A mini-media controversy has erupted over conservative TV and radio show host Glenn Beck’s remarks that he thinks President Obama is racist. A black activist organization called Color of Change has led the charge for a boycott of Beck’s highly rated Fox News Channel program. This has led Beck to return fire at Color of Change and its co-founder, Van Jones, who presently serves as the president’s green jobs advisor.
Beck has dredged up quotes from Jones in which he describes his path to communism and anarchism. This comes just several months after it was revealed that Obama’s top energy and environmental advisor, Carol Browner, was associated with the organization Socialist International.
The White House doubtless can’t be too happy with the ongoing Glenn Beck tumult, even if it ultimately succeeds in costing the hated Fox News Channel sponsors and revenue. What the controversy really serves is to shine the spotlight on one of the seamier aspects of President Obama’s push to transform America’s energy economy. And what it shows is that the green jobs and clean energy campaign waged by the Obama administration appears to be a lot more about radical politics than about the environment.
The curious thing about the troops manning the effort to create a clean, green economy in the age of Obama is that they are not the stereotypical environmental activists one normally thinks about. Sure, the greens at the major environmental organizations are on board with Obama (though some think he’s not going far enough). But the real leaders of the new green jobs movement aren’t environmentalists at all; they’re labor union officials and inner-city community organizers like those at Color of Change. Their interest is not protecting the environment as much as it is hijacking the green zeitgeist to agitate for economic justice, airing ethnic, racial, and other grievances, and grabbing government cash.
Last September these groups came together to stage a massive pre-election rally in cities all over the country called the Green Jobs Now National Day of Action. Most of the major environmental organizations were represented, like Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, and the Natural Resources Defense Council. But what raised eyebrows were the numerous decidedly non-environmental outfits that signed on, including ACORN, MoveOn, and Codepink. Lesser groups, such as the Hip Hop Caucus, Art in Action, Voto Latino, and Democracia USA, participated as well.
Helping lead the charge were a number of Oakland-based organizations tied to Van Jones, a Bay Area activist and author who would be brought into the Obama administration as green jobs czar in March. One is Color of Change, which describes its mission as “dedicated to strengthening Black America’s political voice.” Previous Color of Change campaigns centered on calling for release of the so-called Jena 6 and fanning post-Katrina recriminations. Other groups involved in the new green jobs push include the Ella Baker Center, which Jones helped found in 1996 to protest what he claims is racist policing, and the organization Green For All.
Thanks to Jones, in fact, inner-city Oakland may well be the heart of the green jobs movement. Its Mayor is Ron Dellums, for a quarter century one of Congress’s most left-wing legislators. (In 1977 Mother Jones noted — approvingly — that he was the first “dues-paying socialist” to serve in Congress in over a century.) Dellums and Jones collaborated to pioneer the Oakland Green Jobs Corps (OGJC), which disperses tax dollars to eligible groups to run so-called green-job-training programs. According to OGJC documents, “The program will have a special focus on providing ‘green pathways out of poverty’ by recruiting and training people with barriers to employment (e.g., lack of job skills, lack of education, language/cultural barriers, or history in juvenile/criminal justice system).”
Jones is an interesting character. He is perhaps the leading proponent of harnessing the green jobs wave to benefit low- or no-skill candidates, many with troubled backgrounds. The organizations with which he has been affiliated have seized on the promise of green jobs to benefit inner-city communities.
Jones is as an affable and charismatic messenger of the green gospel with its inner-city twist. A skilled quotesmith who has become a go-to guy for reporters looking to add flavor to stories about the environment, he talks often about the green economy being not just for the Ph.D., but also for the “Ph.-do.” Another Jones aphorism for disaffected youth is that “you can make more money if you put down that handgun and pick up a caulk gun.”
Jones talks up the need for a “green New Deal” that will “help our Rust Belt cities blossom as Silicon Valleys of green capital.” But scroll through the websites and reports of the many organizations with which he’s been connected, and one begins to suspect that this “green” commitment is less about nature than about welfare–for inner-city residents without the skills or knowledge to compete in a 21st-century economy, and for the professional poverty organizations that collect the money for government job-training programs.
Perhaps that’s not surprising given Jones’s radical past, as brought to light by Beck and others. In flattering 2005 profile of Jones in the East Bay Express, he said that he was radicalized shortly after the Rodney King verdict when he was caught up in a mass arrest at a rally protesting the decision. “I spent the next ten years of my life working with a lot of those people I met in jail, trying to be a revolutionary. … I was a rowdy nationalist on April 28th, and then the verdicts came down on April 29th. By August, I was a communist.” He would help found an organization called Standing Together to Organize a Revolutionary Movement (STORM) that, according to the Express, “held study groups on the theories of Marx and Lenin and dreamed of a multiracial socialist utopia.”
He claims to have been converted to green activism after meeting Julia Butterfly Hill, the activist who spent two years living in a California redwood tree a decade ago to prevent loggers from cutting it down. After befriending her, he decided that environmentalism could be the cure for America’s urban ills.
Will it work? The idea of greening the inner-city to improve the lives of its poorest residents would seem to rely on two fallacies. The first is the notion that government must undertake a rescue mission to the inner city because society has failed to provide opportunities for urban blacks. Yet over the last several decades, as the economy has steadily expanded, millions of construction jobs were created in urban centers all across America. For the most part these have been filled by Mexican and Central American immigrants, not by blacks, who largely have absented themselves from this employment boom.
The other fallacy is that inner city green jobs proponents are serious about anything other than seeking more and more taxpayer money. Shortly before the election, the Apollo Alliance (on whose board Jones sat) released a study concluding that five million green jobs could be created for an investment of $500 billion. Obama had cited the same jobs target — five million — but for less than one-third the cost ($150 billion). The co-director of the Apollo Alliance dismissed the discrepancy to the Wall Street Journal, saying the number is less significant than the message. “Honestly,” she was quoted saying, “it’s just to inspire people.”
A $350 billion discrepancy no doubt buys a lot of inspiration. What’s telling, though, it how utterly divorced from economic reality these green-jobs pleaders are. If Jones and his compatriots in the green-jobs movement truly wanted to help poor minorities, they might start by taking a long, hard look at the history of government-run job-training programs. In terms of money wasted, skills not imparted, and opportunities lost, the history of such programs is abysmal. According to journalist Jim Bovard, one of the foremost experts on government job-training efforts, “Many, if not most, of the participants in federal jobs and job-training programs would be better off today if the programs had never existed.” There’s not much reason to think that green-jobs-training efforts will prove any different.