“Long before Hurricane Katrina, low income communities and communities of color knew that there was a health-wealth gap,” Antwi Akom, leading expert on green economy, climate change, and education equity said at a lecture on Tuesday night. “What Hurricane Katrina did, and more recently the BP oil spill, or the flood in Pakistan, is it blew the lid off of environmental racism and the color-coded ways in which the government responds to some of our nations most vulnerable populations.”
Instances of institutionalized racism are one of the topics touched on by Akom, at the Daniel Family Commons in Usdan to kick off Black History Month. Dr. Akom is the founding director of the Wangari Maathai Center which focuses on the “greening” of cities and schools in the United States and beyond.
David Shor ’13, who had the chance to take a class from Akom when he was in high school back in Berkeley, CA, introduced him.
“[His class] was the first time, for a lot of us, that we could have these conversations, and finally get a connection to this whole other world,” Shor said. “Throughout that class he really instilled a sense of youth and empowerment.”
Akom began his lecture by stressing that the most important thing is to share a similar consciousness of race.
“The goal of my work is to bring people together,” Akom said. “But if we have a different consciousness about disparities, whether they are racial disparities or otherwise, it’s hard to all get on the same page.”
Akom defined racism as a system of advantages or disadvantages based on race. The only way to achieve true equity, Akom said, is to be anti-racist, not just passively racist. According to him, passive racism is the lack of action in the face of racism.
Akom also talked about what he terms the Eco Apartheid. This focuses on issues of cumulative causation, or thinking about the system as a whole.
“Eco Apartheid is a more powerful definition than environmental racism precisely because it captures inequalities beyond race, including space, place, and waste,” Akom said. “For example the urban grocery gap, the fresh produce gap, the transportation gap.”
Akom gave one example of cumulative causation as an elementary school student living in an area where liquor stores far outnumber grocery stores. Unable to access healthier options, the student ducks into the liquor to buy sugary snacks. As a result of the sugar, the child’s ability to concentrate in school is compromised, leading the teacher to diagnose the student with ADHD and in turn teach the class at a lower level. Akom also stressed that we need to focus on providing open spaces, parks, and grocery stores for these low-income neighborhoods to ensure that they do not only exist in high-end communities.
Akom also explained some of the research he had done in his own community in Berkeley, Calif. One study yielded results that showed a person living in Berkeley Hills, a high-end community, will live about 10 years longer than someone who lives in the Oakland flatlands.
“So we can see that we have not correctly identified the problem,” Akom said. “We do not have an achievement gap, we have an opportunity gap.”
Akom went on to explain that often people in liberal settings, such as in Berkeley or at Wesleyan, feel that they are beyond the race situation. But the point, Akom explained, is that we cannot get better until we really talk about race and racism as seriously as any other political or economic crisis.
“Oftentimes you’re taught that social class is more powerful than race,” Akom said. “What I’m here to tell you is that race subsumes social class…that there’s racism in the heart of liberalism.”
Akom currently does work with middle school and high school students in the Berkeley area. In his classes, he aims to address these issues and build a youth justice climate movement. He concluded that the real goal is to move the discussion of climate from Congress to classrooms and communities.
“At the heart of our ideas is that young people can change the world,” Akom said. “And young people working with adults are our greatest hope for pathways to prosperity and building a sustainable future for all.”
After the lecture, Noah Klein-Markman ’13 commented on the power of Akom’s message.
“I feel like he brought the conversation to a really personal level,” Klein-Markman said. “He was able to connect environmental justice to institutional racism and climate change in a way that I had never seen before.”
Antwi Akom is just one of Wesleyan’s speakers for Black History Month. Be sure to pick up a calendar at the Usdan information desk and catch the other speakers coming throughout February.