Fifty years ago on this August 28, hundreds of thousands of citizens gathered in our nation’s capital to fight for racial equality. The March on Washington proved to be a turning point in one of the most profound moral crises our country has ever faced. But in the half century since, the rhetoric of racial justice has become a tool for scoring cheap political points.
This tactic is quite apparent in the shameless moralizing deployed by opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline. A disturbing number of critics have sought to silence informed debate by comparing the issue to the struggle against racism. Besides being deeply offensive to anyone who has ever suffered the effects of institutional prejudice, such tactics do a disservice to those who risked their lives to defend the dignity of Black Americans.
If completed, the Keystone XL pipeline would deliver oil from Western Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. Whether this infrastructure project is a worthwhile investment is a complex issue on which reasonable people can disagree.
According to some environmentalists, however, opposing the pipeline is a moral cause on par with fighting for racial equality.
In a column imploring President Obama to block the final phases of Keystone XL construction, Minnesota-based journalist James P. Lenfestey called the decision “a Rosa Parks moment” for the president. “A small, seemingly inconsequential decision,” he went one, “can influence how the entire world views the oil industry, the way a small, stubborn action on a Montgomery bus changed the nation’s tolerance toward Jim Crow.”
Lenfestey was following the lead of popular author and environmental activist Bill McKibben. He regularly shames individuals into divesting from energy companies by comparing his cause to the anti-apartheid movement. “Once, in recent corporate history, anger forced an industry to make basic changes,” McKibben wrote last year in Rolling Stone. “That was the campaign in the 1980s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa.”
Not to be outdone, writer Ted Glick has referred to the president’s foot-dragging on the pipeline as “Obama’s Lincoln Moment.” Glick thinks that “there’s a potential analogy between Obama and the 3 ½ years he has left as president and Abraham Lincoln after the Civil War broke out.” He goes on to explain how Lincoln evolved from trying to preserve the union to seeing emancipation as the greater moral cause. “The world needs to see a similar evolution with Barack Obama when it comes to the climate crisis,” he wrote.
When, exactly, did it become acceptable to equate one’s contentious opinions about energy infrastructure to the fearless acts of Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, and Abraham Lincoln? Parks made a stand against barbaric Jim-Crow-era discrimination at a time when lynchings and cross-burnings were real threats. Nelson Mandela spent nearly three decades in jail at the hands of an unjust government to further the cause of human dignity. And Abraham Lincoln freed America’s slaves, and for that, he paid with his life.
If Lenfestey, McKibben, Glick and the like had any appreciation for the plight of minority groups throughout our country’s history, they wouldn’t be so quick to exploit the legacy of these remarkable figures.
What’s even more disgraceful is that they are evoking these heroes in a way that betrays the ideals of reason and free expression that remain central to the struggle against racism. The point of their comparisons is to avoid a frank exchange about important issues by smearing their opponents as immoral oppressors.
Jim Crow laws, apartheid, and slavery were indefensible evils. The Keystone XL pipeline, on the other hand, is a strategy for becoming less dependent on oil from foreign governments that are genuinely oppressive, and in some cases, still tacitly condone slavery. The project could support over 500,000 new American jobs by 2035 (according to api.org). And according to an eight-volume State Department study, the pipeline would increase America’s annual carbon emissions by only one third of one percent.
I remember a very tense moment when my family was driving through Birmingham on our way to a segregated Washington, D.C. (1964). We pulled into a gas station and my brother decided to use the rest room. He was shouted out of the front office for asking for the door key. My aunt exclaimed “We just passed the Civil Rights Act” and marched up grab the key off the wall and escorted my brother to the door. The employee started towards my aunt. My father jumped out of the car, popped open the trunk where his shot gun was waiting for times like this. The employee backed off and we all sighed with relief. Now, that is a Rosa Parks moment.
When Americans marched on Washington in the summer of 1963, they were raising issues that had been ignored for far too long. To use the legacy of that movement to stymie honest, necessary debate is an insult to the cause of racial justice, its ideals and its heroes.