Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of several books, most recently, “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
The historic winter storm that crippled Texas during the third week of February spotlighted the Lone Star State’s pervasive history of structural racism. Similarly, it revealed how seemingly universal crises, such as climate change and catastrophes sometimes referred to as “acts of God” affect some communities much more severely than others.
During the height of this record winter storm, 4 million Texans lost power, but those who lived on grids that connected hospitals, emergency responders, or downtown commercial buildings and condos were more likely to retain their power. Wealth, income and housing inequality make it much more likely for Black and Latinx families in Texas to live away from densely populated and more expensive parts of the city – and when they do live in urban areas, to reside in places that are not deemed essential to the functioning of the electrical grid. They are more likely to live in areas lacking the robust infrastructure necessary to weather environmental and man-made catastrophes, environmental experts recently told The New York Times.
Black and Latinx families, many already disproportionately impacted by the lingering effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, experienced power outages, burst pipes, freezing temperatures and water shutdowns that illustrate the hidden cost of racism. The storm’s aftershocks continue to be felt in parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Mississippi where many Black and brown residents continue to lack power, clean drinking water and shelter.
In Texas, almost two weeks after the storm, almost 400,000 people remain without clean water (after power outages halted the ability of municipalities to adequately ensure the safety of water systems, leading to boil water orders in some areas such as Austin), many of them apartment dwellers whose landlords have been slow to respond to the crisis. Some residents of Jackson, Mississippi, a predominantly Black city, have been left reeling from the storm’s aftermath and are still struggling to obtain an adequate supply of clean water.
Black communities are disproportionately vulnerable to living in close proximity to environmentally dangerous neighborhoods.
What happened in Texas and across the South during the storm – and is still happening in its aftermath – is one facet of a national crisis of race and democracy, one that has been amplified in recent decades by economic and public policies that have greatly enhanced the power and wealth of the few at the expense of the many. Republicans led the charge for the privatization of public utilities and the evisceration of labor unions and social welfare programs during the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, which impacted Texas by leading to the deregulation of the energy grid. Many Democrats also embraced that era’s “greed is good” ethos (a phrase popularized by Michael Douglas’ Oscar-winning performance as the amoral venture capitalist Gordon Gekko in the 1987 movie “Wall Street”).
The conservative free-market ideology that led to the deregulation of Texas utilities has been catastrophic on racially segregated and economically impoverished communities. Structured to operate without federal safeguards that might have prevented last month’s disaster, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT), represents a profound failure of political leadership and moral imagination.
Texas’ failure is also reflective of our larger racial and political divides. Members of the Black communities in Houston, some still not recovered from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Harvey, stood in long lines seeking food, water, and other resources a week after the winter storm. Predominantly Black and Latinx low-income communities were especially vulnerable to freezing temperatures since they tend to live in older homes and apartments hit hardest by power outages that wrought havoc on neighborhoods with decaying infrastructure.
The split-screen nature of American democracy means that lying politicians often try to impose an alternate reality in service to their own power. This could be seen at the height of the crisis, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott attacking the Green New Deal as a rhetorical sleight of hand intended to deflect from his failed leadership. Abbott’s false claims that the winter storm “showed how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal” for America reflects the Orwellian nature of American politics. Since less than 13% of the energy grid is powered by wind and solar energy, Abbott’s naked effort to deflect blame for the disaster was as laughable as it was appalling. The failure of political leadership and moral imagination of the Texas governor is boundless. From prematurely announcing the end of a statewide mask mandate – while residents in major cities still struggle to get vaccinated – to the incompetent approach to a historic winter storm, the Lone Star state has become a national embarrassment.
When states like Texas turn public utilities into financial markets that can exploit the nation’s collective resources for private interests, we all lose, especially Black and brown folks.
The reverse migration of Black folks to the South makes this a particularly important policy and political issue. Climate change, like all the challenges facing the nation and world, has a racially disparate face. Communities lacking political and economic resources will in all likelihood consistently suffer the most catastrophic impact of the kind of regional failure we witnessed during the third week in February.
After the Black Lives Matter protests so widespread in 2020 sparked a wave of conversation and engagement with anti-racism, it’s crucial to say: Centering racial justice in the fight against climate change is perhaps among the most important policy imperatives in the quest for Black citizenship and dignity.
Sen. Ted Cruz’s now-infamous escape to Cancun amid the state’s crisis, while Beto O’Rourke and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez raised millions to help those in need, offers a striking juxtaposition of the twin realities of this moment. Cruz’s rhetoric helped embolden the White supremacist assault on the nation’s capital even as he failed the minimum test of leadership at home by abandoning his constituents in a time of crisis.
AOC’s advocacy of a “Green New Deal” that would center poor, working-class, Black and brown communities as part of an ambitious effort to reverse climate change, end income inequality and confront systemic racism continues to be wrongly portrayed as a radical anti-American agenda by the right – even as once in a century storms continue to damage local, regional, and national infrastructure with unnerving frequency.
National discussion surrounding ending systemic racism in government, politics, and corporate America begins by confronting racism’s structural impact on already vulnerable communities. Blacks, Latinx, and poor communities of color continue to bear the brunt of environmental and political storms that cast a spotlight on American democracy’s tragic underbelly. Now, more than ever, America needs infrastructure and climate change policies that address structural racism and inequality by centering racial and economic justice.