In light of its storied history, the NAACP’s marginal role in some of the past decade’s most pressing racial-justice struggles has been cause for alarm and introspection. Recent upheavals within the 110-year-old civil-rights organization — including the budgetary woes and chronic understaffing that prompted its executive committee to oust former president and CEO Cornell William Brooks in 2017 — have stemmed in no small part from its seeming inability to mobilize supporters in the Black Lives Matter era, which has been marked by an often striking disconnect between older and younger leadership. The organization that once played a key role in ending the scourge of Jim Crow has found itself dogged lately by controversy: widespread staff resignations, a youth wing begging national leaders to give them adequate resources and training, and intergenerational spats over use of the phrase “All Lives Matter” as a response to the aforementioned movement’s rallying cry. The NAACP’s newest iteration, under president and CEO Derrick Johnson, committed itself from the outset to reengaging its grass roots. Part of that change requires a reckoning with what went wrong and, in some cases, what’s still going wrong, at both the national and local levels.
Among the more profound of these reckonings so far has been around climate justice and renewable energy. The New York Times reported over the weekend that big utilities have found consistent allies in local NAACP leaders, who have thrown their weight behind pro-polluter efforts to “build fossil-fuel plants, defeat energy-efficiency proposals, or slow the growth of rooftop solar power” in exchange for large donations from those utilities. The report cites as examples local NAACP support for anti-rooftop-solar-panel initiatives in Florida and Illinois, and the NAACP California conference’s top executive, Alice Huffman, signing a letter in 2018 opposing a proposal that would’ve let consumers choose government-provided solar and wind energy options at lower rates than they were paying their utilities for electricity. The NAACP’s state conferences and local chapters operate with a good deal of autonomy, but this issue has become widespread enough that national leadership published a report earlier this year warning its members about how utilities maneuver to secure their support, often as a tacit condition of their largesse. “I felt that if we wanted the money, we had to do it,” Adora Nweze, president of the NAACP’s Florida conference, told the Times of her efforts — which included newspaper op-eds and testimony to state regulators at public hearings — to discourage increased use of solar energy in her state. “The shortcoming on my part was that I didn’t have the necessary knowledge to know that it was a problem.”
Though Nweze regrets her conference’s involvement today, its impact continues to reverberate, according to the Times:
[The NAACP Florida] conference filed comments with the state Public Service Commission [opposing a solar-energy rebate program in 2014]. The commission later cited those comments in ruling for the utilities. The commission reduced the state’s energy-efficiency goals by about 90 percent … Florida utilities have some of the country’s least-ambitious energy-efficiency goals.
One of the more egregious features of such an alliance is the disproportionate impact that air pollution in particular has on black and brown communities. Nweze and others have couched their support for pro-utility projects and initiatives in altruistic terms, claiming the benefits of alternative energy — like rooftop solar panels — would be reaped asymmetrically by wealthy white residents while poorer and nonwhite people shouldered the costs. This bad-faith argument, which parrots utility-company talking points, belies the potential savings to be derived from low-income households generating their own electricity rather than relying on carbon-emitting power plants. But it also ignores the costs black and brown communities have had to bear traditionally when utilities and other deep-pocketed polluters have operated unchecked.
Decades of racist housing policy and its resulting segregation have produced convenient delineators for where zoning ordinances designed to protect residents from environmental hazards could easily be circumvented. As a result, over the course of the 20th century, black and brown neighborhoods across the U.S. became regular sites for dumping or the construction of power plants; a 2014 study from the University of Minnesota found that nonwhite Americans are exposed to concentrated nitrogen dioxide — one of six toxic air pollutants regulated by the EPA under the Clean Air Act — at rates 38 percent higher than their white counterparts. This racist allocation of public-health dangers has iterations from the Bronx to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Homes in majority-black River Rouge, Michigan, were built so close to a local power plant that older residents recall “black rain” falling over their childhood homes. The majority-black city of Chester, Pennsylvania, has been the site of several toxic-waste facilities built since the 1980s, in addition to one of the country’s largest trash incinerators. The Cross-Bronx Expressway, completed in 1972, has brought enough vehicular pollution to the majority-black-and-Latino borough that it boasted the highest age-adjusted asthma death rate in the state in 2014. “Cancer alley,” the colloquial name for the 85-mile stretch linking New Orleans to Baton Rouge, is majority black and home to 150 chemical-processing plants and refineries.
The NAACP has had a dedicated Environmental and Climate Justice program since 2009, headed by Jacqueline Patterson, and has been active in helping black communities cope with the fallout from public-health catastrophes like the Flint water crisis. President and CEO Johnson told the Times that it’s now the organization’s largest program, with 11 full-time staffers and three consultants. But, as with the NAACP’s overall lackluster response to Black Lives Matter, its state-level leadership’s knack for getting coerced — or worse, willingly taken in — by utilities whose pollutants impact black communities disproportionately symbolizes the group’s struggles to become the potent 21st-century civil-rights organization that so many of its members, and black Americans generally, deserve. No small number of its leaders have worked, and continue to work, to build such an organization, often at substantial risk to their local branches’ financial prospects; utilities have donated to them in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past, a reliable revenue stream. But as long as other leaders are willing to trade communal health for money, it’s progressively unclear how — or even if — the NAACP can recapture the dynamism of its heyday.