Racism in the Fracking Debate

By Ben Fiorillo

Although its about a month old I just recently came across this editorial from Representative Jesse White, D-Cecil, who is one of few outspoken critics of the gas industry in Harrisburg.  His article does a good job of dissecting the gas industry’s claims about local jobs. However, of all the examples White could have used to demonstrate the prevalence of out-of-state workers in the gas industry, he cites an incident in which five Latino workers were pulled over by the police in Cecil Township.  This reference is loaded with racial undertones.

White makes clear that the men were not doing anything illegal and does not call their citizenship status into question. But he repeatedly refers to them as “five Hispanic men who spoke broken English”, apparently to drive home the idea that such a group could not be from southwestern Pennsylvania and perhaps does not belong here.

The fact that these workers were Latino has nothing to do with the rest of White’s argument about the lack of local hiring except that it plays off of the racist and xenophobic notion that Latinos are taking jobs which white people deserve, echoed constantly by anti-immigration forces.  He could have cited the dozens of out-of-state plates one sees every day on the highway or even done some actual research to provide concrete data about company hiring practices. But instead he chose an anecdote which reinforces the scape-goating of Latino workers.

This kind of scape-goating, intentional or not, is a distraction.  White’s real target is the gas industry and Range in particular. And while he does not directly blame those five workers for taking local jobs, his intention could certainly be misconstrued that way.

The reality is that southwestern Pennsylvania is a stronghold of racism, both subtle and overt, personal and institutional. I am not only talking about rural areas. Racism is alive and well in Pittsburgh too, which is where I live. I have spoken to some Latino men who work in the gas industry in this region.  They complained bitterly about how much racism they encounter daily, from their co-workers and from residents in the towns they pass through.  White’s article has dangerous appeal to both the overt racists in our communities as well as to the subconscious racism which all white people (myself included) are taught by our culture.

Racism and xenophobia have come up in other places in the anti-fracking movement as well. Chip Northrup, a prominent blogger and activist in upstate New York, has made much more overtly racist comments, publicly referring to Latino workers as “shalebacks” (a reference to the racial slur “wetback”). 
Both White’s article and Northrup’s comments present an important opportunity for reflection for the overwhelmingly white anti-fracking movement in western PA.  Can we reject the temptation to blame workers, especially Latino workers, for the lack of jobs and other abuses of the gas industry?  Let’s be clear: the decision-makers in the gas industry, the people with power (who are overwhelmingly white men), are to blame for the lack of local jobs and the public health and environmental abuses brought on by fracking.  Not their workers of any race or ethnicity, who work grueling shifts in dangerous conditions with no protections from a union.

Further, given the racial dynamics of our region, can we embrace anti-racism as a principle of our organizing?  Let’s remember that people of color and indigenous communities in the U.S. and around the world are most impacted by the fossil fuel industry and climate change and are on the front lines of resistance. We need to ally our work with theirs and we cannot afford to be divided by racism.

For information on resistance to Fracking in Pittsburgh, 
check out the Shadbush Environmental Justice Collective


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