A Black Ecofeminist’s Pushback to the Green New Deal

Much of the backlash against the Green New Deal (GND) centers on conservatism and climate change denial. I am offering a different pushback, one focused on the name of the program. The past and present are interconnected, but what do we lose when we compare this proposal to the New Deal, a series of programs that benefitted white Americans through the economic exploitation of Black Americans? How does the name “Green New Deal” maintain a white status quo historical narrative of the New Deal that invisibilizes Black struggle and oppression? The GND, in name, is harmful to Black folks because it calls on the past without addressing the truly devastating effects of the New Deal on the Black community.  

Through the New Deal, Franklin D. Roosevelt promised relief, reform, and recovery—the “3 Rs”—to the American public after the Great Depression. But do not be fooled. The FDR administration concocted this economic stimulus program to serve white settlers. It promised to reduce unemployment and improve the standard of living. It promised to eradicate poverty and establish permanent prosperity, allowing the American Dream to blossom in the white mind. The reality of the pledge, however, was far different.  

The New Deal did not radically alter the lives of Black people in America. Rather, it deliberately stymied our progression and liberation from the white capitalist patriarchy. In “A Survey of Problems of the Negro Under the New Deal” (1936), John P. Davis—a prominent Black journalist and co-founder of the National Negro Conference—explains that the condition of Black Americans varied greatly from the alleged goals of the FDR administration.

“At once the most striking fact to be observed is the tremendous growth in the number of Negroes of both rural and urban centers who have been compelled to seek relief despite the continuous operation of New Deal devices,” says Davis.  

The point is not that relief was available to Black families, but that more Black people were forced to seek relief because they were unemployed or earning such low wages that they could not afford to support themselves. Based on the October 1933 unemployment census, Davis finds that between 1933 and 1935 the number of Black families receiving relief nearly doubled, jumping from 2.1 million to 4 million families. Such an increase indicates that the vague pledge of improving the standard of living for working-class Americans did not come to fruition for the Black working-class.

While you could argue that the New Deal had just been implemented, Davis’ study was conducted two years after the program went into effect. Thus, it provides an accurate statistics-based representation of issues experienced by Black people during the time period. Davis states, “although we represent less than 10 percent of the total population of the United States, the number of Negroes on relief is today more than 20 percent of the total number of relief families for the United States.” That is a crushing statistic, one that demonstrates the implicit racial bias of one of our country’s most highly rated economic programs.

And if that is not enough to prove the New Deal’s ill effects on Black people, consider how attempts at reform—especially in agriculture—entrenched Black sharecroppers and farmers in cyclical debt. The New Deal robbed, exploited, evicted, and terrorized rural Black workers, stripping them of hard-earned wages and indebting them to white landowners. Any of this sound familiar?  The FDR administration took advantage of my people’s history, relegating us once again to the position of the exploitable underclass. In my eyes, that is not someone who deserves to have an environmental stimulus plan named in honor of his presidency. There is no way I can back a policy reminiscent of the 1930s (um, hello? Jim Crow laws!).

On the theme of history, we need to stop treating the GND as if it is a brand new idea. In a March 2019 Vox article, David Roberts traces the concept to a 2007 New York Times column by Thomas Friedman. Inspired by Friedman’s idea, Barack Obama included the GND in his 2008 presidential platform. Slated to decarbonize the economy, revitalize the public sector, and work towards a just transition, the GND really seems like the answer. And I cannot lie, it does sound promising and thoughtful. Investment in low-income and frontline communities is absolutely necessary to address climate change, but we must remember that a just transition is about far more than money.

The immense focus of the GND on building a green economy through market-based strategies suggests it is not fully committed to a truly just transition. In a 2018 interview, Elizabeth Yeampierre, a Puerto Rican attorney and climate justice activist, explains key differences between top-down and grassroots responses to climate change. Yeampierre says that “the climate justice movement is really talking about moving away from an extractive economy to one that’s regenerative.” This means we need an anti-capitalist and relationship-centered climate justice framework. As Yeampierre powerfully states, “capitalism is going to kill the planet.” Yet, the GND policy platform seems intent on replicating, rather than dismantling, capitalism. In effect, we need to shift from a culture of competition to one that embraces sharing and collectivity—that is a just transition.   

Circling back to Robert’s article, he writes only one critical sentence about the New Deal stating, “several people I talked to stressed that they want to avoid the mistakes of the original New Deal, many elements of which entrenched or exacerbated racial inequalities.” While I am appreciative of this addition, I cannot help but notice that it was written as a sort of aside. A recognition that yes, there were problems with the New Deal but this GND will not have any of that because we know about environmental racism now. A name is not simply a name; it has feeling and meaning. In this case, part of the name has a past. Renaming and reclaiming concepts does not just happen through recognition of the past. They are processes that necessitate collective agreement and genuine dialogue between all parties involved.

I am a queer Black female ecofeminist and I am so profoundly tired of environmental policies that only halfway, or do not at all, address how we have been systematically separated from the land. Consider these words from Alice Walker (2006):

“We are people who have always loved life and loved the earth. We have noticed Earth. How responsive and alive it is. We have appreciated it. We have been a nation of creators and farmers who adored the Earth even when we were not permitted to own any part of it larger than our graves. And then only until a highway needed to be built or a condominium constructed on top of them.”

Take pause and ask yourself whether the GND truly reflects Black history. I do not think the GND is a hopeless endeavor but I do believe it is greatly troubled. How can I possibly embrace a proposal that is, by name, intricately connected to an economic program that greatly harmed my people? Where is the justice in digging up an old wound and leaving it open? If we are really seeking radical change, we must also speak of difficult and uncomfortable histories. I am a dreamer and I am deeply rooted in my ancestral past. The GND has the potential to create great change but those activists involved need to work harder to situate themselves in history. The New Deal was not all it cracked up to be and I do not at all want that to be the case for the GND.

Despite the GND’s commitment to justice and investment, I am not convinced it is the paradigm shift we so desperately need. FDR was a white man with power and he used his position to advance the status of his people at the expense of mine. We need to talk about this when we speak of the GND. If we do not, we risk making superficial changes to an already broken system. We are not fighting for band-aid solutions. This is a collective struggle and it must be treated as such. We face a pressing environmental crisis but we must also remember that urgency carries injustice. Contemplation and self-reflection are just as much a part of activism as direct action. Let us step back and take time to reflect on whether the GND represents all the people it claims to serve.

I am restlessly curious about what other Black folks think of the GND. We have a long history of being in relationship to the land. Who wants to be reminded of a time when our government removed us from the land and further relegated us to the underbelly? In the words of bell hooks, “I don’t want whiteness to frame my relationship with Earth.” How can the GND be for Black people if it does not fully acknowledge our ancestry and contributes to the whitewashing of the New Deal? I refuse to sit back and accept the GND without challenge. I am piping up and talking back.