Can the Green New Deal overcome the New Deal’s legacy of racism?

The Green New Deal draws inspiration from Roosevelt’s sweeping reforms of the 1930s, but today’s policymakers are trying to find more equitable solutions to the climate crisis

April 3, 2020
Text of "Green New Deal" overlaid over a hand-drawn picture of trees, a mountain to the left, and a bird flying in the sky.
After gaining attention in 2018, the Green New Deal has remained in the spotlight; recently it has been endorsed by several presidential candidates [Credit: CKSegarra and Lili Pike | CC-BY-SA]

When climate activists from the Sunrise Movement and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) introduced a plan to combat climate change and inequality in the fall of 2018, they drew inspiration from Roosevelt, naming the plan the Green New Deal.

Many of the ideas they have outlined since  — such as a program to provide millions of green jobs to Americans — are reminiscent of Roosevelt’s New Deal. But in one critical way, Green New Deal advocates are trying to break with the past: Their vision champions racial and economic justice alongside solutions to climate change.

“While [the New Deal] did pave a pathway to the middle class for so many white Americans,” says Andrea Flynn, an economic policy researcher at the Roosevelt Institute, “it actually cemented many exclusions that originally started during slavery and throughout the Jim Crow era and really created even more divisions than we had before.” Flynn discusses the history of the New Deal in our video. 

Throughout her career, Frederica Perera, an environmental health scientist at Columbia University, has tracked the disproportionate exposure of low-income and ethnic minority groups to pollution. In our video, she discusses how climate policy should take these inequities into account.

Environmental justice groups, like WE ACT for Environmental Justice in Harlem, have been pioneering ways to address climate change and create job opportunities for low-income communities, such as creating a solar cooperative enterprise. Stephan Roundtree, formerly a policy advocate at WE ACT for Environmental Justice, says that addressing these problems holistically is key.

The updated version of the New Deal may be put to the test if Democrats gain political power in November. For a primer on the issues at stake, check out our video.

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