In a number of 1967 speeches, Martin Luther King famously explained how the "three evils" of racism, poverty, and war were intertwined. That same year, King and other visionary leaders started a Poor People’s Campaign to expose the moral crisis of poverty in the richest country in the world and to confront those three evils.
Today, visionary leaders in movements for social and economic justice have launched a new Poor People’s Campaign, to combat the same moral crisis in a different age. They'll be launching marches, rallies, and campaigns of civil disobedience in over 30 states this spring.
King’s insights about the intersections of racism, poverty, and war are as true now as they were in 1967.
A report released this week by today’s Poor People’s Campaign and the Institute for Policy Studies offers decades worth of data on how these crises intersect, what their systemic roots are, and why we need grassroots people power to dismantle them.
But understanding how King's "three evils" operate today also needs to take into account a fourth set of evils: climate change, ecological devastation, and the grossly unequal ways in which they operate. As an author of that section to the report, I feel strongly that fulfilling King's vision means addressing the deep inequities of climate change head-on.
"First and Worst"
The political and economic system in the U.S. today values some people less than others. That's why systemic racism persists, why our society grows more unequal, and why we spend 53 cents of every dollar in the federal discretionary budget on the military while underfunding programs that benefit poor people.
We see the same logic in operation in the causes of climate change and environmental pollution. NASA scientist James Hansen warned Congress of the coming threat of climate change as far back as 1988. And yet for 19 more years, U.S. emissions of planet-warming greenhouse gases continued to grow.
Only a system premised on extreme inequality of economic privilege and political power would choose to allow a threat to the very future of humanity to grow unchecked instead of cutting back on fossil fuels. For federal policy makers, the profits of the fossil fuel industry have taken precedence over the future of a large majority of humanity.
Climate change isn't only caused by our unequal system. It also has starkly unequal impacts by race and class. Here in the United States, low-income people and people of color — those who've benefited the least from our extractive, fossil-fueled economy — are already suffering a disproportionately high share of the adverse effects of climate change. And worldwide, people in poor countries in Africa, Latin America, Asia, and the Pacific face the worst climate change threats.
Extreme heat waves are one of the most dangerous impacts of climate change, and black Americans are 52 percent more likely to be exposed to extreme heat than their white counterparts. Likewise, by the end of the century, sea level rise caused by climate change is expected to submerge coastal U.S. communities where between 3.6 million and 9.8 million people live — but the effects of sea level rise are already upending the lives of low-income Indigenous Alaskans.
Climate change hurts everyone, but it hurts some people first and worst.
Water scarcity attributable to climate change is likely to worsen the ongoing crisis of water affordability. Already, the poorest quintile of Americans pay 2.8 percent of their income on water bills. And a study found that for 11.9 percent of households, the share spent on water exceeds 4.5 percent. Alarmingly, the study projects that the share of people paying more than 4.5 percent of their income on water could triple over the next five years.
The hurricanes that struck Texas, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and other Caribbean islands last year were among the most visible recent examples of how climate change impacts are happening now, not just in the far-off future. But far from prioritizing community resilience, our political and economic system enables Wall Street to extract wealth from our communities, as clearly seen from the experience of Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico is a colony of the United States, with no voting representation in Congress and without the right to vote in presidential elections. It had a poverty rate of 43.5 percent and a median household income barely above a third of the nationwide median even before Hurricane Maria.
In 2016, Congress further disenfranchised Puerto Ricans by setting up a financial control board to restructure Puerto Rico’s economy to prioritize paying debts to Wall Street over addressing community needs. This board is not accountable to Puerto Ricans, but “has a lot of power over us, including the power to eliminate environmental laws, and to sell public land to pay the debt,” says JesÃºs VÃ¡zquez of OrganizaciÃ³n BoricuÃ¡, a Puerto Rican food sovereignty organization.
This history of disenfranchisement and impoverishment made the impacts of Maria a whole lot worse. Almost the entire island lost access to electricity. Even after two months, more than half the island’s residents still didn't have their power restored — a life-threatening situation for people relying on dialysis or oxygen. The loss of electricity shut down hospitals, clinics, and water utilities, compounding the public health crisis.
Meanwhile, our government hands out $20 billion annually in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry that's directly responsible for the heat waves, sea level rise, water scarcity, and more frequent and severe storms that are killing people and ravaging communities, with very unequal impacts by race and income.
Weapons of War
Unequal systems need repression to prop them up. The military routinely transfers surplus equipment to local law enforcement agencies, including night vision goggles, body armor, and mine-resistant armored trucks with ambush protection. Police departments use these weapons of war — and make no mistake, that’s what they are — to go to war with Black Lives Matter activists and Native American water protectors fighting some of the very injustices I've highlighted here.
Powerful corporations pollute the air and water without regard to the health, well-being, or even the lives of poor people and people of color, because our unequal political system based on systemic racism and economic exploitation lets them do so. The resulting ecological devastation further marginalizes and impoverishes people. And our increasingly militarized state does not hesitate to use violence, or the threat of violence, to maintain this oppressive status quo.
Yes, the four evils are inextricably linked. We need a powerful movement based on grassroots people power to dismantle these four evils and build a system that truly puts people — all people — and planet first.
That's why we need a new Poor People’s Campaign.
Basav Sen directs the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. He's a coauthor of the report The Souls of Poor Folk, co-released by IPS and the Poor People's Campaign.