I ran across this interview with Van Jones via AlterNet. In it, Jones is talking about the new book, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots (PoliPointPress, 2007) by Kevin Danaher, Shannon Biggs, and Jason Mark. Jones does a nice job of connecting some dots that may seem disparate to many, like the link between suburban sprawl and racism. Here’s a short bit from the interview:
Sprawl is a response to racial fear and anxiety on the part of white elites. The ‘burbs were designed as a vehicle to get away from people of color, investing more in the white infrastructure as they moved away from the city, and the neighborhoods where people of color live. The other side of that is the disinvestment for the communities that remain behind; the money follows the new suburban development. Those that remain in the inner city continue to lose in this scenario.
When asked in a follow-up question what’s preventing environmentalists and inner-city residents, who both have an interest in stopping sprawl, from working together, Jones does not hesitate to name the issue:
“Racism. It is the reason that people move away from each other. People don’t want to talk about why people call this a “good” neighborhood or that one a “bad” neighborhood, but often it has to do with the race of the people that live there. White people divorce themselves from the bad neighborhoods and move to the suburbs. The black community has a lot of built-up feelings about our history, about the racism we experience. There is some healing that needs to take place there, so these communities have some issues, and don’t want to work with each other, necessarily. There are a lot of feelings there.”
And, Jones goes on to make the connection clear between racism, the current system of incarceration, and what this means in terms of working for a green future :
“The incarceration industry is the new Jim Crow; you don’t have to call him the “N word” if you just call him a felon. There are the same amount of drug problems in the ‘burbs that there are in the inner city, but in the ‘burbs the white kids get counseling, they don’t go to prison. Generally speaking, they only call the police in the ‘hood. The system has responded with compassion to white kids. …Again, the new Jim Crow is incarceration. This is the barrier that separates people from the lives they want to live. You go to the back of the line as a felon. You lose your voting rights, can’t get a good job, you’re denied student loans. It is devastating. We spend less money on public schools than on locking people up; it’s far easier to go to prison than to get a scholarship. … This distorts economic development. The current economic strategy is to take poor black kids, put them in jail in rural areas, and give poor white kids jobs as guards in that prison. That is the economic strategy. Rural towns can’t compete with industry, farms are all going away, so prison is an economic boon for rural communities. Come on, we can’t come up with a better strategy than that? In California, for example, nearly 10 percent of the state budget goes to the prison system, and that could grow to 15 percent or even higher. When you lock up a state budget like that, where is the money to retrofit buildings for energy efficiency? … We can have a Gulag or a green economy. But we can’t have both. If we train former prisoners and guards to put up solar panels, they are already on their way to becoming electrical engineers. If we train them to double pane glass, they are on their way to be a glazer: a good union job and green path out of poverty. Bamboo, it’s so different than timber, you can cut it and it grows back quickly. If we can train folks to do the green thing, they can then walk to the front of the line in an economy based on green jobs instead of an economy from pollution-based jobs. That is where these issues connect. What we need is a green wave that can lift all boats, that can lift folks out of poverty.”
Jones’ is much-needed voice. If there are any folks in the Bay Area interested in these issues, Jones’ Ella Baker Center is hosting an event on November 14, called “Green Cities, Brown Folks,” as part of their on-going “Solutions Salon.” And, if you can’t make it to the event, try that Donation button and drop a dollar. These folks are doing good work.