Hey, Pete Buttigieg, does Donna Jackson ever have a message for you: It’s not American roads that are racist, Mr. Secretary. Sorry, but it’s your policies that hinder African Americans from prospering and joining a vibrant middle class.

The Secretary of Transportation “has repeatedly labeled several highways and even underpasses as racist,” Jackson recently wrote, while he “turns a blind eye to the Biden administration’s electric vehicle (EV) agenda, which is actually deserving of the title.”

According to Jackson, Director of Membership Development for Project 21, a black leadership organization under the umbrella of the National Center for Policy Research, policies of the Biden administration, especially including stringent environmental regulations, make it difficult for struggling communities to move into the middle class. Jackson testifies frequently before Congress, and elected leaders seek her advice on environmental issues. She has an overriding theme: affordability, which is essential for upward mobility. The Biden administration’s EV push is particularly misguided, she insists, because “blacks and others seeking to move up the economic ladder need affordable gasoline-powered vehicles even more than Americans in general.”

Jackson, an advisory board member of IWF’s Center for Energy and Conservation, elaborated in an IWF interview. “The automobile was invented around 50 years ago,” Jackson says, “but it was only for the rich and affluent. As soon as the automobile became available to every man, it created freedom and prosperity. If you are a minority, you’re worried about stores closing and jobs. If the jobs are not in their area, they need a car.

“The car represents the ability to become financially secure. It decreases the wage gap between black and white; the car affords you the opportunity to go farther out to where the jobs are available, it affords you the opportunity to work multiple jobs, and it affords you the opportunity to participate in the gig market.”

When Jackson testified last year before the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works subcommittee on plastic manufacturing, she expressed a truly revolutionary (in the eyes of the Biden administration) notion—that industrial facilities near a struggling community are not something to be banned but can be a positive benefit. “The enemy,” Jackson declared, “is not trace emissions in the air and water from industrial activity. The enemy is poverty.

“The high-wage blue-collar jobs that these employers provide are, in many cases, the best ones available for those without college degrees. And if you look at the history of the creation of a black middle class over the last century, it is these gateway jobs that lifted up millions of families and broke the cycle of poverty,” Jackson testified.

The Biden administration’s EV push is particularly misguided, Jackson insists, because “blacks and others seeking to move up the economic ladder need affordable gasoline-powered vehicles even more than Americans in general.”

But won’t members of the community die of cancer and other manufacturing-related diseases before they can break the cycle of poverty? Jackson was well-prepared and fearless. “We hear a lot about the environmental dangers of living near or working in these facilities, including plastics plants,” she told the subcommittee. “I think a sense of perspective is in order. American manufacturers, including plastics plants, are subjected to the most rigorous environmental standards in the world, and industrial emissions have declined substantially over the last several decades. For every study claiming a cancer cluster or a statistical association with some other disease, there are others that find that low-income people living near these facilities are no worse off than comparably poor people in general.

“And I think it is worth noting that the environmental activists who focus on weak correlations between industrial emissions and health impacts tend to ignore the undeniable and well-documented improvements that come with the transition from poverty to well-paying employment,” she said.

Jackson worked with Senator Chuck Grassley to expose corruption at the Environmental Protection Agency and has been consulted by Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Chip Roy, Debbie Lesko, and Kat Cammack.

When asked how she came by her views about minorities and environmental regulations, she speaks powerfully of her own family history. “Let me give you a little bit of background about my parents, and my grandfather, and my aunt. They worked in factories,” she says. “They migrated from the South to the North, and subsequently we had individuals go to the Midwest and California because of the opportunities in the factories. I have relatives who worked at Ford, General Motors, Chrysler, U.S. Steel, and General Dynamics. Working for these companies was the basis for them to become middle class. I don’t know if you know this, but the largest migration of black individuals from the South and the Midwest was because of that industrial revolution.

“When my grandfather walked on the floor of Ford Motor Company, it was completely integrated. He worked beside white individuals, Irish, Jews, Blacks, and Asians, it was just because they needed individuals to work and the market pulled them into that because Henry Ford needed workers. If you worked for Ford Motor Company or Chrysler, one of these factories, when you went to church, which has always been a centerpiece of black America, and it still is, you were automatically given a position as a deacon. That’s how prestigious working in these companies was. My grandfather owned his home, and he was able to help his kids own homes because of working in those factories.

“The enemy,” Jackson declared, “is not trace emissions in the air and water from industrial activity. The enemy is poverty.”

“My generation and the one after me got to go to college because of these jobs. So, when I hear this big push to deindustrialize the country because somehow these factories are blatant polluters, I ask myself how can that be when I have family members who were able to become members of a vibrant black middle class because of these jobs? Now I hear that someone working in a factory is detrimental to the black community. And so, they want to shut down those jobs. Now, when you think about the fact that African Americans have lower graduation rates, where are they going to get these high-paying, blue-collar jobs? Those jobs really paid very well and created a thriving middle class.”

