Monday morning, a group of mainly white protesters, who apparently don’t have jobs, shut down streets in Washington, D.C., a city predominantly made up of people of color. Presumably, many people who do have jobs were prevented from getting to them. And this raises a question: Is this kind of a climate protest an example of white privilege? Is this form of protest on this particular issue something the protesters’ skin tone and economic privilege make possible?
This is an issue CNN contributor Bakari Sellers raised in an opinion piece last month. He writes: “Climate change should be a definitive issue for Black voters, but it isn’t. That is partly because environmental advocacy groups have not always looked like us, nor have they clarified what solutions mean for our communities. And few have articulated what real environmental justice looks like.”
There is a reason for this. For white progressives, climate change is a unique issue in which racial guilt plays little to no role. Other issues such as police brutality, income inequality, and even women’s rights and access to abortion are steeped in what they perceive as the racist foundation of our country. On these issues, white protesters in the post-Occupy age feel they bear no small amount of collective guilt. But on climate change, for once, they can be the victim, not just the ally.
And man, are they enjoying it. This is the moment for angry, young white people not only to be angry, but to actually be oppressed. It is their own future that they believe is being stripped from them by failure to accept that if we don’t act in the next eight minutes, all is lost. It is their lives that amorphous and evil global corporate and government powers are endangering.
Finally, they can express righteous indignation not just in support of the rights and lives of others, but to protect themselves. It is their Malcolm X in blue jeans moment, a thrilling opportunity to stick it to the man, whoever that might be. The poster child is not a murdered black youth, but a young girl from Sweden astride a solar-powered boat defending the future of lily-white protesters everywhere.
This is not to say that the supposed impact of climate change on black and brown people in far-flung exotic places plays no role in the mostly white climate protest movement. Protesters pay lip service to such concerns, with the traditional condemnation of the West that ignores, for example, China’s much greater role in the problem. But it’s a backseat issue. The real issue is that in a progressive movement dominated by identity and race, the white kids finally have their own hill to die on.
The irony, of course, is that cheap energy has done more to lift people all across the globe out of poverty than anything in human history. The clamp-down on carbon that these privileged college kids insist upon will do more to secure their economic dominance than anything a white supremacist could come up with in his mother’s basement. They want to slam the brakes on economic progress while they are on top. After all, once some future Democrat in the White House forgives their student debt, they’ll have plenty of money to pay $10 a gallon for gas.
There is perhaps one antecedent to this primarily white protest movement, and it is related. The violent anti-globalist protests of the late ’90s and early 2000s, specifically in the Pacific Northwest, gave birth to the American Antifa Black Bloc movement. As with climate change hysteria, it gave privileged, well-educated white kids the opportunity to play the victim. And today’s climate protesters are following that example with great aplomb, even if they aren’t throwing chairs through windows — yet.
This is the fight for the young white progressive, who maybe, just maybe, is feeling a little tired of having to take the backseat. On this issue, they get to move back to the front of the bus, lead, and bemoan their own oppression. Ah, to be oppressed, the golden ticket of progressive culture, the chance to shine. The moment when they can focus on themselves and accept the applause and grave approval of the progressive culture. Well, it was bound to happen. And they are truly making the most of it.