Chemicals, pipelines destroying Black communities today. And poor of color are dying.
Along the Mississippi River in Louisiana, land where Black people were once enslaved on plantations is now being poisoned by petrochemical plants that have given the place a new name: Cancer Alley. In the fall of 2019, Robert Taylor told a Poor People’s Campaign gathering there about the toll of watching his family and neighbors die. Taylor’s daughter has a rare disease that her doctor told her she had a 1 in 5 million chance of contracting. She has since learned that three other neighbors are dying of the same disease.
Four hundred miles north in Memphis, Tennessee, Black residents invited the Poor People’s Campaign to support their organizing to stop the Byhalia Pipeline. The proposed crude oil pipeline would repeat the systemic racism of the 1970s urban renewal by running the line through Memphis’ African American communities. In this place where Ida B. Wells once challenged the lies used to justify lynching, Black Memphians are again resisting lies that would harm their community.
More than 150 years after slavery was abolished in the United States, descendants of enslaved Americans continue to challenge systemic racism because they experience the ongoing impact of America’s original sin on the very land where it first occurred.
But slavery’s legacy doesn’t stop in those communities.
Neighborhoods of color across the country are hit by industrial waste and air pollution and deprived of green spaces at significantly higher rates than white communities. Poverty, redlining (a practice that segregated housing) and the overwhelming lack of diversity in the environmental space keep the cycle of pollution and community destruction concentrated in Black America.
In fact, whites in America experience 17% less air pollution than they cause. Black people experience 56% more than their consumption causes, according to a 2019 study.
Follow the family lines of the Great Migration to Chicago, Illinois, and Flint, Michigan, and you find African American communities where families can buy unleaded gas but not unleaded water. There, too, welfare-rights unions have joined the Poor People’s Campaign because their members work two and three jobs but still cannot afford a decent home for their families. In recent weeks, our partners on the Southeast side of Chicago won a struggle to keep a processing plant from moving from predominantly white Lincoln Park into their neighborhood.
The Poor People’s Campaign has joined with grassroots movements across the USA to highlight the 140 million Americans who are poor or low-income in the richest nation in the history of the world.
While poverty touches every race, creed and culture, 60% of African Americans are poor or low-income (compared with 33% of white Americans) because the promise of 40 acres and a mule was never fulfilled for the formerly enslaved. Whether you live in St. James Parish, Louisiana, or Flint, Michigan, the nation’s failure to pay reparations continues to echo through the African American community.
Black people have been denied the fruit of our labor through Jim Crow laws, convict leasing and the redlining and urban renewal that have destroyed Black neighborhoods.
Today’s racial wealth gap is clear evidence that reparations are needed.
For generations, an economic system built by white male property owners has consolidated more and more wealth in the hands of a few, leading to income inequality that hurts people of every race.
A tax on that accumulated wealth to repay the descendants of the people who have been systematically abused by this economy would do more than render justice too long denied. It would give Black Americans the opportunity to demonstrate how wealth can be invested in ways that benefit the whole and help us imagine a world where no one needs to live in poverty.
The Rev. William J. Barber II is the president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.