Women’s History Month Q&A with Maxine Burkett

Maxine Burkett
Minor Sinclair

March 31, 2021

Maxine Burkett

To commemorate Women’s History Month, we’re interviewing women at the Center for Progressive Reform about how they’re building a more just America, whether by pursuing a just transition to clean energy, protections for food workers, or legal support for Native Americans. 

This week, CPR’s Executive Director, Minor Sinclair, spoke with Member Scholar Maxine Burkett, professor of law at the William S. Richardson School of Law, University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Burkett has written extensively in diverse areas of climate law with a particular focus on climate justice, exploring the disparate impact of climate change on vulnerable communities in the United States and globally. Their conversation explored the roots of climate justice and its connections to present day climate action. 

MS: Natural disasters can be discriminatory for a host of reasons, and climate change is part of that. Why are certain communities more vulnerable in the face of climate change and what are the racial inequity dimensions of that? 

MB: There is this notion of there being more than one disaster in the wake of natural disasters — climate-fueled or otherwise. The first disaster is the impact communities experience, the second is the level of preparedness of that community. Each community’s level of preparedness is uneven, so while maybe the disaster level itself is benign, it is felt and experienced differently because of background vulnerabilities or exposure to system failures that aren’t accidental, that are the result of intent or neglect. 

My recent work has been to look at how those relationships have historically been part of our socio-political or geopolitical landscape. And the history is quite long!

The reason we’re looking in the rearview is because in order to fix the problem, we need the diagnosis to be accurate. Climate justice is both a diagnostic tool and a prescriptive tool. If the diagnostics require us to understand the base ill, then we will address more than just the symptoms of the problems.

MS: When you talk about the ‘base ill,’ what does that look like as a vulnerable community?

MB: The base is what comes out of colonial history and racial hierarchy. My entire life, I’ve been at this intersection of why, as a woman of color, an immigrant, growing up in New York City, am I concerned about the environment? Well, racial hierarchy and environmental degradation have been part and parcel for centuries. 

If we consider the racist reality of contemporary (and historical) America, then we see that to address climate change and environmental degradation, it requires something called “sacrifice zones,” and sacrifice zones require racism. We’re familiar with the term sacrifice zones, but we’re only just understanding how these phenomena are mutual accelerants.

If we were concerned about racial equity and the plight of the Indigenous, we might respect our treaties more; if we understood the plight of those in Cancer Alley [in Louisiana] and those lives mattered, then we’d have to think differently about heavy industry and reconsider the very existence of it.

MS: You have said that climate justice is the grounds for repreparations. This is both provocative and profound. What does “repairing the harm” mean in terms of climate, and why is there such opportunity for reparations in the climate space as compared to civil space?

MB: As Americans, we have a specific idea of what reparations mean. When I take a step back, as an international law professor, I know that reparations are a pretty common feature of international law. It’s not as provocative as the moral case that it’s made to be. There are even modern history examples of using a reparative process as a means of healing and memorializing; as an important way for humans to move forward. When I first wrote my climate reparations paper in 2008-09, I asked myself, “How do we build trust and solidarity for the greatest collective action problem that humanity has faced?” 

Reparations as a process is apologies, satisfaction, memorialization, truth-telling. They are transformational between the creditor and debtor. 

MS: Who inspires you?  

MB: My contemporaries like Carmen Gonzalez — she is incredible and her writing is fantastic. There’s also Usha Natarajan whose writing has such clarity and is so on point. Because these are women of color in the international law space, they’ve really been trailblazers. I’m also inspired by Wangari Maathai, [the founder of the Green Belt Movement and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate] and Frantz Fanon [author and post-colonial political philosopher]. And lastly, I still marvel at my mother’s ability to have immigrated [from Jamaica] to the States and to have been able to do what she did. 

MS: What keeps you hopeful?

MB: You have to imagine a different future. And I do draw upon this knowledge that not too long ago, not too many generations ago, my ancestors were enslaved people. If you sat them down and told them they’d have a descendent who was doing xyz, they might not have believed that. There were people who were born and died as slaves in my DNA. That tells me that you can’t know the future. Miracles happen through perseverance. 

We can also see that it wasn’t that long ago that certain issues were on the sidelines in daily conversations. Today, these issues — like demanding climate reparations, intersectional environmentalism — are part of our conversations. That’s amazing.

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