Sunday, August 10, 2008
HEY, HEY, HO, HO: POLAR BEARS HAVE GOT TO GO!
Breaking news: the polar bear is the true agent of racial repression in America. I kid you not.
No this is not an Onion story--really. It's a wacky, tragic, and true tale of how a venerable civil rights organization became a corporate pawn. And how corporate lobbyists, overpaid and underworked, are creating a sham movement of the poor to support an agenda to roll back environmental regulation.
The players: Exxon, the Pacific Legal Foundation (a right-wing libertarian advocacy law firm), the dubious Alliance to Stop the War Against the Poor, the polar bear, and the Congress of Racial Equality and its chairman-for-life Roy Innis. Jill Tubman, herself the daughter of a CORE activist, untangles the bizarre story.
But first, a brief look back at CORE. Founded in 1942, CORE brought together an interracial group of activists, many of them interested in bringing Mahatma Gandhi's teachings to bear on the creation of a "beloved community" that transcended racial division. CORE activists built alliances with the labor movement, with left and religious groups, and with wartime pacifists. They formed experimental communities (sometimes called ashrams) where they lived together black and white, at a moment in history where crossing the color line was transgressive. They experimented with sit-ins to challenge restaurant segregation and sponsored a 1947 Journey of Reconciliation to break down segregated interstate transportation in the South. CORE activists bridged North and South, providing training for a new generation of activists who would shape the transformative wave of protest in the early 1960s. Most famous for its role in the 1961 Freedom Rides through the South (a reprise of the 1947 Journey, but on a much larger scale), CORE activists also led protests against housing segregation in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York, and Los Angeles. In Philly, Newark, and Brooklyn, CORE spearheaded protests and civil disobedience at construction sites with all-white workforces. And by 1964, CORE chapters were leading the way in grassroots community organizing in poor communities over issues like tenants' rights, price-gouging inner city stores, and police brutality. CORE fell on hard times, however, and by 1966, it repudiated its longtime interracialism and embraced black power. Its membership plunged and its donations dried up. But some of its most creative activists, including founding member James Farmer, housing reformer Clarence Funnye (who tragically died in a plane crash in 1970), and antipoverty warrior George Wiley, left CORE but took the organization's mandate with them and pushed in new directions.
Roy Innis, who took the helm of CORE in 1968, followed a different path. A firebrand advocate of black power, he soon migrated to the political right. By 1972, Innis was a prominent supporter of Richard Nixon. He became a Reaganite. And he joined the board of the National Rifle Association and, in an appalling affront to its founding principles, branded CORE as a national "pro-firearms organization." Among CORE's more prominent allies is the Community Financial Services Association of America, the trade association of "payday lenders" (or as they call themselves the "payday advance industry"). In 2005, CORE honored life-long civil rights activist Karl Rove at its annual Martin Luther King, Jr. dinner. In Tubman's words, Innis now presides over "the decrepit, corrupt CORE."
What is Innis's new battle? It is against the listing of the polar bear as an endangered species. Protecting the endangered bear is, in Innis's words, an "attack on economic civil rights." If we save the polar bear, sites for oil drilling are limited, the oil supply shrinks, prices rise, and guess what, poor people are left paying more. Advocates of the protection of endangered species are "modern day Bull Connors and George Wallaces, who are standing in the door, trying to prevent poor Americans from achieving Martin Luther King’s dream of equal opportunity and true environmental justice." I can think of about 500 direct ways that poor black people are ripped off by profit-artists like those who bankroll CORE. And I can think of lots of ways that Exxon could show its concern for poor people. How about subsidies to inner city gas stations? Or better yet, grants for public transit systems that so many people of color rely upon, since they can't afford exorbitant insurance, expensive cars, and costly fuel.
The environmentalist movement has not always allied itself with African Americans and other minorities. But a robust environmental justice movement in recent years has gone a long way toward repairing that breach. The bottom line is that environmental devastation knows no color line. Climate change and reliance on fossil fuels have devastating long-term consequences for black and white, Latino and Asian, American and Bangladeshi alike. In fact it's poor people who suffer the brunt of manmade environmental disasters from floods to fires to chemical dumping. And really, what has Exxon done for poor people of color?
Thinking about the face off in Alaska between the polar bear and Roy Innis, one thing is for sure. I will never think about whiteness and privilege in the same way again. And more seriously, I shudder in horror in memory of the true heroes of CORE: James Farmer, James Peck, Gloria Brown, George Houser, Clarence Funnye, and on and on, whose extraordinary contribution to the black freedom struggle will continue to inspire, well after the tragedy and farce of the organization that calls itself CORE is long gone. They would be marching on Exxon and thinking locally and globally about the ways that racism, environmental degradation, and corporate greed are mutually reinforcing.