Bus Boycott

A boycott in Montgomery, Alabama; a march on Washington; “I Have a Dream;” a bridge in Selma; a Nobel Prize; a balcony in Memphis—the flaming arc of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life is now inscribed in American mythology.

But in December 1955, when King was an unknown 26-year-old Baptist minister first thrust into leadership, the issue at hand—the particular cause—in Montgomery was African Americans’ right to sit with equal dignity on city buses. The tactical brilliance of the Montgomery bus boycott was not in sit-ins or freedom rides or marches. Those would come later. It was simply getting all of Montgomery’s African Americans to work on foot and in carpools for 382 consecutive days. This achievement was a testament to the motivation and unity among the boycotters, considering the rarity of car ownership among them. (And it gave birth to one of the movement’s classic refrains, attributed to local black matriarch Mother Pollard: “My feet is tired, but my soul is rested.”)

It’s 2010. Some things have changed; others have not. Racial discrimination has diminished but persists, often in hidden and even subconscious ways. Racial and ethnic disparities in income, wealth, education, and health persist in diminished form as well. Car ownership has spread toward universality, as cities have sprawled beyond walkability.

Yet transit is still—or is again—a major public issues; however, today we associate public transit, like carpooling and walking to work, no longer with Jim Crow but with the challenges of oil dependence, climate change, and sustainability.

So as we commemorate the too-short life of Martin Luther King, Jr. on what would have been his 81st birthday, I want to examine climate, which may be today’s greatest worldwide grassroots social-change cause, through the lens of race.

Penalizing People of Color

Climate change and the disruptions it brings threaten everyone, but they especially threaten those at the bottom of the economic pyramid. And despite many decades of striving, people of color remain disproportionately represented among North America’s poor and disadvantaged.

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  • As a result, if you are African American, Hispanic, Native American, or Asian American, you’re more likely to suffer as heat-trapping gases unleash a changing climate. A warming world could mean food insecurity, risks of heat waves and flooding, and other ills that will fall hardest on those with the least means and fewest financial resources. That’s doubly unfair, considering that people of color have done less to cause climate disruption than have whites. Typical African-American households, for example, have carbon footprints just 80 percent the size of their white counterparts. So African Americans have created less of the problem of a warming planet, but bear more of the burden.

    Fortunately, a well-designed climate policy can help to ameliorate that unfairness. Indeed, fixing America’s climate problem is one of many areas where people of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds can find common cause. By ending our addiction to fossil fuels, we can simultaneously create economic opportunities for workers of all races, create a more just society for all families, and protect the climate for all of our children.

    For those of us living in the Pacific Northwest, data on the links between climate and racial inequity are difficult to assemble. Most relevant data cover the United States as a whole, rather than to our Northwest region, so the situation here is uncertain. In the Northwest states of Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, African Americans make up 2 percent of the population—one fifth their share in the United States overall. These states’ Hispanic population is much larger, at 9 percent of all residents, though that’s a smaller proportion than in the United States overall, where 14 percent of residents are Hispanic. Native American/First Nation and Asian Americans, conversely, are more numerous in the Northwest than in North America generally. These data calculated from this U.S. Department of Labor data set.)

    How does climate change penalize people of color? Andrew Hoerner and Nia Robinson of Redefining Progress have completed the most comprehensive study of this question. I draw on their A Climate for Change extensively.


    Climate disruption is increasing the frequency and intensity of heat waves, which disproportionately hurt those with low incomes and little wealth. Poor people don’t own mountain hideaways and may lack air conditioning. Because of higher poverty rates and African Americans’ geographic concentrations in hot, inner-city areas, African Americans die from heat-related causes at two to three times the rate of non-Hispanic whites in the United States.

    Moreover, because they are poorer, African Americans also tend to live in counties and neighborhoods with worse air pollution. They also suffer from lung conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at substantially higher rates than non-Hispanic whites. And as temperatures rise, air pollution gets more harmful to health.

    The Northwest’s biggest cities are temperate and do not suffer as much extreme heat or air pollution as many other cities, but they are also little-prepared for heat. Already, the hottest days and weeks of summer in the Northwest elevate death rates among the most vulnerable. In greater Seattle between 1980 and 2006, for example, hot summer spells that lasted five days typically brought 25 more deaths among those over the age of 85 than did normal-temperature periods of the same duration. On hot days, death rates also step up among those above ages 45 and 65. The state of Washington’s official climate change assessment forecasts more than 100 additional heat-related deaths each summer in the greater Seattle area alone by 2025.

