Having written a number op eds for The Durham News on environmental issues, and as a true newspaper junkie, I was thrilled to be asked to contribute a regular column.
I love science and policy. My columns will reflect my personal and professional interest in the environment and environmental justice, especially the ways that our cities passively generate inequities in health and wealth through the unequal distribution of green infrastructure. It’s an often invisible way that poor people and communities are disadvantaged, and here, many of them are black.
Environmental inequities exist, environmental damage is being done, and humans are making the climate change. These are the topics I’ve been writing a couple of books about and plan to cover in my monthly columns. I was planning to write my first column on urban ecosystem services in August.
Then the terrorist attack in a black church in Charleston, South Carolina, took place.
Just a few days later, some folks were calling it an accident. Fox News (which I watch exclusively via Jon Stewart) called it an attack on Christianity. Republican presidential candidates were avoiding the phrase “racist act.” The president of the university where I teach started an email to the Duke community with the sentence, “The shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston defies explanation or understanding.”
At this very moment environmental inequities feel like lipstick on the pig of the systematic oppression of blacks in this country.
This racist terrorist attack seems quite easy to understand. Many people in the southeastern United States continue to “celebrate” the principles that the Confederacy was founded upon and defended in a civil war the Confederacy lost 150 years ago.
The overwhelming principle was the defense of slavery, which morphed into the ongoing oppression of blacks and other minorities seen throughout the 20th century. It is passed from generation to generation, and the election and reelection of a black president amplified and exercised those racist attitudes. We know this.
I always hoped, as a white, middle-aged man, that this principle would simply die. There are so many people in need, too much damage being done to the planet, and too many rich people avoiding their debts to society by perverting our democracy. In a nation that once claimed to be the refuge for the tired, poor, wretched, homeless, tempest-tossed huddled masses yearning to breathe free, I just want these problems fixed.
And here the overwhelming distress I feel is that this terrorist was just 21 years old. Racist attitudes and the oppression of blacks are not dying out.
I grew up in Minnesota hearing a much older relative (I think this is when you’re supposed to add a “bless his heart”) denigrate the Irish, Swedes, Norwegians, Blacks, Jews, Indians, and others in a fully equal opportunity way. I always associated his prejudice with age. Not passing those ideas to one’s children eventually kills the thought. Attending graduate school in Hawaii even showed me how people of different cultures could celebrate their coexistence despite some disagreements.
But here’s a terrorist act by a 21-year-old man that directly confronts that hope.
The terrorist in this attack was a white male, like me. I don’t own his act, but everyone in my society owns the back-and-forth rhetoric that fed into his thoughts. I own a part of that rhetoric.
The confederate flag embodies the notion of black oppression that shows up in our system of taxation, lending, voting laws, and, yes, environmental benefits in our poorest neighborhoods. Using these societal tools against blacks must stop, but we also need to rid ourselves of the symbols of this oppression. If the Germans could ban the symbols of the Nazis, then we can do the same with the symbols of the Confederacy. At the very least, any expression of “confederate heritage” must be met with the immediate translation, “I support black oppression.”
I’ve never been anti-free speech, but tolerating the intolerance embodied by the confederate flag has failed. That flag flying at one state capital is one too many. That symbol on one license plate is one too many. Those thoughts of white supremacy in the mind of one 21-year-old is one mind too many.
Will Wilson teaches ecology at Duke University. You can reach him at email@example.com.