Who gains from the green economy? Making sure the "green wave" doesn't leave out communities of color.

Author:Shekar, Preeti Mangala

LAST YEAR, THE OAKLAND-BASED Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, with a miniscule staff and budget, worked relentlessly to pass the Green Jobs Act in Congress--a bill that if authorized will direct $125 million to green the nation's workforce and train 35.000 people each year for "green-collar jobs." That summer, Ella Baker Center and the Oakland Alliance also secured $250,000 from the city to build the Oakland Green Jobs Corp, a training program that promises to explicitly serve what is probably the most underutilized resource of Oakland: young working-class men and women of color.


In these efforts lay a hopeful vision--that the crises-ridden worlds of economics and environmentalism would converge to address the other huge crisis--racism in the United States. It is what some of its advocates call a potential paradigm shift that, necessitated by the earth's climate crisis, can point the way out of "gray capitalism" and into a green, more equitable economy. The engine of this model is driven by the young and proactive leadership of people of color who intend to build a different solution for communities of color.

Van Jones, president of the Ella Baker Center, talks about how earlier waves of economic flourishes didn't much impact Black communities. "When the dotcom boom went bust, you didn't see no Black man lose his shirt," he points out, only half joking. "Black people were the least invested in it."

Climate change is the 21st century's wake-up call to not just rethink but radically redo our economies. Ninety percent of scientists agree that we are headed toward a climate crisis, and that, indeed, it has already started. With the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions, the clean energy economy is poised to grow enormously. This sector includes anything that meets our energy needs without contributing to carbon emissions or that reduces carbon emissions; it encompasses building retrofitting, horticulture infrastructure (tree pruning and urban gardening), food security, biofuels and other renewable energy sources, and more.

It's becoming clear that investing in clean energy has the potential to create good jobs, many of them located in urban areas as state and city governments are increasingly adopting public policies designed to improve urban environmental quality in areas such as solar energy, waste reduction, materials reuse, public transit infrastructures, green building, energy and water efficiency, and alternative fuels.

According to recent research by Raquel Pinderhughes, a professor of urban studies at San Francisco State University, green jobs have an enormous potential to reverse the decades-long trend of unemployment rates that are higher for people of color than whites. In Berkeley, California, for example, unemployment of people of color is between 1.5 and 3.5 times that of white people, and the per capita income of people of color is once again between 40 to 70 percent of that of white people.

Pinderhughes defines green-collar jobs as manual labor jobs in businesses whose goods and services directly improve environmental quality. These jobs are typically located in large and small for-profit businesses, nonprofit organizations, social enterprises, and public and private institutions. Most importantly, these jobs offer training, an entry level that usually requires only a high school diploma, and decent wages and benefits, as well as a potential career path in a growing industry.

Yet, though green economics present a great opportunity to lift millions of unemployed, underemployed or displaced workers--many of them people of color--out of poverty, the challenge lies in defining an equitable and workable development model that would actually secure good jobs for marginalized communities.

"Green economics needs to be eventually policy-driven. If not, the greening of towns and cities will definitely set in motion the wheels of gentrification." Pinderhughes adds. "Without a set of policies that explicitly ensures checks and measures to prevent gentrification, green economics cannot be a panacea for the ills of the current economy that actively displaces and marginalizes people of color, while requiring their cheap labor and participation as exploited consumers."

What remains to be seen is how green economics will transition out of current prevalent models of ownership and control. A greener version of capitalism could possibly address some of the repercussions of a consumption economy and the enormous waste it generates. But critics and activists also worry that a "replacement mindset" is largely driving the optimism and energy of greening our industries and jobs. Hybrid cars replace conventional cars, and organic ingredients are promised in a wide variety of products from hand creams to protein bars. Many mainstream environmental festivals like the popular Green Festival held in San Francisco, Washington, D.C. and Chicago, have yet to embrace a democratic diversity. Peddling wonderful green products and services that will reduce your ecological footprint, they are...

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