“I can’t breathe.”
Like so many Americans, I was horrified by George Floyd’s haunting final words. Another Black man’s life snuffed out by the police. Another son and father killed for nothing more than the “crime” of being Black in America. Another name to add to that shamefully long list of Americans: Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Dominique Clayton, Atatiana Jefferson, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Rayshard Brooks, and on, and on.
Those words struck a chord with millions of people across the country who decided -- many for the first time ever -- to stand up, speak out, hit the streets, and fight back against the anti-Black racism and police brutality that has been allowed to perpetuate in America for far too long. It has been truly inspiring -- and I am hopeful that it will lead to real change.
But for those of us who are passionate about environmental and climate justice, those last words hit especially hard.
"...concern for Black health and Black lives means more than fighting police brutality, although that is critical, of course -- it also means fighting for a country and a planet where Black people and other marginalized communities aren’t being asked to bear the brunt of pollution and climate change."
We know that concern for Black health and Black lives means more than fighting police brutality, although that is critical, of course -- it also means fighting for a country and a planet where Black people and other marginalized communities aren’t being asked to bear the brunt of pollution and climate change. And it means making sure that we’re addressing the roots of environmental racism as we all mobilize to address this climate crisis.
Here are some facts.
Black people in America are subject to 1.5 times more particulate pollution, which directly causes asthma and other health problems in our communities -- and are three times more likely to die from pollution than white Americans.
Landfills, toxic waste sites, and other industrial pollution sites are often put next to communities of color -- with devastating health impacts on children, adults, and generations of families.
As hurricanes get stronger and stronger due to climate change, Black communities are too often hit the hardest. We saw this most directly with hurricane Katrina and the aftermath of that tragedy -- and it’s only going to get worse.
The impact of pollution and climate change on Black people in America doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It builds on the structural racism already embedded in our health care system -- manifesting itself by Black people having less access to care, higher rates of pre-existing conditions, and greater face extreme discrimination in health care settings.
We also know – and are seeing right now during this horrific pandemic – that when a public health or environmental crisis becomes an economic crisis, it’s Black workers and families who are hit the hardest with unemployment and underemployment, and it’s Black small businesses that are most likely to be forced to shutter their doors.
Those are disturbing realities we have to confront -- and they are part of why it’s so clear to me that fighting racism and fighting this climate crisis go hand-in-hand.
But there’s also opportunity to be found in wrestling with uncomfortable truths: the truth can help set us free.
I believe that if we do this right, and we mobilize our country to tackle this climate crisis with a clear understanding of the need to tackle structural racism, too -- we will come out the other side with more jobs, more opportunities, and more prosperity for Black workers and business owners. We’ll see the positive effects on communities of color here in America, and across the world. Cleaner air and water, less frequent hurricanes, and a safer world will benefit the health and well-being of Black communities, and lead to a stronger, healthier, more prosperous country overall.
"That is exactly why I joined World War Zero...we’ll need to have those tough conversations -- like the ones many of us have been having in recent weeks -- that bring more people on board by helping them understand that we’re all in this together."
Erika Alexander at World War Zero Town Hall in Ohio (with Arnold Schwarzenegger, John Kerry and John Kasich).
That is exactly why I joined World War Zero. We have to unite if we’re going up against this opposition of injustices. We need to look beyond ourselves, our political views, and our comfort zones. We need to reach out to people who may not know how the climate crisis impacts them, their families, their communities, and their country.
And we’ll need to have those tough conversations -- like the ones many of us have been having in recent weeks -- that bring more people on board by helping them understand that we’re all in this together.
Poster for the documentary, John Lewis: Good Trouble, produced by Erika Alexander (released July 3rd, 2020).
"After hearing those haunting words and deciding that they’ve had enough, we saw people come together and work toward making real change. We need to keep that energy going in the weeks and months ahead…"
“I can’t breathe.”
After hearing those haunting words and deciding that they’ve had enough, we saw people come together and work toward making real change. We need to keep that energy going in the weeks and months ahead. We need to fight for justice: for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery (and too many more); for Black and minority communities across the country; and for the climate and environment. And we’re going to need all the help we can get.
About the Author
Beloved for the iconic roles of Maxine Shaw (Living Single), Detective Latoya (Get Out), Cousin Pam (The Cosby Show) and Linda Diggs (Wutang: An American Saga), Erika Alexander wears many hats, including actress, entrepreneur, creator, producer and trailblazing activist. As co-founder of Color Farm Media and board member for VoteRunLead and One Fair Wage, Erika is on a mission to bring greater equity, inclusion, and diverse representation to both media and electoral politics.