Developing The Green New Deal For Black and Brown People

I first heard about the “Green New Deal” during my 2018 campaign for Michigan governor. When I heard the name, I was immediately skeptical. After all, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s original “New Deal” was no new deal for Black Americans. In fact, one of the deal’s landmark programs, the Federal Housing Administration, became one of America’s chief tools for redlining — accelerating segregation — and marginalizing Black families.

The Green New Deal, like all climate policy, also had to compete for political attention with policy reforms that focus on people, including healthcare, housing, criminal justice reform, and infrastructure — policies critical in the fight for racial equity in America. The Green New Deal, I thought, was just one more obstacle to real racial justice reform.

Then I learned that the Green New Deal is a sweeping policy package which recognizes that the only solution to climate change is a deep restructuring of our economy. It builds a clean, renewable energy infrastructure through a massive investment and mobilization of American workers. In these restructuring and mobilization efforts, the Green New Deal builds equity. For that reason, the Green New Deal isn’t just our best opportunity to save our planet from climate change, it’s our best opportunity to tackle vast racial inequities in health and wealth. The Green New Deal is a Black and Brown new deal, too.

Consider the health implications of the Green New Deal. In Detroit, where I served as health director, residents are three times as likely to be hospitalized with an asthma exacerbation than the state average. And because a child with persistent asthma will miss, on average, a day of school every two weeks, the consequences of a child’s unaddressed asthma can last a lifetime. The main reason asthma is so bad in Detroit is because it’s an industrial town, where big corporations have burned pollutants into our air and poisoned our kids’ lungs. This is no coincidence — Detroit is approximately 80 percent Black and the poorest city in America. Corporations located in our city because they knew richer suburban communities wouldn’t tolerate their pollution, but poorer communities in Detroit were too busy surviving to mount effective opposition.

Keeping kids breathing — and in school — was a critical goal for my work at the Detroit Health Department. If we wanted to address the asthma epidemic, we had to stand up to the polluters that had long gone unchecked. We built an environmental justice unit and, in a key victory, worked with the community to force a petroleum refinery in one of the most polluted parts of town to reduce their emissions. We also supported community efforts to force another petroleum company to cover piles of a substance known to release dust into our air, which the company wanted to store openly on Detroit’s windy riverfront.

Detroit is just one of many large Black and Brown communities that bear a disproportionate burden of fossil fuel pollution. A recent study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that Black and Brown Americans are far more likely to be exposed to harmful fossil fuel emissions than their white counterparts. The Green New Deal would be a game-changer for these communities.

By reducing our country’s overall reliance on fossil fuels and vastly reducing the air pollution fossil fuel companies emit, the deal would end the oil companies’ exploitation of Black and Brown urban communities.

Tackling fossil fuel emissions at the source is critical to improving health outcomes in these communities. But it’s not just about shutting down petroleum refineries. Climate change, and the storms that come with it, are going to disproportionately harm Black and Brown communities. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and parts of Mississippi. The devastation for Black and white Americans was nowhere near equal; Black neighborhoods that were most exposed to the hazards of the hurricane — like the Lower 9th Ward — suffered far worse. In fact, 11 years after the storm, one in three Black New Orleanians had not returned to the city, and rates of poverty among Black residents are higher than they were in 2005.

When Hurricane Harvey hit Houston, it brought rain and flooding “not seen for 500 years,” except it was the third “500 year” storm in three years. Storms like Harvey and Katrina are happening at a faster clip and will continue to devastate Black and Brown communities. So we must act quickly.

Building the infrastructure that we need to break our dependence on fossil fuels and prevent generational storms won’t be easy — it requires a massive investment in the workforce to build green infrastructure at scale. That’s why a federal jobs guarantee to train and employ this workforce is the backbone of the Green New Deal. The impact of a federal job guarantee in communities of color is obvious. Even at record low unemployment, Black unemployment is nearly two times higher. Underemployment — being employed, but in a job that doesn’t offer health or retirement benefits, or pay a living wage — is far more common in communities of color. That’s why the Green New Deal’s jobs guarantee has the potential to address the massive income gap that persists in our country. The consequences of this jobs guarantee for wealth and social mobility could lift whole generations of Black and Brown families out of poverty.

But the question remains: can we do it? Opponents of the Green New Deal say the cost of the proposed legislation is too expensive. However, they ignore the costs that people in communities of color know all too well — the cost of inaction. Whether it’s the decimation of entire communities like New Orleans’s Lower 9th Ward, or the long-term economic costs of generational poverty, it’s the failure to act that will be the most expensive. A panel of climate experts suggests that climate inaction would lead to a 10 percent constriction of the American economy over the next century. Furthermore, Republicans in the House and Senate have long blocked progress on key social policies focused on low-income communities of color.

Our federal budget is, if nothing else, an expression of our national priorities. Though we continue to fund our war machine to nearly three quarters of a trillion dollars, we choose not to act on the imminent threats of climate change and inequality. By tackling emissions in Black and Brown communities across the country, addressing the climate change that will wreak havoc in these communities, and lifting people out of poverty through a federal jobs guarantee, the Green New Deal has the potential to be the New Deal that Black and Brown communities never got.

About the Author

Abdul El-Sayed is a physician, epidemiologist, public health expert, and progressive activist. He ran for Governor of Michigan in 2018 on an unapologetically progressive platform, advocating for universal healthcare, clean water for all, debt-free and tuition-free higher education, a pathway to 100 percent renewable energy, and to rebuild the barrier between corporations and government. He has authored over 100 peer-reviewed articles, book chapters, and abstracts in public health, with expertise in health disparities and complexity science in public health. His co-edited textbook Systems Science & Population Health, was published by Oxford University Press.

The People's Climate March in New York City on September 21, 2014 (Joe Brusky, Flickr).