Niger Innis, Congress of Racial Equality

Niger Innis is Co-Chair of the Alliance to Stop the War on the Poor and the National Spokesman for the Congress of Racial Equality, one of the oldest African-American anti-poverty groups. It was founded in 1942 as one of the pioneers of the civil rights movement in the United States. Its national Headquarters is located in New York City.

Frontier Centre: Your work with the Congress for Racial Equality portrays poverty, in general, and fuel and food costs, in particular, as a civil rights issue. Can you explain why this is the right framework within which to consider these problems?

Niger Innis: Contrary to some of our colleagues in the movement say, we believe that the civil rights revolution has been won, certainly in terms of the goals of racial justice, of breaking the system of segregation. Our Presidential election this year is just one manifestation of how dramatically our country has changed. To fully achieve the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King, we say that the last frontier in the civil rights battle is economic sustainability, economic uplift and opportunity. As our study points out, poor people, working class folks, disproportionately affected by high energy prices. They have to spend a disproportionate amount of their disposable income on heat costs, on filing up their tank with gas, on electricity and on other energy costs. High energy costs also raise the price of food and housing and healthcare. So, we see the last frontier of the civil rights struggle as ensuring equal economic opportunity and providing an economic uplift. When you have substantial obstacles to that economic uplift, it becomes a civil rights battle.

FC: Among people in poverty in American cities, what proportion of household income goes towards transportation and heating costs and do you know how this compares with better off groups and also with the past?

NI: The average median income American family spends 5 cents on the dollar on energy. The average low-income family spends 20 cents on the dollar. Those that fall below the poverty line spend 50 cents on the dollar. Those are the facts. But there is a common sense, no-brainer concept here which is this: Donald Trump pays the same in energy costs as a single mom. There isn’t one price for high-level person and another for a low-income person. Thus the low-income person bears a heavier burden.

FC: There’s something pernicious about it too with regard to gas. Well if you can afford a hybrid or a newer car you are getting better mileage but much older cars have much worse fuel economy.

NI: I can’t afford to drive a Prius car, but I had the opportunity recently to drive a rented Prius. I drove that car like crazy for several days and the fuel didn’t move one inch, not one centimeter. The reason is because it’s a hybrid car. It uses both ethanol and regular gas — E85 blend is what I think it used. But it is more expensive. There is no way that a poor person, a working class person, could do better than rent that car. Even a middle class people like myself can’t afford it. Now, Bill Maher of HBO’s Real Time fame, a rich Hollywood environmental elitist, oh sure, he and his Hollywood friends can afford to drive around in Prius’ and save money. But a rank and file working class person has to drive a regular car. Some folks don’t even know what E85 is. Your point is profound, because what this results in is a standard that is affordable only for rich people, while poor people have to follow a different standard.

FC: Yes because if you are in poverty you are not driving a 2007 Toyota, you’re driving a 1992 beater.

NI: Exactly.

FC: What do you think of climate change policies designed to reduce carbon dioxide emissions like carbon taxes and cap and trade?

NI: These kinds of schemes are really just a way of raising the price of energy and forcing citizens to adopt a lower standard of living, rather than “solutions” to climate change. We are extremely skeptical of the motivations behind these proposals, especially since these programs will almost certainly not result in any measurable change in future climates.

FC: Will policies like these make a difference?

NI: Well, a soon-to-be-released study shows that even if we shut down all of the power plants in North America — not reduced their emissions, but shut them down — for the entirety of the next century, we would only impact the temperature increases predicted by IPCC report in 2100 by less than one-tenth of one degree Celsius. That’s not even measurable with any accuracy. And, the calculations behind this are based entirely on the IPCC science and all of their assumptions. Thus, the IPCC itself is really predicting that this path will not result in any benefit from all of the pain and higher prices that we would endure. It’s crazy, in my view.

FC: Ethanol subsidies have made food more expensive around the world causing food riots in Asia earlier this year, and Africa, too. Do you see a connection between the burden inflicted on the poor by bad energy policy domestically and a similar trend with policies in the developing world? In the same way that we’re creating policies at home that favor the upper middle class at the cost of the poor, do you think Western countries are setting international environmental policy that they think benefits themselves at the expense of the developing world?

NI: Well, I’ll tell you. I think certainly the example of the ethanol subsidies and the huge subsidies that our powerful agricultural lobbyists get in the United States has a disastrous impact on the economies of the developing world. Economies and countries that could truly compete when it comes to production of food but because of the unfair subsidies that exist in Europe and the United States around food and agriculture, these folks are terribly disadvantaged. I find that to be anti-capitalist. It is certainly not free-market. It is giving unfair advantage. The reckless rush towards ethanol as an energy alternative has just reinforced those subsidies and given us yet another reason to subsidize. Yes, it’s wonderful for Iowa farmers, but it is not wonderful for people starving on the continent of Africa and certain parts of Asia.

