The struggle of people of color for equality in the 20th century has become a struggle for existence in the 21st century. We’ve gone from affirmations of “I Am a Man” to #BlackLivesMatter.
For our post-civil rights generations (Hip Hop, Millenials, Ys), while we have a lot more equal rights under the law than our parents and grandparents, our existence is under attack. We see this clearly in the long overdue mass uprisings in the streets and on social media against the practices of extrajudicial police killings of women and men of color across this country.
When we founded the Hip Hop Caucus in 2004, we emerged from Russell Simmons’ Hip Hop Summit Action Network, Diddy’s Citizen Change where we did the “Vote Or Die!” campaign, and Jay Z’s “Voice Your Choice.” We decided then that we had to approach civil and human rights in the 21st century differently.
We knew we could not stay only in the scripted lanes that progressive politics delegates to Black organizations and leaders. We must own and lead on all issues of concern to our communities. We would not wait to be invited to a movement or issue. We would not look to the media to define what issues are relevant to us.
The only criteria that matters when it comes to setting an agenda for civil and human rights in the 21st century is does the issue contribute to holding our babies back from achieving all they can and want to be?
One of the most significant issues that the infrastructure of Black organization and movement has on the whole stayed away from, and been excluded from, is Climate Change, but right now is the moment to change that.
I could not be more sympathetic to our Black leaders and organizations as to why Climate Change and environmental issues have not taken a central seat on our agendas. The environmental movement has a long history of subtle tactics of exclusion to at times, blatant racism. But, my sympathy for leaders stops there, and there begins my calling – the calling of all servant leaders – to fight for the interests of our communities no matter the opposition.
You see, 1 in 6 African-American children in this country have asthma. And, 68% of African Americans live within 30 miles of a power plant. Polluters pollute without limits in our communities, which is why we have higher rates of asthma, cancer, heart disease, and lung related illnesses in the African American community. When you layer more illness with less financial resources to deal with illness, issues intersect and compound, and we have to make choices between food, medicine, utilities, time off work to take care if sick children, and the list goes on, and on, and on.
As a reverend, I do funerals. The hardest funeral I have ever done was for a 14-year-old girl in Southeast Washington, DC. She was one of many children to a single mother. She was also the one who helped her mom the most, with her brothers and sisters, with chores around the house, and she was focused on school and her family. She was an old soul who had responsibilities way beyond her age.
She also had asthma. Her mother, on a week when air conditions were not supposed to be as bad as normal in their neighborhood, made the terrifying and all too common decision within poor families, to sacrifice one basic need for another. That week, her mother chose groceries over her daughter’s asthma inhaler. Food for your children over medicine for your children; for a parent, there is not a more tortuous game of Russian Roulette than this.
That week, this mother lost that gamble. Her daughter had an asthma attack. There was no inhaler. She died gasping for air in their living room.
At the funeral, the mother repeatedly tried to climb into her daughter’s casket. Aunts, uncles, and cousins had to pull her back. As a father of two, the memory of presiding over this funeral haunts me more than any other.
This girl did not have to die. Like the extrajudicial police killings that take the last breath of our mothers, daughters, sons, and fathers, there are corporate actors who are taking our breath with impunity, but unlike police officers, the polluters have been invisible to us.
Does Climate Change impact our daily lives? Does Climate Change contribute to holding our babies back from being all they can and want to be? Yes, it does. The carbon pollution that makes us sick and kills us more than any other community is what causes Climate Change. It also makes our summers so hot that in Chicago our elderly die in heat waves when they can’t afford air conditioning. It causes extreme weather that leaves our businesses and homes destroyed in super storms like Sandy in New Jersey and New York, and it drowns those who get left behind in situations like Hurricane Katrina.
At the end of the day, the biggest target of Climate Change and pollution is communities of color, because polluters have been able to locate their facilities in our communities by promising jobs that never come to fruition and lying about the deadly health impacts of their pollution.
I’m proud to share, however, that President Obama, has proposed the biggest cut in carbon pollution to date through his authority and that of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Under President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, the power plants in our communities will, for the first time ever have limits on the amount of pollution they emit. This will force plants to either clean up their act or shut down. The EPA calculates that the Clean Power Plan will avoid up to 6,600 premature deaths, 150,000 asthma attacks in children, 3,300 heart attacks, and 500,000 missed school and work days.
The fight, however, does not end with this one policy. The work to make a 100% transition from a fossil fuel based economy (oil, coal, gas), to a clean energy based economy (solar, wind, water), will require all of us.
The climate movement does not have the same cultural relevance in our communities as civil rights issues, voting rights issues, even education and health care issues. That is the fault of the climate movement for not yet figuring out how to follow Black leadership. But, all that is movement politics. As my dear sister and fellow servant leader Valeisha Butterfield-Jones constantly reminds us, our job is to put people over politics.
We can’t bring back the life of that 14 year-old outstanding girl in Southeast DC who died gasping just like Eric Garner died in Stanton Island gasping for air. We can’t bring back the lives of so many who died prematurely. But we can save the lives of our babies and create the conditions so that they can achieve their dreams. We do so by fighting for their rights to breathe against all who threaten to take their breath away. We shall breathe. We will lead the way for a 100% transition to a just clean energy future because it is a matter of life and death for communities of color. We will #ActOnClimate.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. is President and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus and a recipient of the White House's “Champion of Change” award. You can follow him on Twitter @RevYearwood.