacist terorrism when he stood with striking Black sanitation workers who were paid less than their white counterparts despite disprortionate exposure to health and safety risks. Environmental violence via environmental racism still plague Black people today due to a neoliberal polity, advanced by both corporate political parties, that perpetually exculpates polluters choking out, poisoning, and burning up Indigenous, Black, Brown and poor Asian and white communities.
Since 1987, when the United Church of Christ, under the direction of Dr. Benjamin Chavis released its landmark report, Toxic Wastes and Race, we’ve known at the highest statistical confidence level that race is the biggest factor that determines where and how much pollution is situated. And 22 years later, during Barack Obama’s first term as president, a study conducted at the University of Colorado determined that Black families with household incomes of $50,000 to $60,000 are more likely to reside in polluted neighborhoods with household incomes of $10,000.
1987 was also an important year because it was also the first time that an 88-mile, majority Black, stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, Louisiana was given the moniker “Cancer Alley.” This is significant because Joe Biden, just two months after declaring, “Black people have always had my back and I am going to have yours,” last January released Executive Order 14008: Tracking the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. During a speech announcing the order, Biden exclaimed, “With this executive order, environmental justice will be at the center of all we do addressing the disproportionate health and environmental and economic impacts on communities of color – so-called fenceline communities - especially ... the hard-hit areas like Cancer Alley in Louisiana…”
However, true to form for neoliberal Democrats, the only way that Biden has centered environmental justice is rhetorically. As part of Biden’s Executive Order 14008, he established the so-called Justice 40 Initiative that aims to deliver 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities like Cancer Alley. Either Biden’s aim is off, he lacks precision, or both because in one year nothing has been finalized, no money has been specifically allocated to environmental justice communities, and Justice 40 seems poised to become the new 40 Acres and a Mule.
Executive Order 14008 also established the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC), which includes some of the titans of environmental justice including Dr. Beverly Wright, Dr. Robert Bullard, Michelle Roberts, and Catherine Coleman Flowers. Unfortunately, it appears that WHEJAC is nothing more than a cosmetic entity meant to beguile Indigenous, Black, Brown, and poor Asian and white folk into believing that this administration intends on actually protecting them from disproportionate exposure to pollution and investing in their communities such that they can realize and enjoy a Just Transition away from fossil fuels. In May 2021, WHEJAC released an interim report entitled, “Justice 40 Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool & Executive Order 12898 Revisions.” Therein, WHEJAC provided a suite of recommendations to better protect environmental justice communities as well as the types of projects that would not benefit them including, but not limited to, expanding nuclear energy and the utilization of carbon capture and sequestration or hydrogen combustion. Less than 48 hours later, Biden’s handpicked domestic climate czar, Gina McCarthy, publicly disregarded the report and announced an “all of the above” approach to climate change that includes the use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. We’ve heard nothing since about WHEJAC’s interim report and it appears that it was stuck in the same drawer as the 1968 Kerner Commission Report.
Cancer Alley, and far too many other communities like it, is a stark reminder of the disproportionate health impacts borne by environmental justice communities directly attributable to the fossil fuel cartels and their acolytes in Congress (like Democratic Senator Joe Manchin who has received more Oil and Gas money in 2022 than any lawmaker in the House and Senate). As such, you would expect Joe Biden to rapidly reduce the amount of oil and gas that’s extracted from public lands and waters. However, Biden has issued more oil and gas leases at this point in his presidency and the most since the, “drill baby drill” era of President George W. Bush.
It’s incontrovertible that Biden has the back of the Big Oil empire while stabbing Black people IN the back. Nothing demonstrates this more than the single piece of legislation that defines his presidency thus far, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act aka Bipartisan Infrastructure Framework (BIF). For all the hoopla about billions of dollars dedicated to roads, bridges, and other infrastructure projects, the fine print reveals some of the most pernicious provisions that have already placed Black people in more danger. That’s because what’s seldom reported is the fact that the BIF includes massive rollbacks of the 1970 National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that’s acted as a vanguard for environmental justice and utilized to prevent the construction and operation of dangerous pieces of infrastructure like the Keystone XL Pipeline. With NEPA now weakened, oil and gas companies will have an easier time getting fracked gas and oil pipelines that disproportionately traverse Indigenous, Black, and Brown communities approved - this means more dirty emissions, more hazardous waste, and more tainted water. In fact, due to BIF, fracking wells and the corporations that own them statistically have more access to freshwater than residents of environmental justice communities like Flint, Michigan who will have to compete for funds to remove lead pipes due to a deal the Democrats made with the Republicans to reduce spending on drinking water infrastructure as part of the BIF.
Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the physician who broke the Flint water story wide open once stated, “if you were going to put something in a population to keep them down for generations to come, it would be lead.” However, it appears that Joe Biden, the Democratic party and the Black Misleadership class whose strings are pulled by their Alabaster Puppet Masters may be more generationally nefarious than one of the most dangerous elements to human health. This all said, Joe Biden, ordained an “honorary Black man” by HOUSE member Jim Clyburn is a product of the Black Misleadership class. Martin King literally used the threat of increased riots and his inability to prevent them to force the hand of Lyndon B. Johnson to promulgate Civil and Voting Rights legislation.
Today, most Black Democrats won’t even threaten a general strike of the Black vote to enjoin the Democratic Party to use every ounce of its waning power to protect Black people and their communities from toxic waste, toxic emissions, toxic cops, or toxic policies. The result is one year of Biden has placed Black people in more danger. The dirty truth is if we as Black folk can’t depend on him to fight for our right to breathe clean air and drink clean water, why should we expect him to fight for our right to vote?
Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright is a national racial and climate justice advocate. He currently serves as the Director of Environmental Justice for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest and has previously worked for the Climate Justice Alliance. He is blessed to be the father of his six-year-old son, Zahir Cielo and the opinions expressed in this piece are his own.