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December 12, 2014

Read the Comments

Riding alone on the D.C. Metro Silver Line late last Thursday night, I shut my laptop in disgust. I had just left my sister's house in northern Virginia. And now, reading some comments on a Facebook post had wiped out much of the good feeling of reconnecting with family. The Sierra Club's expression of solidarity for organizations protesting the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and other victims of injustice provoked many reactions, some of which were racist, vicious, and crude. So I stopped reading and closed my laptop.

Before I go on, let me say that I do realize that spending much time in the comments section online can be a risky proposition. There's even a recently closed Twitter feed, @AvoidComments, that gives several hundred humorous reasons and reminders NOT to read the comments. After all, the Internet can be a place of joy, inspiration, and insight (also, cat videos), but scroll on down to the comments section of just about any high-profile news item and you'll often find seemingly limitless bile and venom. In the wake of the grand jury decisions regarding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, and the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, that was most certainly the case. And when some of that hatred made its way onto the Sierra Club's Facebook page, I initially wanted no part of it.

Then I realized that I had done exactly what the victims of racism cannot. All I had to do was close my computer and -- voila! -- that hatred was gone. From my position of privilege as a white man, I could choose whether to face the ugliness of racism. But had I been born with a different color of skin, racism would have been inescapable. In America, people of color can't ignore the hatred and fear in the comments -- they are living those comments every day. In a moving essay, the chairman and CEO of Kaiser Permanente, Bernard J. Tyson, wrote last week, "If you're not black it's hard to relate to situations as a black man might," and patiently described how being one of the country's top executives doesn't make him immune to indignities at upscale stores, in restaurants, and in public.

I reopened my laptop. It was going to be a long ride.

As I read on through the hundreds of responses, they fell into three general categories. There were the ones that made me recoil. There were also expressions of gratitude -- a category I'm glad to say got larger over time and soon represented the vast majority of posts. And lastly, there were comments from people who simply seemed baffled. Why was the Sierra Club speaking out on this issue? What did police shootings, or questions of abuse and racism, however tragic, have to do with protecting the environment?

Right away, I wanted to answer that question. So I wrote a quick post on Facebook that I later added to my own blog, and I promised to follow up in more depth, which I'm doing now.

Where to begin? I'll start by acknowledging that the environmental movement has a less-than-perfect record when it comes to race. After more than a century of conservation work, it's only relatively recently that we have recognized the gravity of environmental injustice -- that communities of color are almost always the ones most affected by pollution. That's not an inconvenience. It's a matter of life and death, from the refineries of Texas to the tar sands of Canada.

At the same time, we have struggled to foster a truly inclusive movement. I think that's finally beginning to change, and I am proud of the hard work that the Sierra Club and others have done. But as I read the comments on Facebook, I thought of how our staff members and volunteers of color would feel. It's not enough for environmental organizations to become more racially diverse -- we must also understand and take responsibility for their experience in the workplace. Just like the nation, we still have a long ways to go.

And I'll say it again: To succeed in standing up to those who don't care what happens to our planet, we need the help of everyone who does. The environmental movement, and the Sierra Club, can and should recognize and welcome the participation of the people most affected by injustice, environmental or otherwise.

But how can we enlist the support of millions of people who are forced to live with irrefutable injustice if we turn our backs on their suffering? I could quote statistics for pages, but for those who really want their eyes opened, I recommend The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Suffice to say that being black means you are more likely to be stopped by the police, more likely to be searched if you're stopped, and more likely to lose your life if you're arrested. If you're convicted, you're far more likely to get the death penalty. Stacked Deck, a report released this week by the policy organization Demos, shows how racial bias in our political system prevents these and many other issues from being addressed.

If you're a young black male, it doesn't matter who your parents are. You might be a future CEO; your dad might be the mayor of New York City. You've had "the talk." You've been warned to be cautious around the police, to hold your tongue, to keep your hands in plain sight. This is good advice for anyone, but for people of color and in particular for young black men, it's often a matter of life and death. I never had to have that conversation with my parents. I can't even imagine growing up with that reality. Although my wife and I talk about race with our kids, they won't face the same danger that their black and brown friends do.

Is it too much to hope that the terrible events in Missouri, New York, and Ohio will force us as a nation to look at ourselves without flinching and to hold these injustices to the light? To the people who still don't understand what that might have to do with environmentalism, here's my answer: Fighting injustice -- knowing the difference between what is right and what is wrong -- must be at the heart of our work. Otherwise, what really distinguishes us from our opponents?  

The truth is that the people who are protesting the deaths of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and so many others are fighting against the same things that we are. I'm not just talking about corrupt politicians, soulless corporations, or a biased criminal justice system. Our real shared adversaries are fear, ignorance, and self-interest. Those are the wellsprings of both the hatred in the Facebook comments and the resistance to making our world cleaner, safer, and fairer for all, not just a privileged few.

John Muir wrote, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny." These great leaders of the environmental and the civil rights movements never met, but they would not have failed to see what we share in common: The belief that we can do better and the hope that, together, we shall.

This weekend, I ask you to get out of your comfort zone on race. Listen to what your fellow Americans are saying about their personal experiences of racial injustice. Talk to your colleagues, friends, and family. Maybe start following @Colorlines on Twitter. And consider showing solidarity by attending one of the many peaceful protests around the country. My family and I will be doing that tomorrow here in the Bay Area. Join us! 


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Michael Brune

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