When the New York Times recently ran a story about a white man in Wyoming running afoul of EPA regulations because he built a pond for his family and cattle to enjoy, I had a momentary flashback to June and the infamous “pool party” incident in McKinney, Texas.
In McKinney, a multiracial group of teens was terrorized by an aggressive policeman for the crime of swimming in a residential pool without permission. In rural Wyoming, Andy Johnson, white father of four, dammed a creek on his property to create a pond and is busy spinning a persecution narrative about the federal government oppressing him — although he has not been fined a penny since January 2014, when the EPA notified him of his violation.
There were protests over the treatment of the children in McKinney, although national media attention soon drifted elsewhere — eleven days later Donald Trump announced his presidential bid, an awful lot of which has been driven by fears about immigrants trashing our beautiful country (“The United States has become a dumping ground for Mexico and, in fact, for many other parts of the world“).
I doubt we have heard the last from Andy Johnson of Fort Bridger. The white nationalist grievance machine needs a steady parade of martyrs, and these usually (like rancher Cliven Bundy) happen to be men who refuse to adhere to federal environmental laws because of “libertarian” principles. Baked into all of this is is assumption that white men’s access to land, water and air is more important than everyone else’s — an assumption that’s almost never questioned. The Times piece about Mr. Johnson does not mention that the creek he dammed is part of the Green River Basin, and that the water used to make his “oasis” is water taken away, ultimately, from the Colorado River. Johnson isn’t taking water in a vacuum; Johnson is taking water from the cities of Southern California.
Racial equality means not only that white and non-white citizens have the same abstract legal rights. It means that every citizen, regardless of color, should have access to the basic resources of life. The McKinney children were simply trying to enjoy playing in water, something it deeply saddens me to think is “controversial.” There is a vigorous tradition of communitarianism when it comes to air and water in American history. It started, possibly, with the first Puritan colonists of New England — “We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities,” wrote John Winthrop — and continued through Progressive-era public utility reform all the way to the overdue restoration of Native American fishing rights in Midwestern lakes.
The absolutist property-rights view of air and water rights, such as Andy Johnson and very many conservatives of the last fifty years have espoused, stands in direct conflict with this noble communitarian impulse. In the world we actually inhabit, where landed property and other wealth so disproportionately belong to white people, it’s also a fundamentally racist proposition.