Environmental Issues Are Race and Class Issues

Justice on Earth, part 2

"Peace on Earth," the herald angels bid us. Let us attend, as well, to Justice on Earth, for peace and justice are interdependent. There will be no peace without justice. This is because human beings systemically denied justice will agitate for it, including turning to violence when there is no other recourse. It’s also true that there will be no justice without peace. This is because for human beings under attack focus on defending themselves, not on fairness to others. Only a relatively stable regime under relatively peaceful conditions can turn its attention to improving its justice. I take this not as a chicken-and-egg insoluble dilemma, but as indicating the need to gradually build both at the same time.

The herald angels didn’t specifically mention justice. They did, per some versions of the Gospel of Luke, say "good will to all." I want to be clear that goodwill is not justice. Good will is better than ill will -- usually -- but good will is not enough. You can have the best intent in the world, but if you're negligent, you're still at fault. Citing good intentions doesn't get us off the hook for harm we've done, howsoever inadvertently.

I was reminded of this when I heard Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith of Mississippi apologize recently. She had praised a supporter by saying, "If he invited me to a public hanging, I'd be on the front row."

The words evoked her state's sordid history with lynching -- and did so in the context of a campaign in which her opponent was a black man.
Her apology:
"For anyone who was offended by my comments, I certainly apologize. There was no ill will, no intent whatsoever in my statements."
My point isn’t to single out one politician for criticism. She is merely one prominent and recent example of the tendency to think that citing good intentions should absolve us of the harm we’ve done.

Sen. Hyde-Smith was negligent -- not in a criminal way, I don’t think, but she committed a moral version of negligence. Either she wasn’t paying attention enough to know what words cause harm in the context of America's past and present, or she knew but didn't care. Either way, she was negligent. The apology that I’d wished I’d heard would have gone something like: “My words were carelessly negligent of the harm they could and did do, and I’m sorry.”

The concept of negligence includes that no harm was intended, so by copping to negligence, one is still conveying that one didn’t mean it – but – and this is the important part – one is naming and owning to a wrong rather than implying that there was no wrong at all.

I’ve grown attuned to the ways people cite their intentions – their good will. Over and over, I notice white people excusing themselves by citing their intentions. It's infuriating how often this tactic is used, and how it's almost always white people expecting absolution on the basis of their intentions. The dominant US culture rarely wonders what a black person's intent might be. Peace on Earth depends on Justice on Earth, and "Goodwill among people" does not achieve justice.

“Justice on Earth,” as it happens is the title of this year’s Unitarian Universalist Common Read. Each year our Unitarian Universalist Association selects a book recommended for all Unitarian Universalists across the country to read. Our Common Read for 2018-19 is Justice on Earth: People of Faith Working at the Intersections of Race, Class and the Environment. In essays from 14 different Unitarian Universalist authors, the book addresses our tendency to form justice silos. That is, we approach the different issues where justice is needed as if they weren’t interconnected, as if each injustice were a separate and distinct problem having no effect on other problems.

There’s economic justice – the need to address income inequality. There’s racial justice – the need to address the systemic ways that people of color continue to face discrimination. There’s the need to protect the environment. There’s the need protect women’s autonomy and choice, end sexual harassment and assault, and end gender-based discrimination. There’s the need to advance protections and respect for LGBTQ people. If we treat these as separate silos of concern, then they are in competition with one another – competing for our time, attention, and resources. We will wrangle about, “My issue is more important than your issue.”

But there’s one issue: and that’s the ideology of supremacy, the ideology that values men over women, whites over what people of color, straight and cis-gendered over LGBTQ. It’s an ideology of dominance that puts certain categories outside of concern and respect, that treats them as means only, not as ends in themselves.

That ideology extends to the Earth itself: we treat it as a means only, a heap of resources to be exploited, and not as an end in itself. We treat nonhuman animals as means only, not as ends in themselves. Your "door in" might be Race issues, or environment, or income inequality, or LGBTQ, or reproductive rights, or animal advocacy, but once you get in, it’s helpful to understand that there is a single shared vision at the root of all these issues, if we properly understand them.

This root is a vision of world without domination – where everyone’s needs are on the table, where all beings are accorded concern and respect, where no person is a means only, no animal is a means only, no life form is a means only -- ultimately no mountain or river or grain of sand is a means only – but is valued for what it is as an end in itself.

Justice on Earth explores, in particular, the ways income and race intertwine with environmental issues. Those on the margins are most affected by climate disasters. Those on the margins are most affected by environmental toxins because we deliberately locate our waste dumps and polluting facilities closer to areas where people of color and poorer folk live. So environmental issues are racial issues, and are income inequality issues.

Over thirty years ago, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice undertook an extensive study of Toxic Waste and Race in the United States. They found that:
Communities with a commercial hazardous waste facility averaged 24% minority. Even more striking, communities with two or more [commercial hazardous waste] facilities -- or one of the nation's five largest landfills – averaged 38% minority. Meanwhile communities with no such facility averaged just 12% minority.

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This is part 2 of 3 of "Justice on Earth"
See next: Part 3: A Kind of Trinitarian-ish Logic Comes to Unitarians
See also Part 1: Christmas and "Peace on Earth"

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