When you turn to your favorite cable news network, a story may feature an environmental issue, and more often than not, that report will have one of two memes: Americans trying to save some remote brown people from some “unforeseen” toxic-industrial tragedy. Or the real tear-jerking report, some remote brown people and their lands are being exploited by some corrupt officials in their particular region, and subsequently, they’re begging for assistance from American citizens.

In both instances, we are asked to donate to the charity of our choice in hopes to help ease the suffering of said brown people, but we are never told to demand a halt to the extraction and destruction of their resources in their homeland.

In a 2010 interview, the New York Times Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristof commented that he always had trouble finding a way to get his readers to act upon the stories that involve large-scale, and often times horrendous, environmental atrocities being committed by humans throughout the third world.

Kristof, in a truly sincere moment, actually shed light on why we, as Americans, tend to look at issues that effect third world nations with apathy. “I think it’s not real…there is this compassion fatigue as the number of victims increases,” he said.

Kristof’s statement serves as starting point for how Americans perceive the pressing environmental issues of the day: climate change, global warming, deforestation, food and water security, and a host of other issues that call for immediate action. We hear these problems that are affecting us, and sometimes feel as if we don’t have any power to help, or even more tragically, we may not have anyone in our inner circles that would care enough, outside of a sympathetic acknowledgment or donation, to act upon a given issue.

Americans, and people in general, have moral compasses that guide them to act in tremendously generous ways, whether it’s with their time or money, but, as Kristof astutely asserts, “I think that my job as a journalist is to find these larger issues that I want to address, but then find some microcosm of it.”

Humans are very social animals, and helping others is more than just making ourselves feel better, but in many cases, it touches on the very fabric of what forms rich and diverse cultures. The question is now, how do we get black people, who through no fault of their own, have a hard time defending nature because civilization brings them every resource they need to survive?

Well, first, there is perception that blacks do not care about the environment. This notion tends to affect the hiring practices of some of the largest environmental organizations. When is the last time Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson brought up the absolutely putrid absence of minorities in positions of authority within the these institutions?

President Barack Obama made symbolic moves to bring minorities into the forefront of large government agencies that have direct impacts on the environmental policies. Appointments like Lisa Jackson at the EPA, Margaret Hamburg as commissioner of FDA, Regina Benjamin as the Surgeon General, and not to mention, First Lady Michelle Obama’s active involvement in issues pertaining to childhood obesity and nutrition all show that, the White House is taking an impressive stance on the protection of environment and human health.

But, why are blacks still absent in debates about environment, yet blacks are, more often than not, the main victims of environmental issues? Why aren’t the majority of blacks up in arms against some of the worst purveyors of environmental issues.

Despite President Obama’s appointments, with regard to the environment, in America, it’s business as usual. Since the issues have always been presented to us, in the corporate media and most environmental rallies, as larger than life, we cannot contextualize them within our own experience, leaving most of us in a tragic position: supporting the very corporate institutions which sole purposes are to exploit and, eventually, kill us.

This seems, on the surface, a bold indictment of corporate practices, given we can mark the anniversary of legal personhood granted to corporations by our esteemed Supreme Court. One could argue that corporations have the same moral capacity as the NY Times readers Kristof described earlier, but even he would have to admit, and this statement is purely speculation, that morals are clearly not inherent to corporations. Moral sentiments are usually saved for commercials, it’s called greenwashing.

These limited liability lesions, called corporations, intrinsic nature is profit above anything else, including life.

We, as blacks, have not, whole-heartedly, joined the environmental battle with “tree-huggers” because U.S. industry, has systematically, since Reconstruction, stripped us of our ability and right to feed ourselves. This system has never respected our right to life.

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  • Black Americans tend to lead cultural movements, but are often a generation behind when it comes to social movements. It must also be said that being “green” is a middle to upper middle class privilege. Et voila… You might a great points about how much of the eco movement is merely a marketing ploy to get people to buy more stuff. Still, optimism prompts me to expect it to eventually turn into a genuine shift in attitudes. Let’s here it for quality over quantity, resourced-based living!

  • I am black and yes I care for the environment.

    I just think that poverty has a lot to do with whether or not you want to save the planet, How can you think about the environment when you have to wonder where your next meal is coming from?

    Im sure there is a lot of people like me , they call me “treehugger” ” recycling guru” at work, and i love it.

  • Interesting article. You have caused me to think about being brown and green in a whole new light. My viewpoint was limited to recycling, buying used if possible over new, buying local and using less energy. I agree with much of what you said but I disagree with “Stop making me believe if I recycle, take a bike to work, turn off the lights after I leave the room, buy eco-friendly products, become a vegan, or do anything else that reduces my “carbon foot-print” will help stave off the destruction of the real world. These are all marketing schemes to keep me shopping, keep the system afloat.” Since I’ve taken these steps my purchasing has decreased significantly. I have been searching for blogs or other resources regarding brown people and the green movement but found very little. I think you have done a great job explaining why. Thank you for contributing to this movement.

  • Shane, you need to come talk to us folk over at the U.S. Fish & Widlife Service so that you can see what we are doing to get Arican American AND other minorities in conservation.–>