Since last year, I’ve been working on my next book, Abolish Oil. It was going to share lessons from the most successful political movement of the past — the Abolition movement of the 18th and 19th centuries — for today’s movement to fight climate change.
But at the end of May, after the death of George Floyd and the blooming of a new movement for racial equity, I knew that I would need to take a different approach. There was no way I could do a book about the contemporary relevance of Abolition without talking about the legacy of slavery and white supremacy today.
So, I put my writing on hold and began researching and thinking about how climate justice relates to racial justice.
About six weeks later, I came up with a new plan.
I would focus Abolish Oil on stories of local communities that had successfully fought off fossil fuel projects like pipelines, oil refineries and even plastics plants. After some initial research, especially studies by Robert Bullard, widely known as the “father of environmental justice,” I learned that many “fence line” communities located near polluting energy facilities were overwhelmingly populated by people of color.
I knew that this story was important. I knew hat a broader audience would be more willing to hear it now than in the past. And I knew that the story of black and brown activists fighting to protect their homes and their health from corporate polluters today would connect almost seamlessly to the story of Abolition in the past.
There was just one problem. I am a white guy.
I wanted to make sure that nobody would feel that I was appropriating the stories of people of color or somehow taking away from their achievement by writing about it.
So, I asked a friend who works for a national environmental organization for his advice on how — and whether — to proceed with the book. Like me, my friend is also a white man. But he’s much more tied into opinion among the larger progressive activist community than I am.
His answer was not encouraging. While I appreciated his frankness, I was disappointed to hear him say that the book was a good idea, but it was “not mine to write.” Why? Because I’m white. As a white author writing about black and brown people, I would be acting inappropriately. He thought it would be better to let a person of color write a book like this.
I had to think about that for a few days.
And then I came on this TED talk video from Nita Mosby Tyler, “Want a More Just World? Be An Unlikely Ally.”
Why Didn’t White People Speak Up?
A diversity consultant based in Denver, Tyler founded The Equity Project to support organizations and communities in building diversity, equity and inclusion strategies.
In her talk, Tyler takes the opposite view from my friend at the environmental activist group.
She tells a story of how when she was a little girl growing up in the segregated South during the 1960s, she wanted to take ballet lessons. Her mom took her to one school after another. Each one said that they did not accept black students. After a few rejections, Tyler decided that ballet wasn’t attractive after all, but was just “dumb.” And then, she started to get angry.
Tyler was angry at the explicit racism. But she was also angry at people who witnessed racial discrimination but didn’t raise any objections.
I was angry at people that stood by and didn’t say anything. Like, why didn’t the white parents in that ballet school say “Uh, that’s wrong. Let that little girl dance.” Or why didn’t the white patrons in the segregated restaurants say “Hey, that’s not right. Let that family eat.”
As a black woman, Tyler was used to standing up for racial justice. And later she also got used to standing up for fair treatment for LGBTQ+ people or for people with disabilities. But she kept wondering, why didn’t more people outside of the group feeling the impact of discrimination stand up for those who needed help?
My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. McFarland, taught me that justice requires an accomplice. Not just anyone will do. She said we need unlikely allies if we want to see real change happen. And for those of us experiencing injustice up front, we need to be willing to accept the help, because when we don’t, change takes too long.
That’s when the connection to the Abolition movement really hit me. It took black people to get it started. But it took white people joining in to help it win.
The Original Multiracial Alliance
The movement to end slavery was led by black people. Abolition started just after the country started, during the American Revolution, when enslaved people in Massachusetts petitioned that state’s newly independent government to end slavery based on the words of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal.”
And it continued through the federal and antebellum periods when self-emancipated people like Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth told their stories and called for an immediate end to slavery. Then, during the Civil War, nearly 180,000 U.S. Colored Troops fought valiantly for victory on the battlefield.
That was powerful. But it wasn’t enough. What it took to end slavery was help from a lot of white people too.
And that began with the Founding Fathers (some of them, ironically, slaveholders) who wrote and passed the Declaration. Then came northern abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison who published the nation’s leading anti-slavery newspaper for three decades and authors like Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin who whipped up the northern public to stop appeasing slaveholders.
Finally came Civil War leaders from Lincoln in the White House to William Seward and Thaddeus Stevens in Congress who converted a war to save the Union into a battle to end slavery. And remember all the white voters, from hard abolitionists on the left to “free soilers” in the center who put Lincoln and his allies in office to win the war and kept them in office long enough to pass the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery once and for all in late 1865.
It truly took white and black people working together to end slavery.
In the broad abolitionist coalition were also men and women who supported women’s suffrage, worker’s rights, immigrants’ rights, holistic health and many more causes. There were even big corporations like railway companies and Wall Street banks who played a role, sometimes a positive one.
Talk about strange bedfellows.
Tyler says that unlikely allies are needed to help a social justice movement succeed. But they may need to be invited to participate.
You know, allies often stand on the sidelines waiting to be called up. But what if unlikely allies led out in front of issues? Like … what if Black and Native American people stood in front of immigration issues? Or what if white people led the charge to end racism? Or … what if men led the charge on pay equity for women? Or … what if heterosexual people stood in front of LGBTQ issues? And what if able-bodied people advocated for people living with disabilities?
In the end, Tyler recognizes that it may be awkward when white people offer to help on racial justice issues. And she encourages everybody to work together anyway.
When white guys stand up to fight for the liberation of Black and Brown people, Black and Brown people will have to be willing to accept their help. And I know that’s complicated, but this is collective work and it requires everyone to be all in.
Inspired by the abolitionists and by Tyler’s appeal for white people to support racial justice, I’ve decided to continue to write Abolish Oil. I hope that my own white privilege will not be a negative but instead will turn out to be a positive.
I hope to reach other white people who already care about energy and climate to start caring more about the fight of communities of color across the country against dirty energy projects. I want to show how this is one and the same fight.
In Cutting Demand for Oil, We Must Not Forget to also Stop New Supply
For nearly half a century, people of color have been successfully fighting to keep polluting industrial facilities out of their communities. And as Bullard explains, the biggest victories have involved alliances of people from the inside with those from the outside, of multiracial coalitions of black, brown and white people all standing together to demand justice.
All pollution moves around in air or water, which means that dumping on some communities winds up hurting us all eventually. This is even more true for climate pollution. When it comes to carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases, pollution anywhere is truly pollution anywhere. Only when no community is a sacrifice zone can we all be safe from pollution.
Climate justice is not just an issue for people of color or those in fence-line communities next to coal plants or toxic waste dumps. Climate justice is an issue for everyone everywhere who cares about a sustainable future.
To end fossil fuels, it won’t be enough to cut demand for oil, gas and coal by building solar panels and wind turbines. We’ll also need to stop the supply of dirty energy. We’ll need to stop new pipelines, refineries and other dirty energy projects. Then, we’ll need to close down the ones that already exist.
That will be as hard to accomplish in time to make a difference in the near future as it was to abolish slavery in the 1860s. And that’s why we’ll need unlikely allies today just as much as abolitionists did back then.
“When you add your voice and your actions to situations that you don’t think involve you, you actually inspire others to do the same,” says Tyler.