Racial Justice, Climate Justice and Capitalism in the U.S.: A Contradiction in Terms

November 2, 2021

Manifest Destiny and Slavery as Key Bases for the Proliferation of the Markets

As we gather in Glasgow for two weeks of deliberations for the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change Conference of Parties #26, (COP26) otherwise known as the “Conference of Polluters” or the “Conference of Profiteers,” we must be like Jesus in the temple overturning the tables of the money changers. We can no longer accept business as usual in the vein of moneyed interests suppressing ambition and holding us back from the bold commitments necessary to turn the tide of climate change. Too often, we as frontline communities convene at these meetings, raise our voices and demands, yet find ourselves unwitting spectators to the parade of dominating capitalists who are more concerned with maintaining the status quo and corporate interests than saving the planet.

For Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) in the U.S., capitalism has never really worked out for us. By design. Indigenous and Black people were not only unwelcome participants in the “free market” system; through enslavement, we were actually the commodities being traded in the market.

On December 13, 1711, the New York City Common Council made Wall Street the city’s first official slave market for the “sale and rental” of enslaved African people as well as the original inhabitants of this land now called the United States.

Early proponents of capitalism believed that “free markets” and the ability to invest money for profit would make the world a better place.  It certainly made money for the slaveholders: By 1840, the South grew 60 percent of the world’s cotton and provided some 70 percent of the cotton consumed by the British textile industry.

To raise the money to start, many future plantation owners turned to capital markets in London — selling debt that was used to purchase boats, goods and eventually people. Later in the 19th Century, U.S. banks and southern states would sell securities that helped fund the expansion of slave-powered plantations. Thus, slavery paid for a substantial share of the capital, iron, and manufactured goods that laid the basis for American economic growth.

Even when African Americans tried to gain some share of the emerging economy, post emancipation, such efforts at accumulation of wealth were met with guns, torches, destruction of homes, businesses and slaughter of communities, as with “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The earth hasn’t fared any better against the forces of greed and the pursuit of power. When the “explorers” journeyed across the ocean seeking spices, the original intent for the journey was to take from the land. Then, upon arrival in the West, they stole the land itself by murdering and displacing its original inhabitants, whose culture and heritage was centered in living in respect and harmony with the land.  Indigenous values and practices were in resonance with the regenerative bounty offered by the land. But this relationship was replaced by settler colonialism with the modus operandi of reckless extraction and dominion over people and place.

Privatization, Profits, Predators and Prey

As the settlers established dominance, they institutionalized policies, practices and an economy that has evolved into the complex system that prevails today, one that is rooted in exploitation, enclosure of wealth and power, and ruling by force.

So it is here that we find ourselves on a collision course with climate change. Energy is produced by extraction and burning of fossil fuels, which sends greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere and poisons the communities that host these facilities and practices. Moneyed interests invest in policymakers, trade associations, and political action committees that ensure that the suite of policies include everything from voter suppression to prison, school, and water privatization — all towards concentrating the spoils into the coffers of a handful of profiteers.

Urban heat islands and deadly heat waves, cancer clusters, fatal asthma, food apartheid, immigrant children in cages, incarcerated Black men, missing and murdered Indigenous women, maternal mortality, homelessness, mountaintop removal, unbreathable air, poisoned waterways, and rampant extinctions — all of these conditions are manifestations of a runaway predator economy.

Climate and Capital: Lost and Damaged

As frontline communities and global south nations are harmed first and worst by climate change, we are intimately acquainted with the catastrophic fallout from the obsession with capital of the uber wealthy class. Communities in flood plains, disproportionately comprised of Black people, are being washed away as 100-year floods happen every other year. Too often, low-income people live in poor quality housing that is most likely to be destroyed by extreme weather. Immigrant families, leaving their homes due to climate forced migration, are caged and/or herded by reins turned into whips, cruel measures deployed by a country that has only 4% of the global population yet produces 25% of the emissions that drive climate change.

Deaths in the thousands are due to disasters, coupled with a system that cares less about people than it does about profits. Too many are permanently displaced by a “recovery” system that is biased toward homeowners and long-term rebuilding plans dominated by wealth-seeking developers and abetted by compromised politicians. These are the “losses and damages” most suffered by BIPOC and low-income communities: loss of life, livelihoods, and homes. Meanwhile, some industries are actually more profitable after disaster than they were beforehand. Something is very wrong with this picture.

Getting to Zero Emissions–Carbon Markets Will Not Save Us

In the words of Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” It is the market-based economy that got us into this mess in the first place.  To use the same mechanism that caused the problem to try to solve the problem is illogical at best. When the energy sector is a $7 trillion industry and fossil fuel companies are making billions of dollars in profit, putting a price on carbon does not come close to achieving the wide-scale emissions reduction called for by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. It’s just math.

Unfortunately, it is frontline communities that pay the price as pollution continues and, in some cases, intensifies with hotspots.  And it’s everyone who pays when catastrophic climate change rages on, unabated by this false “solution.”

With a Solidarity Economy, We All Win, Including Mother Earth

As we enter into COP26, we must remind ourselves that sometimes the most effective solutions are the simplest ones. We must also remind ourselves that those closest to the problem are best placed to design effective remedies.

In the case of climate change, frontline communities are already showing us the way:

With principles, practices, and policies that mimic natural systems — the real nature-based solutions of regenerative design and cooperative systems — we can re-design our societies in a way that celebrates the abundance of what the earth yields. Grounding ourselves in values such as caring for the sacred and preserving ecological wellbeing, we can learn to live in harmony with the earth and with each other. Establishing systems rooted in deep, inclusive democracy, we can govern ourselves in a way that uplifts all rights for all people, ensuring that no one is left behind. Then everyone can truly enjoy the foundational tenet of “liberty and justice for all.”


Teaser photo credit: Author supplied

Jacqueline Patterson

Jacqueline Patterson is the Founder and Executive Director of The Chisholm Legacy Project: Resource Hub for Black frontline Climate Justice Leadership. Previously she served as the Senior Director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program.

Tags: climate justice movements, COP26, solidarity economy