Battle Cry of the Silent Spring: The Intersection of Environmentalism and Racism

Environmental injustice, when combined with race issues, present those affected with difficult barriers to justice not experienced by their more privileged counterparts. Environmental struggles relating to pollution, poison, and discrimination take on specific conflicts when in the context of African-American and Hispanic communities.

Any history of the United States is never complete without race relations present and forefront, as the black experience in this country has always been unique from the experience of those considered to be whites and those with social capital. Therefore, environmentalism and its focus on communities affected by pollution and other hazardous practices, must include a special understanding for the experiences of people of color. Any attempt to erase the racial tension and motivation present in the fight for environmental justice is, in essence, an attempt to erase the minority experience in the United States.

Beginning with the Church of Christ’s study Toxic Waste and Race in the United States in 1987, environmentalism and racism have been studied and understood at their apex as endangering the lives of people of color for centuries. According to the Church’s exhaustive study, in communities with one commercial hazardous waste facility the average minority population percentage was twice the average in communities without such a facility. Similarly, race was the number one predictor tested by the Church of the location of waste disposal sites.

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Environmental racism’s legitimacy stands consistent since that first breakthrough study. According to J. Tom Boer et. al, in Los Angeles communities of color are disproportionately likely to be near potential environmental health risks like toxic waste and power plants. Even when controlled for income, industrial land use, and employment rates, race correlates most strongly with hazardous waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities. This correlation does not suggest that people of color attract environmental hazards, or vice versa, rather reinforces a clear relationship between location of potentially harmful facilities and socially disadvantaged communities.

Geographer Laura Pulido of the University of Southern California points to rapid increases of urbanization as a major factor in environmental racism. Municipal and state governments identify communities of color as particularly vulnerable and lacking in mobilization capacity and, as a result, find themselves targets for new potentially-risky waste projects. The increase in frequency of these waste sites corresponds with rising urbanization in the United States and, as more move to cities, more of these sites will be constructed in minority-majority neighborhoods.

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Many scholars, such as environmental historian Aaron Sachs, view the beginning of the environmental movement in the United States as coinciding with the move to protect the vast expanses of wilderness in the western portion of the country during the late 19th century. From there, interest remained as a function of resource conservation and Thoreau-esque environmental romanticism. Due to these idealistic roots, the movement remained almost entirely upper class-led and did not become inclusive or particularly relevant in the lives of everyday Americans until the 1960’s, when Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring hit shelves and sparked a national debate about human impact on climate and the global ecosystem.

The persistent centrality of whiteness within modern environmentalism has posed unique issues for the activists seeking to eliminate environmental racism. The strong local resistance to environmental hazards in the vicinity of wealthy urban and suburban communities is a prominent factor in the location of major hazardous projects within majority-minority impoverished communities. The lack of larger perspective within privileged environmentalist circles has seen the growth of increasingly divided American cities. In the Journal of Urban Geography, Laura Pulido et. al illustrates Los Angeles, California as demographically split into the white-majority, wealthy areas of North and West L.A. and the Hispanic and African-American communities in South Central and East L.A. Zip code is one of the major predictors of health within Southern California, and, as a larger trend, within the United States.

The creation of the EPA during the Nixon administration, as well as the onslaught of various lawsuits against energy firms and other major polluters, spurred environmental consciousness during the latter half of the 20th century that continues to modern day. Critics of the modern environmentalist movement in the U.S. point to its nearly all-white leadership and non-intersectionality as inherent flaws in its ability to uncover and fight environmental racism. The EPA’s Civil Rights Office is tasked with finding and legally defending communities of color affected by polluters and careless local and state governments that target based on race. However, as Al Jazeera reports, in its 22 year history it has not successfully filed a single case.

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Even in other Western democratic nations environmental racism both exists and stands dominated by white voices. Toronto, one of the few areas in Canada with significant demographics with people of color, is rife with environmental hazards specific to African-American and Hispanic communities. Public health researcher Hilary Gibson-Wood asserts that even within a community that, in relation to the rest of the country, is extremely diverse, local environmentalism is almost completely white and middle class.

 

Within North Carolina specifically, the environmental justice movement focusing on race holds a special place. The movement began in the 1980’s in Warren County, as a result of toxic waste disposal of PCB in the majority-black, impoverished community of Stocco in rural NC. Although the residents of Stocco ultimately failed to prevent the PCB site from being located in their town, their protests, lawsuits, and resistance ignited the country and sparked interest from civil rights leaders from across the nation. A movement was born, and continues today.

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To those that point out that many of these communities of color are impoverished, I should rebut that poverty is of itself a factor of racism and past discrimination in the American context. In the words of Mutuma Ruteree, UN human rights expert, “Discrimination against groups and persons based on their ethnicity, race, religion or other characteristics or factors has been known to encourage exclusion and impoverish certain groups of the population who suffer from unequal access to basic needs and services.” The continued disenfranchisement of communities of color and the cycle of poverty continues to perpetuate the unsafe and unclean living conditions brought on both by environmental racism and by poverty itself.

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Those affected by environmental racism must receive justice for their living conditions and discrimination by both public and private polluters. This can and does occur through a variety of means: property rights legislation, legal battles, and consumer awareness to name a few. However, the first line of defense against injustice must be the voices of those affected rising up. It’s the rest of us that need to be empowering and uplifting those voices so that this country can become a place of equal opportunity for all its people, regardless of race, socio-economic status, or zip code.

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3 thoughts on “Battle Cry of the Silent Spring: The Intersection of Environmentalism and Racism

  1. I am fascinated with your topic. Honestly, I have never thought about the correlation between racism and the environment. I feel lucky to be enlightened with the topic through reading your blog. I think its important that you recognize how prominent racism is with nearly every aspect of history in the U.S. I think you are correct in your stance that people must speak out to affect change. But I wonder: how should people interested in speaking out go about doing so? Maybe in a short post you could address ways for people to get involved.

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    1. My recent theory post seeks to address this in some capacity — but in general, a great way to dismantle environmental racism is to dismantle racism itself and to be involved in activist work. While not always rewarding or glamorous, lobbying our representatives is an incredibly worthwhile pursuit, as well as voting for officials that stand for environmentally-friendly policy. At a more personal level, helping to eliminate barriers to education for people of color and those living in poverty through volunteering in schools and financial empowerment initiatives goes a long way.

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