Rhiana Gunn-Wright knows Black life in America is fragile — by design. The idea of “home” has constantly been threatened: Slavery and segregation legally dictated where Black Americans could live for centuries, and the residual effects of those racist institutions continue to guide where they plant their roots.
When you think about it, Gunn-Wright says, every generation has had to migrate to thrive.
“Black people are always just trying to do their best,” the 32-year-old Chicago native says. “But when we’re operating under a suffocating system that doesn’t allow us to do our best, we’re always going to be forced to run away from something or someplace.”
Gunn-Wright has experienced that instability herself. It drove her from Chicago in search of a place where she could feel emotionally, economically, and environmentally safe. Or as she put it: a place where she wouldn’t have to miss school because of bouts of asthma and bronchitis brought on by a debilitating mix of urban heat and pollution in her neighborhood.
She found some safety — namely better health care access and less intercommunal violence — when she attended Yale University and then the University of Oxford on a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. But survivor’s guilt followed. Gunn-Wright felt deeply separated from her community, a feeling that drove her to focus on economic and climate policy as a way to serve her community “in really tangible ways.”
“I knew it didn’t have to be this way,” said Gunn-Wright, who recently moved back to her hometown. “I wanted to change the dynamics that forced someone like me to move away from the community that they are from to try to have a better life.”
Hundreds of thousands of Black Americans are leaving the coasts and parts of the Midwest in search of better jobs, safer communities, and more stability in the South. Since 2010, the three most populated cities in the country — New York, Los Angeles and Chicago — each have lost hundreds of thousands of Black residents while the Black populations in the Southern metro areas of Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Miami have exploded.
The southward shift reverses the journey of their great-grandparents, who moved north in search of industrial jobs during the Great Migration of the early- to mid-20th century. But there are consequences to this latest round of Black migration.
While the new environments often offer greater economic stability, they also bring hurricanes and triple-digit temperatures — extreme weather that can upend people’s life and create a cycle of housing and economic instability as families run from one refuge to the next.
Gunn-Wright is now the director of climate policy at the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal policy think tank. She previously interned for Michelle Obama, worked in the Detroit Department of Health, and most famously helped architect the Green New Deal with U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The Green New Deal, arguably the country’s most progressive federal climate policy proposal, includes plans to cut the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, create jobs to clean up polluted communities, and even offer reparations to Black and brown communities most directly impacted by climate change.
Capital B caught up with Gunn-Wright to talk about this new wave of migration, its impacts on Black culture, and the possible environmental implications. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Capital B: How does your personal experience with migration and climate injustices affect how you approach this work?
Rhiana Gunn-Wright: I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in Englewood. It’s a place where people get left behind. There were a lot of things that I saw that made me feel like no one cared about us except each other. The community cared about the community. I saw Englewood, a Great Migration hub itself, as the perfect place for where these issues met.
When I first started, environmental policy was described as just for polar bears and solar panels, essentially for elite white people. Then I started to see firsthand how environmental injustice shapes people’s lives. I began to understand why Black people were trapped in a community like mine without access to jobs, overrun with pollution and high asthma rates, and left to fend for ourselves.
Climate change is a result of economic activity and economic policy. The way that our built environment is designed has real impacts on how Black people, especially low-income Black people, can live. Because when your baby has asthma, they’re in the hospital, and you’re working an hourly job, that changes the contours of your life. When the only place you can afford to live is next to an oil refinery that is not controlling its pollution, and suddenly you’re having ‘mysterious’ cancers, that is by design. When you can’t sell your house because no one else wants to live next to the superhighway, of course, you’re going to want to escape.
We’re constantly told that climate change will hit Black Americans the hardest, but it is framed as something that will happen in the future. What are the most significant climate challenges facing Black folks right now?
On an individual level, because of racist economic policies, redlining, and just the history of systemic racism, Black people are more likely to live in places that will bear the worst brunt of the climate crisis. Redlining left us more likely to live next to industrial facilities, areas with higher levels of pollution, and places that are flood zones. And you know, poor health outcomes come with that.
It also means we have fewer means to respond to and recover from disasters and less upfront capital to adapt. While white people get to cash in on tax credits to weatherize their communities and build out clean energy, Black families are much less likely to get these early adaptive advantages. So we’re already spending more money than white people because of climate disasters while also having less chance to prepare for future disasters.
You’ve hit on essential points, especially the reality around Black people not having the financial means to have agency around disasters, whether in preparing for them, fleeing from them, or rebuilding after them. What does that mean for the tens of thousands of Black folks rushing to the South towards climate disasters?
This is a really complex question because where people live and move is so emotional. One thing that breaks my heart the most about the climate crisis is that some places likely will not exist. Think about all the touchstones people have for the areas where they live, so when human-caused climate change takes away the place someone lived, it is not just a physical space. You’re taking away our community, memory, and our voice.
For the entirety of America’s existence, Black folks have been asked — and forced — to recreate a really difficult life. The reverse migration is an example of it again. Black people are squeezed between systems that don’t serve them. Many people are moving South because it’s cheaper and racism has made it hard to survive elsewhere, but now they’re just being put in the crosshairs of the climate crisis in ways that are more pronounced and more dangerous than it has ever been.
At Capital B, we’ve been thinking a lot about this because there is a consensus that there will be a mass climate change-induced migration in America. Still, for white folks, that means fleeing from climate disasters. For Black folks, however, that will probably mean they’ll be left to live in the communities that white people have vacated.
You’re totally right. It’s not as cut and dry as people think. On the optimistic side, we have to hope that with white flight and a larger Black presence in these communities threatened by climate change, Black folks will communicate more political power and push for the investments they need to adapt before disasters. Surviving a disaster comes down to essentially mutual aid and support, and we know majority-Black communities will have a stronger network.
At the end of the day, people are moving for a higher quality of life, but the question of constant disasters down the line makes it really thorny because you’re asking how long will that better quality of life last? To have a better life, Black people are essentially moving towards the eye of the storm; it’s a difficult situation.
Have you moved to the South in the last few years? Capital B wants to hear from you! If you’re interested in sharing your experience, please fill out this Google Form.