A Call to Environmental Justice

Mar 22, 2023 10:54:00 AM / by Heather McTeer Toney


In the Black community, we have other things to worry about besides climate change. The idea gets lost in the cloud of issues we muddle through daily. When listed next to job security, food insecurity, gun violence, and the blatant racism faced daily by African Americans, climate change ranks low among problems competing for our attention.

But as African Americans, we are disproportionately impacted by the effects of climate change. Black people make up 13 percent of the US population, but breathe 40 percent more dirty air than our white counterparts. We live in areas four times as likely to be impacted by hurricanes, tornadoes and floods, and we are twice as likely to be hospitalized or die from climate-related health disparities.

Surviving traumatic change is part of our lived history, not new to our experience. Imagine the upheaval and confusion enslaved Africans experienced as they were stolen from their homes and forced to relocate and adapt in new environments across the New World. Most were taken to locations in the global south like Brazil and the Caribbean while others landed in the continental United States. We are descended from people traumatically removed from one ecosystem—the linked biological community of plants, animals, people, germs, energy—and transported across the Atlantic Ocean to an entirely different ecosystem. Under the most horrendous and inhumane conditions imaginable, the enslaved were forced to teach and care for people from another ecosystem—European—and to figure out how to make plants grow and animals thrive. My ancestors brought with them skills they quickly learned to apply to the land they were forced to tend. If there is any group of people that can innovate climate solutions and adapt, it’s Black Americans. If our ancestors figured out how to survive the hot underbelly of a ship and adapt to a wholly different environment, we can also figure out how to handle the climate crisis. Our history underscores the value of Black people’s role in the climate movement. We know how to adapt to change.

I love the example of recycling and reuse. Recycling isn’t a “new” method to reduce plastics and waste in Black households. Enslaved Africans creatively recycled and reused every item they encountered. Our great-grandmothers repurposed leftover materials to create beautiful quilts, patterned with the stories of struggle and survival. They wrapped us in the warmth of their love and legacy. Scraps of meat and vegetables were turned into succulent dishes prepared with care and prayers for nourishment. A plastic bag from the grocery store was also a trash bag, hair conditioner cap, lunch box, Halloween bucket, stuffing for mailing breakable items, and what you wrapped the lotion bottle in when traveling so it wouldn’t spill on clothes. For us, recycling and reuse isn’t just to protect the planet. It is a way of life, a nod to our memories, a way to protect what we had and keep what we have. Today, these recycle and reuse lessons remain in our culture regardless of how much money we have. While it wasn’t right, we managed to survive historical climate and environmental injustices while addressing the multitudes of social justice issues plaguing minority and often marginalized people. This is one example of the ways we have naturally responded to climate crisis. It’s streetlight security at its finest.

Climate and environmental issues have always been intertwined with our struggles for justice. But now the streetlights are on and we must see clearly. Trust me, making sure there are equitable climate solutions that speak to the experience of all people is tantamount to running home before those streetlights glow.

Black academics, community leaders, and scientists who work in environmental and climate issues don’t get a break from other injustices that impact Black America. Working in climate doesn’t make us immune to the varied injustices that hurt our sons and daughters. After talking about climate change, I go home to concerns of my husband being pulled over by the police or my sweet five-year-old son being categorized as too aggressive when he’s playing. Before giving a speech on environmental justice, I worry that my daughter has to deal with bullying because she’s in a majority-white school and people either pick on her stunning African features or question her Blackness because of her brilliance. The multitude of social justice issues that weigh on Black people never gives way to one or the other, nor to environmental and climate injustice.

Despite the myriad of persistent struggles faced by Black American climate advocates, we still press the focus on the environment and climate change. We do this because the science is clear—the climate has changed and continues to do so now. Devastation is taking place as we speak. Time waits for no one. Climate degradation and environmental injustice are deadly factors in Black communities, not unlike killer cops and uncontrolled access to firearms.

The difference between mainstream majority-white environmental movements and minority-led Black, brown, and Indigenous environmental movements is that the latter does not have the luxury of silo. Our issues coexist. Climate change collides with other historic and systemic racially based issues to create a long-overdue desire for one thing: equity.

We’ve all heard the age-old colloquialism that we’re all in the same boat, so we must row together and in the same direction if we’re going to survive. But that’s not necessarily true. When it comes to climate and environmental issues, humanity is in the same storm, but we are not in the same boat. Some of us are sailing along in yachts or manning aircraft carriers while others are bobbing along in rafts and rowboats. The impact of the storm hits us differently. The one thing we have in common is that we all want to survive.

Our foremothers and forefathers made it the business of the village to ensure that the next generation understood the importance of doing our best to keep everyone safe. Our history serves as a clarion call to environmental consciousness. African Americans have always been molded or influenced by our environment. In our recent history, the simple phrase “before the streetlights come on” is our prompt to participate in the restoration and healing of the air, land, and water in our communities and we need to hurry up.


This is an excerpt from Before the Streetlights Come On chapter 1, “Hurry Up and Get Home Before the Streetlights Come On!”

Topics: Excerpt

Heather McTeer Toney

Written by Heather McTeer Toney

Heather McTeer Toney is an attorney, environmentalist, speaker, and writer. She was the first Black, first female, and youngest mayor elected in Greenville, Mississippi, at age twenty-seven. In 2014, she was appointed by President Barack Obama as regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency's Southeast Region. Formerly the senior director for Moms Clean Air Force, Toney is now vice president of community engagement for the Environmental Defense Fund. She is a frequent guest on numerous shows and networks including CNN, Apple's The Problem with Jon Stewart, MSNBC, Democracy Now!, and Fox News. Heather lives with her husband and three children in Oxford, Mississippi.

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