    Heat may be a larger threat in the inland Northwest, where summer temperatures are higher anyway. There, among the most vulnerable are those who labor outdoors on field crews: at least 67 percent of Washington’s farm laborers are Hispanic, along with 60 percent of Oregon’s. (These figures likely dramatically understate the share of arduous hand labor done by Hispanic workers on Northwest farms. The data are drawn from a 2000 Census special data tabulation, and the census typically undercounts undocumented immigrants, especially migrant workers. Furthermore, they come from an occupational dataset that encompasses certain other, higher-paid and predominantly whit
    e agriculture workers, such as animal breeders. Farm owners, meanwhile, are overwhelmingly non-Hispanic whites, as this study of Oregon notes.) In California, with its hot inland climate and large population of Hispanic agricultural workers, recent research (summarized here) has documented heat’s disproportionate harm to working-age Hispanic men and women.


    Climate disruption does not just mean warmer temperatures. It means more extreme weather: more floods and more droughts, more heat waves and more windstorms. Consequently, it means more “natural” disasters, such as hurricanes and forest fires (projected to more than triple in area in the inland Northwest over the century).

    In the face of extreme events, what families need is resilience—the ability to bounce back. Unfortunately, resilience is exactly what disadvantaged families lack.

    First, people with less money lose out in the market competition for safe housing: they may end up in flood plains, on steep slopes, or in fire-vulnerable trailer homes. They may live in poorly planned, un-shaded urban or suburban apartment blocks that line arterial streets. There, they are vulnerable to both the higher temperatures of metropolitan “heat islands” and the polluted tunnels of air that hover over major thoroughfares. What’s more, they may live in substandard housing that doesn’t meet current codes for fire safety or that grows mold and triggers allergies.

    Just so, disadvantaged workers have little choice but to work in conditions that the more affluent simply would not accept: they may have to work outdoors through extremes of heat and cold, for example.

    But the physical exposure to climate risks is just the beginning. Because African Americans are typically poorer, for example, they are twice as likely to lack health insurance as non-Hispanic whites in the United States. They are also less likely to have property insurance or savings, and other forms of wealth to tide them over. Nationwide in the United States, African Americans’ average incomes are 57 percent as high as non-Hispanic whites’ incomes, but their median household wealth is one tenth as great. In other words, typical US whites’ net worth is tenfold that of typical African Americans.

    Consequently, an environmental illness or climate-related disaster can trigger a downward “poverty ratchet.” For example, the stress of heat and pollution can induce a severe asthma attack that requires hospitalization. Or a flood might fill a basement apartment. A more-fortunate family might file an insurance claim, tap its savings, and quickly recover. A poor family, on the other hand, might end up bankrupt or homeless.

    Energy Prices

    Climate change is one consequence of our fossil-fuel economy. Another consequence is energy price volatility. We ride a fossil fuel price rollercoaster, but for people of little means, the ride offers more spills than thrills.

    For one thing, working-class families of every race and ethnicity pay a larger share of their income for energy, so when energy prices go up, working-class families get hit harder than the well off. Because people of color are more likely to have modest incomes, they suffer directly from higher energy prices. Furthermore, according to Hoerner and Robinson in A Climate of Change, if you divide households into ten income segments or “deciles,” African Americans in each decile spend a larger share of their income on energy than non-Hispanic white households. They spend less on gasoline but more on electricity, probably because they live in lower-quality housing stock that is much less efficient. This pattern could be a result of what I mentioned earlier: that African Americans have somewhat less income but radically less wealth than whites in the United States.

    Furthermore, in the Northwest, climate change may increase the demand for summer electricity (for air conditioning) while reducing supply (by shrinking snowpack), with the consequence of raising power prices to consumers even for this climate-friendly energy source.


    Recession-induced unemployment is among the direst tolls of the fossil-fuel economy for people of color. People of color are overrepresented at the bottom of the employment ladder, where too many of them are among the last hired in good times and the first fired in bad. Recessions dole out extra misfortune to those who have the least fortune to begin with. And fossil energy price spikes were part of the cause for the Great Recession, as for most recent recessions.

    As Hoerner and Robinson note, nationwide in the United States, “the increase in unemployment of African Americans during energy-caused recessions is twice that of non-Hispanic whites, costing the [African American] community an average of one percent of income every year.” Unemployment rates for African American and other minority groups mirror at higher levels those of non-Hispanic whites. As shown in this chart, in 2008, for example, the US unemployment rate for whites was 5.2 percent; for African Americans, it was 10.1 percent, according the US Bureau for Labor Statistics (BLS). As the national unemployment rate has hit double digits in 2009, the unemployment rate for African Americans has soared above 15 percent.

    Unemployment by Race chart

    Such elevated unemployment rates cause enduring hardship for people of color, reducing not only near-term income but also long-term wages, wealth, and prospects for health and education.

    In the Pacific Northwest, racial disparities in employment remain stark, although they are smaller than in some other parts of North America. The unemployment rate for First Nations people in British Columbia in 2008 was almost 11 percent; for everyone else, it was 4 percent, according to BC Stats. Some 5.6 percent of the Northwest states’ white labor force was unemployed, as were 8 percent of Northwest African Americans and 8.3 percent of Hispanic northwesterners, according to BLS. Since then, rates have skyrocketed overall, but Northwest race-specific unemployment data are not yet available.


    Because the vagaries of the fossil fuel economy and of climate change penalize people of color, the clean-energy economy is especially beneficial for people of color. Getting off the fossil-fuel rollercoaster prevents price spikes that hurt them and reduces the frequency of recessions, which hurt them even more.

    Furthermore, well-designed climate pricing compensates for the regressive and racially disproportionate toll of climate disruption and of the fossil fuel economy. In this chart, Hoerner and Robinson model the net financial effect of a cap-and-dividend climate policy, in which authorities auction all carbon permits and distribute the proceeds in equal payments to all residents. The chart shows the net effect of higher energy prices and carbon dividend payments to households, expressed as a percentage of household expenditures.

    (Well, actually, the chart is an even better illustration of a tax-and-dividend policy with a charge of $50 per metric ton of carbon dioxide. But the difference between a $50 carbon tax and a carbon permit auction that happens to settle on a $50 carbon price is immaterial for this case.)

    As the chart shows, the policy approach of cap and dividend, recently proposed in an imperfect form by Senator Maria Cantwell and the endpoint by 2030 of the Waxman-Markey ACES bill that passed the US House in June of 2008, yields substantial net gains for all Americans below the 70th percentile and only small losses for those above that level. African Americans gain more (or lose less) than whites, according to Hoerner and Robinson’s estimates.

    Cap and Dividend, income, race

    Unfortunately, no one has yet estimated the household budget impacts of climate policy on other racial and ethnic groups, especially Hispanics. My hunch is that the results would look similar to those for African Americans, but more research is needed.

    Furthermore, these figures are for the entire United States. The specific distributional impacts in the Pacific Northwest—including in British Columbia—are likely to be somewhat different. Still, the general pattern would likely hold.

    Hoerner and Robinson model the impacts of one more policy approach. They call it a “Climate Asset Plan.” Assuming the same $50/ton carbon dioxide price, they modeled the results for a combination of equal per-person dividends and substantial public investments in a clean-energy transition such as energy efficiency, building weatherization, and renewable energy programs. (The Climate Asset Plan, in fact, is full of the kinds of things we’ve been writing about in our Green Jobs series and that are written into both House and Senateversions of federal climate legislation.)

    Climate asset plan, income, race chart

    The upshot: Hoerner and Robinson conclude that the best kind of climate policy for African Americans’ household budgets—as for those of non-Hispanic whites—is a combination of citizen rebates and public investments in the clean-energy transition. They believe that such a plan would not only slow catastrophic climate change, start getting us off the fossil fuel rollercoaster, and cushion us from job-killing recessions but also boost spending power for households at every income level. And it would help most those who have done the least to cause—and stand to lose the most from—climate disruption: people of color.

    All of which I take as exceptionally good news: efficient, fair, and effective climate policy is not only an economic and environmental imperative. It would mark a singular victory for civil rights.

    And, in the end, among its many effects would be to shift more people of all races and ethnicities to ride public transit, carpool, and walk to work. It would also subtly tilt urban development toward compact, walkable places—the kinds of urban places where a bus boycott would be possible. The kinds of places where all of our feet might be a little more tired but our souls would be a lot better rested.

    Key sources:

    Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63 (1988).

    Andrew Hoerner and Nia Robinson, A Climate of Change (2008).