The historic Benwood Bridge between Belmont County, Ohio, and Marshall County, West Virginia.
The historic Benwood Bridge between Belmont County, Ohio, and Marshall County, West Virginia. Credit: cmh2315fl / Creative Commons

The clean energy transition needs to address systemic racism in Ohio’s rural areas as well as its cities, advocates say. And they want federal infrastructure grants for Appalachia to come with conditions to ensure everyone has an equal chance to benefit.

“There are people of color in every element all across Ohio,” said SeMia Bray, a co-facilitator of Black Environmental Leaders in Cleveland, speaking at an Aug. 19 panel on Appalachia’s clean energy transition. In her view, decisions that impact people’s water, air and living conditions should “be made with transparency, with equity and with accountability in mind.”

The Reimagine Appalachia coalition’s economic blueprint for the Ohio River Valley calls for expanding broadband and modernizing the electric grid; repairing damage from the coal and petroleum industries; redeveloping old industrial sites for energy-efficient, clean-energy manufacturing; providing sustainable transportation options; and relaunching a civilian conservation corps.

“Appalachians deserve a fair share of any climate infrastructure plan,” said Amanda Woodrum, a senior researcher for Policy Matters Ohio, who also spoke on the Aug. 19 panel. In her view, the region “has been exploited and left behind” by the extractive industries of coal mining and petroleum drilling.

Congress has made progress in recent weeks on a federal infrastructure bill and budget resolution. And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she plans for Congress to pass an infrastructure law by Sept. 27. But many details will need to be worked out before grant money makes its way to states.

“We want to make sure the jobs we create are actually good jobs — preferably union jobs — that pay a living wage and come with benefits,” Woodrum said. Besides targeting coal workers who have been hurt by the decline of that industry, hiring goals should “build pathways for Black workers, Indigenous and other workers of color into those good union jobs.”

The way to do that, Woodrum said, is with “strings attached,” including federal labor standards for contractors. Under the coalition’s blueprint, 20% of work hours would be done by apprentices, providing a paying pathway into various trades. Half of that 20% would be done by people from targeted hiring programs, including people of color, women, people reentering society after incarceration, and others.

Dealing with systemic disparities

People of color make up only a small percentage of the population in rural Ohio, where the coal industry is more than two centuries old and the petroleum industry goes back more than 150 years. Yet, as in urban and suburban areas, people of color are disproportionately impacted by poverty and other problems.

For example, Belmont County in eastern Ohio is among the state’s leading areas for coal, oil and gas production. The population is roughly 93% White. Yet while its overall poverty rate is about 12%, that rate jumps to 17% for its Black residents, nearly 30% for its multiracial population and roughly 40% for its native population.

Scioto County in southern Ohio has an overall poverty rate of more than 22.5% and a population that’s roughly 94% White. The poverty rate for Black people there is more than 45%, and roughly one-third of its Latino population live in poverty.

Athens County in southeastern Ohio has an overall poverty rate of roughly 30% and is 91% White. The 3% of people there who are multiracial are more than twice as likely to be poor, however, with a 60% poverty rate.

“The suffering is real” for all people living in poverty in Ohio’s rural areas, Bray said. Nonetheless, “when you have people of color at any level of society, they still tend to suffer disproportionately more than their peers who are not BIPOC” — Black, Indigenous and People Of Color.

Those disproportionate impacts happen “because of legacy systemic racism within our system that continues to be pervasive in this day,” Bray said. Historically, she explained, all systems in the United States were designed to benefit one demographic — White people — to the detriment of others.

“What we have been taught as a society is that it is a zero-sum proposition,” Bray said. “That means that in order for someone to win, everyone else must lose.” And the zero-sum mindset has pitted groups against each other, rather than focusing attention on people in power who have profited disproportionately from the efforts of others.

White people in rural Ohio areas are indeed suffering from poverty, and no one disputes that, Bray stressed. Yet “because of our racialized system of privilege … there will be some other things in place that can additionally support [them] as they move through that experience.”

Those extra supports can include benefits from implicit bias in hiring, training, promotion and other work opportunities. Reliance on fossil fuels also intersects with systemic racism in multiple ways. And centuries of systemic racism have built not only Appalachia and Ohio, but the whole United States, Bray noted.

“When does that compensation come?” Bray asked.

In her view, it’s hypocritical for some people to argue that racism was in the past, so that bygone should be bygones while disproportionate impacts continue. But there can’t be equity and real equal opportunity as long as one group continues to have a head start on others.

“In order for equity to be effective, you actually have to do some remediation, which good green energy legislation would provide,” Bray said. To achieve that, she would want grant programs to require investments in “both the work force and the contractor base of those who have been traditionally left out of those conversations — not to the exclusion of any, but to the inclusion of all.”

And with poverty so widespread in rural Ohio and elsewhere in Appalachia, government involvement and aid are definitely needed, along with accountability measures built into grants to make sure hiring targets and community goals are met, Bray and Woodrum said.

“If there’s public funds involved, you demand it. You require it. It’s a string attached,” Woodrum said. “We have to build a workforce that properly and appropriately reflects the diversity of our community.”

“Appalachia needs to be at the table” as details of federal infrastructure grants are finalized, Woodrum said. Otherwise, she added, “it will be on the menu.”

Kathi is the author of 25 books and more than 600 articles, and writes often on science and policy issues. In addition to her journalism career, Kathi is an alumna of Harvard Law School and has spent 15 years practicing law. She is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the National Association of Science Writers. Kathi covers the state of Ohio.