Until recently, ecological justice has not been a major theme in the liberation movements in the African-American community. "Blacks don't care about the environment" is a typical comment by white ecologists. Racial and economic justice has been at best only a marginal concern in the mainstream environmental movement. "White people care more about the endangered whale and the spotted owl than they do about the survival of young blacks in our nation's cities" is a well-founded belief in the African-American community. Justice fighters for blacks and the defenders of the earth have tended to ignore each other in their public discourse and practice. Their separation from each other is unfortunate, because they are fighting the same enemy—human beings' domination of each other and nature.
The logic that led to slavery and segregation in the Americas, colonization and apartheid in Africa, and the rule of white supremacy throughout the world is the same one that leads to the exploitation of animals and the ravaging of nature. It is a mechanistic and instrumental logic that defines everything and everybody in terms of their contribution to the development and defense of white world supremacy. People who fight against white racism but fail to connect it to the degradation of the earth are anti-ecological, whether they know it or not. People who struggle against ecological injustice but do not incorporate in it a disciplined and sustained fight against white supremacy are racists, whether they acknowledge it or not. The fight for justice cannot be segregated but must be integrated with the fight for life in all its forms.
The leaders in the mainstream environmental movement are mostly middle- and upper-class whites who are unprepared culturally and intellectually to dialogue with angry blacks. The leaders in the African-American community are leery of talking about anything with whites that will distract from the menacing reality of racism. What both groups fail to realize is how much they need each other in the struggle for justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.
I want to challenge the black freedom movement to take a critical look at itself through the lens of the ecological movement and also challenge the ecological movement to critique itself through a serious and ongoing engagement of racism in American history and culture. Hopefully, we can break the silence and promote genuine solidarity between the two groups and thereby enhance the quality of life for the whole inhabited earth—humankind and otherkind.
THE SURVIVAL OF THE EARTH is a moral issue for everybody. If we do not save the earth from human destructive behavior, no one will survive. That fact alone ought to be enough to inspire people of all colors to join hands in the fight for a just and sustainable planet.
But what is absent from much of the talk about the environment in first-world countries is a truly radical critique of the culture most responsible for the ecological crisis. This is especially true among white ethicists and theologians in the United States. In most of the essays and books I have read, there is hardly a hint that perhaps whites could learn something of how we got into this ecological mess from those who have been the victims of white world supremacy. How can we create a genuinely mutual ecological dialogue between whites and people of color if one party acts as if they have all the power and knowledge? Do we have any reason to believe that the culture most responsible for the ecological crisis will also provide the moral and intellectual resources for the earth's liberation?
Blacks and other minorities are often asked why they are not involved in the mainstream ecological movement. To white theologians and ethicists I ask, why are you not involved in the dialogue on race? Only when white theologians realize that a fight against racism is a fight for their humanity will we be able to create a coalition of blacks, whites, and other people of color in the struggle to save the earth.
James H. Cone, author of many books including God of the Oppressed, is the Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary. This article is adapted from the forthcoming Earth and Word (Continuum).