“I think Van Jones is a big part of the future of environmentalism,” Gus Speth, dean of Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, told New Yorker writer Elizabeth Kolbert earlier this year. “He, more than anyone else, is bringing together a concern about the environment and a concern about social justice. And, if I had just one thing to say, it is that we in the environmental movement cannot fail Van Jones.”
Less than a year later, have environmentalists already failed Van Jones?
The Monday after Jones resigned from his post as a White House adviser to the Council on Environmental Quality, Arla Shephard and I drove south from Colorado to interview environmental justice activists and community organizers in New Mexico. Jones’ resignation, and the racially loaded witch-hunt that prompted it, made our trip seem all the more timely.
When we asked the organizers we met with about the environmental justice movement's achievements over the past two decades, many of them cited the appointments of Van Jones, Hilda Solis (Secretary of Labor), and Lisa Jackson (EPA Administrator) as proof of the movement’s progress.
But Jones’ departure was a frightening reminder of how much work remains, said Robby Rodriguez, executive director of the Southwest Organizing Project, and stark evidence that Obama’s election did not dawn a post-racial society.
What was revolutionary about the environmental justice movement when it first formed, Rodriguez said, was its idea of broadening environmental discourse to consider people, economics, and race. When we talk about environmental issues today, he said, people and economics are almost always a part of the conversation, but an honest discussion about race is still absent.
As arguably the most prominent environmental justice advocate in the nation, Jones was working to change that. And his White House appointment showed his message was gaining traction. But Jones' swift takedown and the racial scare tactics deployed against him, Rodriguez said, “[don't] send a good message to any of us doing this work that we can aspire to influence the highest levels of government."
Rodriguez wondered why white progressives and environmentalists, many of whom have heaped praise on Jones in the past, kept mum as Glenn Beck went on a hysterical rampage to chase Jones out of Washington. Did mainstream white enviros really see Jones as one of their own?
Noting that “no major white green groups” came to Jones’ defense until after the deed was done, blogger Ludovic Blain attributes their silence to “racismblindness,” or a “surprisingly high tolerance for racism.”
Carl Pope acknowledged as much. “We all blew it,” the executive director of the Sierra Club wrote in a blog posted just after Jones’ resignation. Here’s a portion of Pope’s mea culpa:
This was a lynch mob and, when it started forming a month ago, we didn't take it seriously enough. When I saw the first Glenn Beck piece on Van Jones and the Apollo Alliance as the new vast left-wing conspiracy, I could not take it seriously. Silence enabled Fox to keep pushing. The statements for which Jones apologized -- the reference to the right as "assholes" and saying that Bush was talking "like a crack-head" were such ordinary political discourse -- think Rahm Emmanuel, think Dick Cheney saying "fuck yourself" to Senator Leahy, think Tom Friedman dubbing Bush "the addict-in-chief" -- that I didn't understand why an apology was necessary; I assumed it would blow over.
Well, that was a mistake. So was the decision by the White House to treat the initial attacks not as part of an assault on the president but, instead, to allow them to be viewed as being about Van Jones. What we underestimated was the power of the fact that both Jones and the Barack Obama are black. Yes, the hysteria was about politics -- I don't think Fox News really cares about Jones's ethnicity -- but it was enabled by race. Calling Bush a "crack-head" is seen by a large part of America as worse than calling him "addict-in-chief" because crack is not just a drug -- it is a drug used largely by black people. It reminds those Americans who are still uncomfortable with Barack Obama that we have a black president.