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Include Blacks in 'Green' Coverage

Enthusiasm and activism to promote clean energy, green choices and smarter policy is not just limited to wealthy white elites.
 
 
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So "green" is the "new black." This catchy slogan begs the question: As environmental media coverage grows, where are the actual black people? Magazines as diverse as Vanity Fair , Elle and Wired recently devoted entire issues to climate change, and to the growing enthusiasm for cutting-edge environmental solutions. The New York Times dedicated an entire section to the topic in late May.

But in all that coverage, nonwhite faces were hard to find. ( Wired did not show a single person of color.) Such reporting can leave the impression that global warming is somehow a "white issue." Or that enthusiasm for clean energy, green choices and smarter policy is limited to wealthy elites.

That is simply not true. At least, not entirely.

Globally, rising sea levels will swamp many island and coastal civilizations, displacing millions of mostly nonwhite peoples. Hurricane Katrina showed how vulnerable low-income African-Americans are to extreme weather events.

That's why many African-Americans are fighting global warming. For example, the Congressional Black Caucus released a scathing call for action in 2004. This year, Sen. Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to support Detroit auto makers in producing more eco-friendly, fuel-efficient cars. An African-American, Jerome Ringo, heads the national Apollo Alliance. The alliance, which works to expand jobs in the clean energy sector, recently helped to introduce comprehensive clean-energy legislation (Clean EDGE) in Congress.

At the grassroots level, local heroes like Majora Carter of Sustainable South Bronx are helping to cool the planet -- by increasing the amount of green space in urban areas. In Los Angeles, former Black Panther Anthony Thigpen is leading a campaign to create thousands of jobs in energy-efficient "green construction" for L.A.'s urban residents. In fact, there is a national coalition made up exclusively of black, Latino, Asian and Native American groups working to curb global warming. The Climate Justice Coalition is anchored by an Oakland-based organization, which is headed by an African-American, Michel Gelobter.

But with the exception of Carter in Elle magazine, the recent spate of coverage leaves out every one of these individuals and their efforts. It's a shame -- because averting ecological catastrophe will require broad support, not just elite buy-in. People of all races and classes -- including millions of nonwhite voters and consumers -- must rise to the challenge. And stories that exclude nonwhite leadership can narrow the issue's appeal, and hurt the cause.

At the same time, it is true that passion to reverse global warming runs hotter among the privileged than the poor. People struggling to survive don't have time to worry much about polar bears or the next decade's floods. So blacks, disproportionately poor, have not engaged the issue en masse.

But the media can help, both by showcasing diverse leadership, and by giving more reasons for hope. Those who already enjoy great opportunities may need to hear about the big ecological crisis. But those who already live in perpetual crisis instead need to hear about the great ecological opportunities. The transition from fossil fuels will bring new jobs: installing solar panels, plugging energy leaks in buildings and tending urban gardens. Entrepreneurs will create new markets in alternative fuels and energy-efficient gadgetry.

There is still time to get in on the ground floor of creating new technologies, products and services. Many hard workers and smart investors of all racial backgrounds will ride the "green wave" into economic prosperity. So perhaps activists should start telling African-American and other disadvantaged groups that green is the new "gold."

And in the meantime, I hope the media will do a better job of showing the full variety of people working hard to cool the Earth.

Van Jones is executive director of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif.