by Rinku Sen & Billy Parish

Last week, the Labor Department reported that youth unemployment stands at 18.2%, nearly twice the national average of 9.8%. The percentage of young people without a job is a staggering 53.4 percent, the highest figure since World War II. Looking deeper, the statistics for youth of color are terrible and telling. 

According to the most recent data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 40.7% of black youth between 16-19 are unemployed, almost double the amount of whites teenagers (23%). For Latinos the same age, the rate is nearly 30%. Get a little older and the gap grows wider. Unemployment for black Americans aged 20-24 is 27.1%, over twice that faced by white youth (13.1%) in the same age range.

The glaring differences indicate that unemployment is not only decidedly raced, but also that the current economic condition is wholly unforgiving for young people of color. Only a massive, well-funded set of green jobs programs explicitly designed to close those racial gaps can create a truly vital, full-employment economy.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Without more opportunities for young people, those un- and under-employed will suffer in the short and long-term, especially in their ability to attend college, afford health insurance, buy homes, and save for retirement. In short, they won’t be able to make a living. The great promise of the green economy to end poverty as well as environmental suffering can only be fulfilled if we’re prepared to fight, not just for green, but also for racial and economic equity.

There’s a long history of clashes between environmentalists, workers’ organizations and racial justice movements, as each operated on the assumption that they had conflicting goals. Yet, the objectives of all three are interdependent for two big reasons. First, poor economies and environmental degradation have a disproportionate impact on communities of color. People of color occupy jobs in the most hazardous industries and homes in the most environmentally degraded neighborhoods. That’s not accidental. It is a predictable result of persistent segregation, which strips communities of color of their power, facilitating the discriminatory placement of toxic incinerators, power plants, factories, and other big polluters in their communities.   

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

While economics has contributed to the dual degradation of the environment and communities of color, racism has accelerated environmental and economic problems. “White flight” from inner cities fueled suburban sprawl, leading to more driving, more highways, and more carbon in the atmosphere. And in industries like agriculture and food production, with prominent racial hierarchies, employers find it easy to generate competition and scapegoating between various groups of workers, killing unionization drives that could produce better wages and conditions for all of us.

Luckily, a growing number of people know better than to separate environmental and economic recovery from race. Local groups have started green jobs programs for young people that are inclusive and future-oriented. In Oakland, California, for example, the brand new Green Media Youth Center boasts a green job training program that can help create pathways out of poverty for young people in the city. Last Friday at the Center, Milani Pelley recorded her latest song in a brand new studio. Jhamel Robinson showed off the permaculture garden behind the building. And the list goes on.

But great programs here and there aren’t enough. We need to bring those programs to scale, and create both training and the actual jobs through federal, state and local policy. We need to spend real money funding job creation, and then closely monitor implementation to make sure new programs generate local hiring, affirmative action, great wages and benefits and long term career paths, among other elements that will make them work.  

This year, a national alliance of organized labor and civil rights, social justice and environmental groups has worked to create a vibrant clean energy economy that can not only improve the environment and economy, but also close the racial gap. In the House version of the American Clean Energy and Security Act (ACES), this alliance secured the eleventh-hour addition of a billion dollars for green jobs training, as well as equity provisions for access to the jobs created. The Senate version released last week maintains those provisions.

These policies are a good start, but if they’re to survive and lead us to the additional billions and effective implementation that we need to get control of unemployment, we have to be prepared to fight on the race front, as well as the green. All signs indicate that opponents will bait American racism with brutal inventiveness. If the right’s attack on Van Jones isn’t enough of a warning, then we should take our lessons from the health care debate. We can expect conservative pundits to call equity guidelines reverse racism, or to put up immigrants rather than corporate pollution as the true cause of environmental collapse.

To counter that rhetoric, we need to be able to articulate more than a “lift all boats” approach – which improves things but leaves the racial and poverty gaps in place. We need to move support for a “fix all boats” approach that ensures full recovery for all. It’s our responsibility to change the rules and structures that threaten to exclude people of color from taking part in the new, green economy.

Young people are going to have to take the lead in this because they’ve got the most at stake. The decisions we make as a country now will affect them far longer than anyone else. The powers that be like to call these Millennials the first “post racial generation.” They claim that young people take racial equality so much for granted that fighting racism is low on their list of priorities. The polluters of the gray economy will take that idea straight to the bank, unless young people themselves make it clear that they understand racism shows up in all our issues, including the environment.

We should amplify and grow efforts to build an inclusive green economy. In doing so, we must always ask two key questions about new policies and programs: is it green, and is it fair


Rinku Sen is the Executive Director of the Applied Research Center, which promotes racial justice through media, research, and activism.  Billy Parish is the founder of the Energy Action Coalition, a national youth clean energy coalition.

This entry is cross-posted at The Huffington Post.