Black is the (Not So) New Green

Call him Ishmael. Because, well, that's his name. 

A student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, Ishmael is studying ways for people to live in greater harmony with nature.  He grew up loving the outdoors, and attended a special science-focused high school that cultivated his environmental interests.  He spends his summers with The Nature Conservancy’s LEAF Program, where he leads local conservation projects in the community.

In short, Ishmael is green.  He is also Black. 

And he is not alone. In just seven short years, most of Ishmael’s peers, known as the Millennial Generation, will be of voting age. This generation will total 90 million eligible voters, comprise 40 percent of the electorate, and represent the largest and most racially diverse generation in history (44 percent are people of color). Polls show Millennials are pro-environment and believe we can solve major global challenges like climate change if we take action now.

During President Obama’s Inaugural address, he placed climate change prominently on the agenda for his second term in office, and his administration will need to build support with key constituencies.  But even they may be surprised where some of the strongest green support comes from.

Much attention has been paid to the shift in racial and generational demographics this past electoral season and what it means for our political future – but little coverage was given to what it means for our planet’s future.  After the election, it was clear a coalition of youth, people of color, single women, and gay people ensured President Obama received another term in office. 

Lost in the election coverage, however, was the landslide of successful conservation initiatives across the country.  Fifty seven measures appeared on ballots to generate public funding to protect land and water. With an 80 percent winning percentage, conservation measures out-performed President Obama’s electoral victory even in his home state of Hawaii.

In an election year ballyhooed for higher participation among young, non-White voters, how was this possible?   Isn’t the environment only a top-tier issue of elite, wealthy Whites?

Not at all. The truth is many of these conservation measures succeeded not despite of greater participation from youth and people of color, but because of people who look a lot like Ishmael. 

At first this can be hard to wrap your head around, given the criticisms of traditional green groups of being too White and too old. Certainly, those that work and support some of the “big greens” remain a predominantly White group.  And you will likely see relatively few Black people visiting Yosemite National Park, a fact lamented by Shelton Johnson, the Black park ranger featured in Ken Burns’ “National Parks” documentary from 2009.

But these facts neglect a rich history---and very real present---of Black support for the environment.  Perhaps the best recent example of this fact occurred this past November in Alabama – where a ballot measure to reauthorize the Forever Wild Land Trust program and protect 227,000 acres was put before voters.

It passed with flying colors, receiving support from nearly every political stripe and creed.  Interestingly, the greatest support came from Black voters, who voted yes at a whopping rate of 82 percent (a full eight percentage points higher than White voters).

Polls show that Blacks voted yes because they believed it made sense to invest in nature by protecting the lakes, rivers, and woods which offer clean air and water – the essential natural services that keep us alive and healthy. 

And it’s not a recent phenomenon. Leaders of environmental justice groups have been focused on improving the environment in communities of color since the early 80’s. And both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X spoke of the importance of taking care of the lands that take care of us. Marvin Gaye also offered his voice to this in “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”.

Further back in history, one of America’s Black heroes, George Washington Carver, pioneered soil conservation methods still used today.  Carver became famous for farming practices that revolutionized the peanut, but he was also a devout conservationist

Today polling consistently shows that youth and people of color follow Carver’s lead – from climate change legislation to land and water protection – at rates equal to or higher than White Americans.

So the question is not whether youth and people of color care about protecting our lands and waters.  A quick look at history, today’s voting and polling trends, and leaders like Ishmael have answered that for us.  Clearly Black is the (not so) new green.

The real question is whether or not we are willing to act on the opportunity. The conservation and care of our environment is one area of common ground all Americans can agree upon—one area where people can work together across traditional lines to achieve a better future for our children.

Gelasia Croom is a media specialist at the Nature Conservancy in Illinois, the leading conservation organization in the world, located in every state