Playing the green race card

By Michelle Chen Jul 17, 2009

National Black Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Harry Alford gave a lesson in how not to do identity politics on Thursday when confronting Sen. Barbara Boxer on climate change legislation. At an Energy & Public Works Committee hearing, Alford testified against the pending cap-and-trade climate bill as excessively burdensome for “working families and small business owners.” In turn, Boxer cited the NAACP’s recent resolution supporting for a comprehensive climate policy that prioritizes green economic development and public health. Alford then accused her of “being racial” and trying to portray his position as unrepresentative of the Black community. His organization, on the other hand, is just listening to “the experts”:

And for someone to tell me — an African-American, college-educated veteran of the United States Army — that I must contend with some other black group and put aside everything else in here. This has nothing to do with the NAACP, and really has nothing to do with the National Black Chamber of Commerce! We’re talking about energy. And that — that road the chair went down, I think is God awful.

So, Boxer did resort to awkward tokenism when stressing that there are actually Black people who agree with her about climate change. But Alford is no less cynical, perhaps because he wouldn’t have many other cards to play if he were just “talking about energy.” In addition to dropping a number of global-warming denialist statements over the years, Alford and the NBCC have apparently teamed up with Big Oil in a massive campaign to sink the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill. Noting Alford’s history of also opposing pro-labor legislation, Isaiah Poole at Campaign for America’s Future isn’t buying it:

Harry Alford does not speak for the African-American community. He does not speak for me. He speaks for a cabal of conservative obstructionists who are hell-bent on protecting the old order of oil companies being unaccountable to the environment, employers being unaccountable to their workers—and of African Americans who won’t pimp for the interests of corporate America being kept in their place.

Over at TownHall, the right-wing punditry is eating up Alford’s fistacuff with Boxer, since there’s nothing more gratifying than getting a Black guy to “ream” the opposition on behalf of the corporate interests who put said Black guy in their pocket:

Too bad blacks in America fails to see what Mr. Alford is probably experiencing for the first time from his so-called liberal/Democrat friends. Unfortunately, unless problems arrive on one’s doorstep, they fail to exist.

Problems on one’s doorstep—sort of like, pollution choking poor urban neighborhoods, crippling energy costs, and increasingly volatile hurricane seasons. Those issues are certainly already on our collective doorstep and a couple steps higher for the communities of color disproportionately burdened by climate change. But instead of delving into those problems—and the possibility that a weak climate bill would utterly fail to solve them—in Boxer and Alford’s exchange, a discussion about societal crisis dissolved into a contest over who gets to represent whom. While politicians spar, the climate clock is ticking. To quote environmental prophet Curtis Mayfield, “don’t worry: if there’s a Hell below, we’re all gonna go.”