FC: The same people who decry military imperialism or American cultural imperialism don’t realize that this is in effect environmental imperialism.

NI: It certainly is environmental imperialism. And just to turn that question into a positive or affirmative one of “what should we do?” Cellulosic ethanol that might be a pathway for the development of ethanol energy in the future. One of the reasons I am a fan of what they are trying to do in Brazil is this: they have E-85 blends, they have flex-fuel cars, but they are also very much not abandoning fossil fuels. In fact, they are now accelerating their drilling in Brazil and off the coast. Not only that, but they are teaching and giving technology training and helping to build up the infrastructure of developing countries like Angola so that those nations can drill more and develop oil resources in their own countries.

FC: Moving away from just energy policy, what obstacles do you see in public policy to full racial equality in the US and, to the extent that you want to comment, in Canada?

NI: I believe there’s a unique relationship between the various racial components throughout our hemisphere. I joke about not seeing many “brothers” up here in Canada, but I’ve actually seen quite a few. There is a similar diversity in Canada and in Brazil to the United States. There’s also the similar accompanying benefits and problems and histories of racial conflicts in all of these countries. What I hope to do with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) is to prevent some of the bad policies, well-meaning but still bad policies, that exist in the United States such as racial quotas, and certain manifestations of affirmative action. The strength of the American Constitution and the American Polity is the fact that, as the great Justice Harlan said, “The Constitution should be a colour blind document.” Government policy should be colour blind. The United States, Canada and to some extent Brazil, are countries that are extremely diverse, and there really is not a national language as such. I know there’s an English-only movement in the United States, but it’s not going anywhere. In countries that don’t have the centuries of history of the old world like Europe, Africa and Asia, that don’t have the same race of people, that have a diversity of race, there is a terrible danger of Balkanization and of people segregating themselves and separating themselves. This cuts against the common good of the polity of that particular country. So to have government policy – even if it’s well-meaning – that then recognizes the racial distinctions and accentuates those differences is wrong. I’m hoping that we can take at CORE the example of where affirmative action policy went wrong in the United States and export the right way of doing it in other parts of our hemisphere.

FC: We’ve had a lot of coverage in the media in the past year of an afro-centric public school that’s been started in Toronto. The school is open to students of all ethnicities, it’s publicly funded people don’t pay anything for it and it also has to be open to all children in the city but the curriculum is focused around black and African issues and they deliberately take that angle on everything they possibly can. And this has been defended as being crucial to inner-city black teenagers having positive role models and more self-esteem. It’s also been criticized as polarizing as Balkanization, as you called it, and not being colour blind. Do you think this is appropriate in the public sector at all? Should public schools be doing this and what do you see as the pros and cons?

NI: It is important when one talks about Canadian history to have a comprehensive view. It doesn’t mean that you have a separate and distinct African or Native American culture or history experience. It is that you have a Canadian experience that incorporates it all … it incorporates the good, the bad and the ugly. History should be about truth. It should be a comprehensive truth. Quite frankly, I think it is just as important, maybe even more important, for a white Canadian to know the history of black Canadians than it is for a black Canadian to know it. Certainly it is just as important.

FC: The angle they take on Native issues in a lot of Western Canada is they started realizing that teaching Native history to Native kids is one thing but it also has to be taught to the non-Natives.

NI: Absolutely! Again, the ultimate objective of history should be truth and how to avoid mistakes of the past so they’re not repeated. I’m in favour of having a comprehensive cultural history approach. I am not in favour of having a vulcanizing approach. I am not in favour of what has often happened in the United States which is that it is not so much pro-black history but anti-white history that goes on in the schools. It is, frankly, a communist objective and agenda to undermine and the pro-grievances and to promote separation. I want black kids, white kids, latino kids, Asian-American kids to know about George Washington Carver and the hundred different ways that he manipulated the use of the peanut and what economic impact it had on the South. I want kids to know the important contributions that the variety of Americans made to the success and the growth of America. I want them to know about the first injured American before America was America. The first American killed at the Boston Massacre was Crispus Attucks, a black man. That’s important, not just for black kids but, for white kids in America to know.

FC: And that’s really presenting it as our joint history rather than this is your history if you’re black and this is yours if you’re white.

NI: That’s exactly right. It really is critical. Canada, United States and I think increasingly Brazil are going to be role models to the world of how different peoples and ethnicities can come into one country and still work together, live together and prosper together. It is a lesson and it is a message that is increasingly important in a world dominated by globalization and situations where borders really do not exist.

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