As I scrolled through my news feed, crimes, casualties, and human-interest pieces flickered across the screen, mixed in with memes, music videos, and recipes. Within the anxiety-inducing maelstrom, a clear theme stood out to me: Climate change has us all fucked, doubly so if you are a minority.
Driving the point home were the seemingly unrelated stories of environmental devastation concurrently unfolding in Jackson, Mississippi, and Puerto Rico. At first glance, they seemed disparate, but my shared identity as an African American from Houston, Texas, and an Afro-Caribbean from Portmore, Jamaica, stitched the two together into a painfully familiar tale of hope amid tragedy.
Amid racialized and climate-based trauma lies similar suffering and also solutions emerging.
Located 1,759 miles (2,830 kilometers) apart, the overseas territory of Puerto Rico and the city of Jackson, Mississippi, do not immediately resemble each other. Jackson exists as a majority-Black community within the state of Mississippi in the American South and has roughly 150,000 residents. The Puerto Rican identity does not fall as easily into American racial categorizations, and the unincorporated territory has a population of some 3 million. Culturally, linguistically, and geographically speaking, the two are far removed from each other, but Black and Brown communities in both endure legacies of disenfranchisement, underinvestment, and discrimination.
The ongoing environmental crises facing both places, I would argue, are linked to their positions as victims of the American imperialist project. The ongoing impacts of colonialism and systemic racism have undone these communities’ abilities to respond to the unfolding climate crisis.
Puerto Rico is still reeling from the impacts of Hurricane Fiona. Since the storm made landfall in mid-September, it has left much of the island without basic necessities and has darkened close to a million homes. While some of the damage has been somewhat repaired, there remains continual frustration with a system that does not properly address the root causes of environmental insecurity in the territory. Meanwhile, in Jackson, many residents of the city are still unable to access clean drinking water months after floodwaters destroyed the city’s main water-treatment plant. While chronic underinvestment has made boiling drinking water a way of life in Jackson for decades, the current wave of water insecurity is unfolding across lines of class and color and has reignited discussions about lack of infrastructure funding in the city’s Blacker and poorer neighborhoods.
The parallels between these stories go back centuries, beginning with the minoritized role residents of both places have played in global history. Since the days of Spanish colonialism and American slavery, African Americans and Puerto Ricans in the Global South have been subjected to unfair systems of extraction, which served to enrich imperial powers at the expense of the development of local communities.
African Americans in the Southern states have also had to grapple with the impact of the end of Reconstruction on their developmental trajectory, which fell far short of its goals to fully enfranchise the citizenry. So, too, has American possession of Puerto Rico since the end of the Spanish–American war failed to meaningfully “decolonize” the country, denying yet another minority group the lofty ideals of the American dream. The grand irony is that not only did these systems serve to unmake the capacity of either locale to respond to shocks, but also the systems of domination perpetuated by colonialism and slavery are directly to blame for the climate crisis currently unfolding.
Jackson’s Black residents have languished under decades of redlining and chronic underinvestment that has resulted in racialized access to basic resources. As white people fled Jackson, so, too, did any interest the city and state government had in providing functioning infrastructure.
Meanwhile, in Puerto Rico, a disjointed effort to upgrade the territory’s infrastructure can be linked to the ongoing systemic disenfranchisement of its people, who are made to wander in a geopolitical wilderness between unabashed colonialism, statehood, and independence. The United States has repeatedly failed to take the necessary steps to regulate the island’s access to resources, instead leaving control over its electrical grid to the whims of privatization. Ultimately, the lack of federal support and self-determination leaves the territory constantly floundering in fiscal and governmental crises it is unable to address.
The end result in Puerto Rico and Jackson alike is environmental racism. Like all forms of institutional racism, this comes about when individualized acts of racism end up encoded into the underlying structures of society. Black and Brown people are dehumanized to the point that they are unable to respond to the environmental stresses of a climate crisis we did not cause, but are most vulnerable to.
While this seems dire, it also means there is solidarity in their pursuits of climate justice. The Latino community of Puerto Rico and the African American community of Jackson (and the U.S. as a whole) deserve the right to self-determination. By viewing the struggle for climate justice as shared, these disparate communities can achieve it jointly.
Top-down, federal initiatives, such as reparations to both Afro-descended individuals within the United States and formerly colonized nations, are essential in the time of climate change. This is a global movement for the repatriation of stolen funds and stolen Indigenous land, in an effort to eradicate systemic racism and shore up resilience in the time of climate change.
Reparations should consist not only of direct cash transfers but also increased sustainable-development financing as part of deliberate efforts by governments, multinational organizations, and civil society groups to address and eliminate racial and climate-based inequality. They should also include efforts to uproot the legacies of systemic discrimination in the housing market and return Puerto Rican sovereignty to its Native people. Additionally, global leaders need to step up and directly intercede on their countries’ behalf, such as in the case of Mia Mottley of Barbados directly seeking audience with the head of the IMF to address her country’s need for debt restructuring.
Mutual aid has long been applied among minority groups as a response to systemic violence, and is becoming increasingly critical in light of climate change. In both Jackson and Puerto Rico, residents have come together to demand change, support each other, and distribute scarce resources. In Puerto Rico, this looks like neighbors checking up on and providing for each other where the government does not. In Jackson, this involves local efforts to hand out water and agitate for change. Local and international artists in both arenas have used their platforms to speak out as well.
While these efforts in and of themselves go a long way, there is still work to be done to build the broad coalitions across racial and cultural divides needed to flip the table.
A collaboration between Mississippians and Puerto Ricans wouldn’t be the first time disparate minority groups have come together to fight a common enemy in systemic racism. But the climate dimension of the ongoing struggle adds more overlap and urgency than ever.
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