Donna’s father was an entrepreneur with several small businesses. He was able to send all his children to college. Donna went to California State University San Marcos, where she was a member of Phi Beta Kappa and graduated cum laude in accounting. She worked with companies such as Ernst & Young and Marriott International in the private sector before serving in the public sector as a vice president deputy controller for the Export-Import Bank of the United States. She is a member of the National Association of Black Accountants.

When Donna talks about her career—in marketing, Republican politics, or the nonprofit sector—what comes across is a sense of dynamism and a belief that she can achieve anything, which she strives to instill in others. One of her rules is not to see racism everywhere. She says that too often minorities assume that there is racism. “When I got my first really nice retail job in a hot upscale store,” she recalls, “I remember telling my mother that I didn’t think I’d get the job. There were no blacks working there. My mother gave me a pep talk and said that didn’t mean I wouldn’t be hired, and they did hire me. I grew up in inner city and urban communities, but my mother never gave me the option of blaming other people for my failures. She always reminded me that we are given a talent and it’s up to us to seek out opportunities to best utilize that talent. The people who see big ‘now hiring’ signs and keep walking past instead of going in and inquiring do that because of fear.

“If they went in and said, are you hiring? And they pretended, no, we’re not hiring, even though they had a for sale sign, then that would be racism, right?” Donna continues. “That would be ‘we don’t want you.’ But if you look and you just make an assumption and you never go in, that’s not racism. That has more to do with the way you view things mentally. And I think that that’s the gap that we have to bridge.”

“I grew up in inner city and urban communities, but my mother never gave me the option of blaming other people for my failures.”

After her first retail job, Donna gained a reputation as a manager who could turn around low-performing stores. She did it by instilling ambition to succeed in the sales staff. She trained them in such basics as being attuned to the customer. Though she created a pleasant work atmosphere and looked for people who wanted to go higher, “If we don’t make the cash register ring, nobody has a job,” was one of her slogans. Jackson moved with her first husband to Arkansas to establish a daycare center but instead ended up learning how arbitrary regulations, which plagued the state’s daycare sector, can be a barrier to entrepreneurship. But the experience had an upside: She became an expert on regulations and the Republican leadership of Arkansas sought her out to join their ranks.

Jackson worked for former Governor Arkansas Mike Huckabee’s winning campaign and was close to Senator Tim Hutchinson and then-Rep. and now former Governor Asa Hutchinson. During Huckabee’s tenure, Jackson helped recruit black candidates for executive-appointed boards and commissions. She also helped create job-training programs at a local community college and the state’s Office of Workforce Development. Jackson, who now lives in Maryland, joined Project 21 in 2018. 

Jackson worries that high energy prices, which she says amounts to a regressive tax on the poor, are holding black families back. “Yet for all its rhetoric on environmental justice, the administration isn’t changing course on its climate agenda. And akin to a ‘let them eat cake’ moment, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg touted expensive electric vehicles as a ‘solution’ to high gas prices.,” she wrote (with Daren Bakst) in the D.C. Examiner. Jackson suspects that the real goal of the Biden administration is to force people onto public transportation. “You would have a hard time getting to your job, let alone caring for your family, and being able to get them from one place to another,” she says, if you were completely dependent on public transportation.

“Government programs give you that ceiling. When you work in low-paying jobs, that’s the floor. That’s the least you’re going to make. I always say, ‘Take the floor, not the ceiling because you can go upward from the floor, but the ceiling will be your limit.’”

Transportation isn’t the only area where misguided policies hold poor people back. The rules for public assistance programs generally prevent recipients from saving or creating assets. “I would say like food stamps, welfare, those housing subsidies, it has an asset limit on it,” Jackson says. “So, income has an asset limit that restricts people to a certain dollar amount, generally about $3,000. Three in total, including bank accounts, insurance premiums, 401ks, cash on hand, and jewelry. That’s the limit that you can have every year for recertification. Biden says he sends people childcare credits, right? What he doesn’t tell them is they have to spend every dollar. They can’t even save the money he sent. They have to spend every dollar. You can’t accumulate it or they’ll kick you off. If you owned an expensive vehicle, even if you inherited it, you would have to sell that vehicle and live off the proceeds.”

She continues, “People who have been on Section 8 for 30 years, 20 years, don’t own a piece of property because the government gives them a ceiling. This is the most you can make, don’t work extra hours, don’t take promotions. You have some extreme conditions sometimes where people quit their jobs and get another job that pays less to stay within that ceiling. They give you that ceiling. When you work in low-paying jobs, that’s the floor. That’s the least you’re going to make.

“You have all these opportunities to build skills, to get promoted, to make as much as you can depending on your effort. But the government gives you a ceiling, private industry gives you a floor because their business model is based upon how many people they serve, not how many people they get off the program. So, if I serviced 50 poor people last year, I need to service 100 poor people the next year. I always say, ‘Take the floor, not the ceiling because you can go upward from the floor, but the ceiling will be your limit.’”

This jill-of-all trades is doing yeoman’s work to ensure all Americans—including those in disadvantaged communities—have access to energy security and upward mobility. IWF’s Center for Energy and Conservation is fortunate to lean on Donna’s expertise and savvy in her capacity as an advisory board member.