Ray Ring's "Affirmative actions"


In his recent HCN report “Affirmative Actions” (August 17 edition), Ray Ring makes this statement:        Obama’s array of appointees mirrors the percentages of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans in our society. More than anything, these three controversial appointments highlight the (environmental) movement’s chronic failure to recruit minorities into its top echelon.

Over almost 40 years in the Environmental Movement I too have noticed the lack of minority representation in the "top echelons" of large national environmental organizations. Here's my perspective on why this has been and remains the case today.

I do not believe there is a lack of minority involvement in the Environmental Movement as a whole. For example, there are a host of Indigenous (Native) American environmental organizations in this country including, for example, the Indigenous Environmental Network, the California Indian Environmental Alliance, the Wind River Alliance and the Seventh Generation Fund (SGF).  SGF itself raises funds for an array of grassroots Indigenous environmental projects on and off reservations throughout the Americas. Likewise, there are a variety of environmental justice and action projects and organizations based in other “communities of color” throughout the US.

But a leader from these ranks rarely if ever lands a top job in the Environmental Establishment – the large corporate organizations which soak up the bulk of funding from environmental foundations and large donors. I do not think this has anything to do with racial or ethnic bias or discrimination but rather that it has much to do with class – a topic which is typically self-censored in explanations of US social phenomena.

I have been in the environmental movement for almost 40 years. I have studied and written about it as well. Coming out of the grassroots, there was a period during which I was on a first name basis with the presidents of most organizations which constitute the Environmental Establishment in the US. I know and have worked with some of the very candidates whom the Environmental Establishment is upset with Obama for not appointing.

But I am also an Italian working class kid from South Philadelphia and at 62 I still exhibit behaviors which are typical of that background. Having observed that almost all those who work in the Environmental Establishment come from the upper middle and upper class, I came to the conclusion years ago that my working class culture and the behaviors it typified were a detriment to career advancement within that establishment.

I believe this remains true today - that subtle and mostly unconscious class bias is the main reason people of color have, in general, not risen to prominent roles in the Environmental Establishment.  Affirmative action not withstanding, communities of color in the US remain predominantly working class.

Today most entry and mid-level jobs in the Environmental Establishment are filled by law school graduates and junior congressional staffers who never were part of an environmental grassroots organization – much less involved with environmental organizations emerging from and serving communities of color. If you are a working class person with those credentials you can compete successfully for establishment jobs; but if you want to advance you will need to suppress your working class behaviors and act like your upper middle and upper class bosses and boards.

Working class folk of all skin shades and hues have found that either impossible or have consciously chosen not to leave their working class heritage behind.  Either way they do not advance to leadership positions nor remain long in entry and mid-level jobs.  Typically they leave the Environmental Establishment for work which does not require them to conform to upper middle and upper class cultural mores and sensibilities.

I believe class bias - not racism or color bias - explains why people of color - and all working class folks - are severely underrepresented in the ranks of the Environmental Establishment.

class bias
Ray Ring
Ray Ring
Sep 14, 2009 11:51 AM
I agree, Felice, that class bias is the underlying issue in this discussion of the environmental movement's leadership.

Over the course of my 59 years, when I wasn't working as a journalist, I've sometimes made my living in blue-collar jobs including maintenance man, small-scale logger and snowplow driver, cab driver and city firefighter. It helps me relate to loggers and miners to some degree even when they're trashing the environment. I know how it feels to make a living with your hands while having to count every dollar to pay your bills.

I see very few professional environmentalists who have any blue-collar experience. Most go from college into enviro jobs and never step off that career path. Many come from privilege -- wealthy families and the elite colleges.

I think it's larger than the environmental movement. Class differences have flared up now and then in the history of the U.S. The current flare-up began when President Ronald Reagan began cutting taxes on the wealthy. It's gotten worse year by year since then. Even journalism itself has largely shifted over to representing the interests of the country-club set. If we mention it, we get portrayed as rude or radical.

Speaking in generalities of course -- there are always individuals who are exceptions. Warren Buffett and a few other billionaires call for higher taxes on themselves. I know a few professional enviros who come from working class backgrounds and they tend to have a broader perspective.