Race and class are the biggest issues around Hurricane Harvey...

... and we need to start talking about them, writes Charles Ellison of The Root.

Charles D. Ellison, The Root | 8/29/2017, 1:41 p.m.
... and we need to start talking about them, writes Charles Ellison of The Root.
People use an air mattress to float down a flooded street as they evacuate their homes after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 27, 2017, in Houston. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images -- via The Root)

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Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was the most illustrative example of every disparity converging on an unprotected, unprepared black community all at once (patternwise, Harvey is shaping up as the next). Everything intersected during Katrina: climate change, natural disaster, bad government response, rudderless leadership, institutional racism, classism and the massive displacement of black populations that ended up creating an unintended diaspora scattered mostly throughout the Southwest United States. But Katrina wasn’t the first time, really, and it won’t be the last. The “unprecedented” nature of Harvey indicates that more severe storms will come as climate change patterns intensify. And that leaves much of the national black community in the worst spot.

Clearly, state, local and federal government preparations and post-event response aren’t adequately addressing the needs of vulnerable, underserved black and brown populations—nor is the government exhibiting a desire to do so. But black state, local and federal elected officials, along with community advocates and black media, must be much more proactive and preparatory.

Our conversations around climate change need more urgency and greater awareness, and yet this is not happening. For example, climate change threats aren’t big topics when influential African Americans converge for conferences: When the National Association of Black Journalists convened in New Orleans this summer, climate change didn’t even make the agenda.

“We were surprised to find that wasn’t being discussed,” said Myron Jackson, Senate president of the Legislature of the U.S. Virgin Islands, a majority-black territory that has long dealt with devastating hurricanes and is bracing for more as destructive weather patterns intensify. While at a Council of State Governments discussion in Connecticut (where this writer was a panelist), Jackson shared thoughts on the lack of internal community conversation after attending NABJ. “It was rather disappointing,” he added.

Nor was climate change a prominent feature at other major black organizational conventions this summer, and few expect that it will be. The black church is just as bad. Houston’s Mayor Turner is one glaring example of how black elected officials won’t intersect climate change with aligned issues such as poverty. If he had, his response planning would have been a lot more holistic.

“New Orleans literally rebuilt their school system after Katrina,” says former Obama-administration appointee and Colorado state legislator Peter Groff. “Houston has the opportunity to remake previous poor areas, but black elected [officials] need to be on guard for gentrification.”

Climate change demands this kind of discussion and planning. Equally tragic is that black communities themselves fail to robustly engage in an intersectional and action-steps dialogue on climate change in the context of broader and rather familiar socioeconomic themes. It can’t be that certain segments of the black advocacy community already focused on climate justice are the only ones leading this discussion—all of us need to lead it.

“It’s difficult because there’s a finite amount of social justice capital to go around,” said KFI AM (Los Angeles) broadcaster and commentator Mo Kelly on WURD Radio’s (Philadelphia) Reality Check. “This issue is not in our face like other issues, since it’s a slow-moving glacier.” Still, we can’t afford to wait on a headline or folks screaming for help on social media before we get working on this issue. Before the next big calamity strikes, let’s make certain we own it.

CHARLES D. ELLISON is Contributing Editor for TheRoot & ExecProd/Host of 'Reality Check' on WURD Radio (Philadelphia). + Washington Correspondent, The Philadelphia Tribune; Principal, B|E Strategy