Scholarship Part 1: Environmental Racism

Haven’t written anything for this spot in a long while, even though I have 7 drafts backlogged on the post queue. Those seven drafts were all done on a night when I couldn’t fall asleep, so I clicked on some classic Kanye and wrote until I finally heard the sweet call of slumber persuade me away from my laptop. My hope is to get those ones finished soon so you, my visitors, can read them. I also want to commend and applaud those that do come to this blog and check up on it, means a lot to me and while this place has been a bit barren in terms of material the fact you return means I am doing something right. (Right? And I know the song picked has nothing to do with the premise of the post, I’ve just been vibing to a lot recently.)

So for your enjoyment, I want to introduce to a topic that I wrote on: environmental racism. The point of me putting it on the blog is in an effort to let people know about because I am sure there are plenty of people who have no idea what environmental racism is and what it entails. So, I’m doing this to help you know more about what goes on in the world we live in. I’M BACK!

The Development and Stagnation of Environmental Racism

            The United States is one of the greatest countries in the world, ripe with opportunities for success, space to build one’s legacy and the notion that equality is one of the main vertebrae in the backbone of the country’s body. It is under these purported characteristics that many immigrants and Americans subscribe to and embrace them as truths about this nation. Looking closer at the history of the United States, it is learned that the last of the aforementioned characteristics rings hollow. Reviewing over the past of the United States, one learns that the nation was built in a manner that did not breed equality as something that should be strived for. The United States has an ugly history replete with tales of extreme and overt racism and inequality in human rights. There are other countries that are just as terrible, like Brazil for example. The racism and inequality seen in the United States and Brazil extends beyond basic human rights and into something that surrounds everyone: nature, the environment. This paper will enter into the discussion of environmental racism: its origins, how it has been defined, what it looks like, what has caused it to persist and how has this phenomenon evolved in human thought over the past 40 years.

Connecting the environment to racism

To better understand how racism has persisted and been able to permeate into the environmental realm, not just in America but around the world, one has to look at how humans have interacted with each other. A manner of looking at this interaction is called an ethic of intercorporeality, or in simpler terms, interactions between two or more groups that have a physical or material-like quality. This term encompasses, for the sake of this paper, both the interactions between races, classes and the interaction with nature that these races and classes inhabit. To help elaborate on this paradigm, Thomas Girshin, in his critique of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, details that Morrison’s ethic of intercorporeality shares much in common with the ecological visions of the environmentalist movement. Girshin states, “an empathy with nature, provided by an appreciation of the similarities in common to all bodies, is key to the development of an environmental ethic” (Girshin 156). To have respect for nature, for her processes, her squalls and stillness is to also have respect and regard for the human body’s own wonders and oddities. This, however, is not how humans act when it comes to dealing with nature, or even our fellow man. In what ways do intercorporeality, building an environmental ethic and environmental racism intersect?

Digging deeper into Girshin’s critique it becomes apparent that there is a link connecting these three ideas into one: the dominant “use-value” paradigm. This paradigm is deep rooted in the minds of all humanity and has been the worldview that many deep ecologists have wanted to depart from. Girshin defines the use-value paradigm as one in which “the living world is seen as nothing but resources open to human settlement, exploitation and/or management” (Girshin 151). The paradigm is stating that everything seen on this earth is for the betterment of human society and should be taken advantage of to the fullest extent without thought of the drastic repercussions that could follow. This paradigm is destructive in and of itself because those that adhere to it are subscribing to a belief that justifies inflicting pain and physical damage on entities that are perceived to be resources, or “those that are not deemed ‘valuable’ enough to be resources” (Girshin 152). From this definition and introduction of the use-value paradigm, the connection from environmental racism, intercorporeality and a developed environmental ethic begins to make sense.

One can clearly make the comparison of how the use-value paradigm has been utilized in nature and amongst humans. Racism is a prime example of what the use-value paradigm can achieve when it is used between two different races or amongst people who are different from each other. “Not only is this ideology dangerous… it reduces all ‘Other[s]’ (blacks, the poor, animals, plants, etc.) to the lowest common economical denominator, but also because this way of thinking is contagious,” (Girshin 153). Being constantly tossed aside, berated or not even acknowledged takes its toll mentally and soon it becomes so engrained that one becomes the “other,” they become everything that a certain group of people has been telling the “other” that they are. To demonstrate how this technique is done, Girshin discusses Morrison’s use of the phrase “to dirty you,” a saying that goes to point out how a person, in this case a slave, is devalued and reduced to the lowest denominator possible. The sense of being dirty is so pervasive within the culture, for instance slavery in the book Beloved, that even one of the characters has a difficult time loving a member of the opposite sex. All that is seen is an opportunity to exploit, violate and desecrate for his satisfaction with no regard for the will of the body that was subjugated to his doings. It is within this paradigm that a culture of never-ending hate, ignorance and negligence is created and very difficult to stop and overcome.

The use-value paradigm is the prime example of how the ideas of intercorporeality (interaction between two living entities, human and human, as well as human and nature) are connected with environmental racism. If it (the use-value paradigm) is just as easy to inflict its harshness on a living organism that is capable of reason and fighting back, but succumbs, how difficult would it be to inflict on a living planet that has no means of defense?

Defining environmental racism

            Environmental racism’s roots extend back to the late 1970’s and early 1980’s when it became apparent that there was a distinct correlation between the placement of environmentally degrading and toxic facilities in communities of high density, lower class minorities. According to the article “Environmental Justice: Human Health and Environmental Injustice” by Robert J. Brulle and David N. Pellow, the term was first coined by Dr. Benjamin Chavis who declared that:

“Environmental racism is radical discrimination in environmental policymaking, the enforcement of regulations and laws, the deliberate targeting of communities of color for toxic waste facilities, the official sanctioning of the life-threatening presence of poisons and pollutants in our communities, and the history of excluding people of color from leadership of the ecology movements” (Brulle and Pellow 105).

Chavis’ definition in 1982 earned him the title “the father of the post-modern environmental justice movement.” Prior to Chavis’ definition, there had already been someone that was researching and discovering many of the truths that lie within that definition. Dr. Robert Bullard, a resident in Houston at the time, wrote a study called “Solid Waste and the Black Community” in 1979 (according to an interview Bullard did with The Environmental Magazine). While environmental racism had yet to be conceptualized in a definition, Bullard had been working on a classic example of what environmental racism embodied.

What environmental racism boiled down to for Chavis and Bullard was “another form of institutionalized discrimination” (Motavalli 10). And in a shocking, though not to these two gentlemen,  report by the United Church of Christ it was found that the siting of hazardous waste sites came down to race being the determining factor. Bullard states that “where the freeways go, where the landfills and the bus barns are, that’s where you’ll find environmental injustice. And it wasn’t until people started to meet and talk and share their notes that we saw this national pattern…environmental racism is more than where the garbage dump is, it’s all those other things too” (Montvilla 10). The striking message of Bullard’s elaboration is that environmental racism is not by itself a problem, but it is a part of the bigger problem that is environmental injustice which crosses racial, class and socioeconomic lines. Environmental racism and injustice is the deliberate negligence and ignorance to the EPA’s stance on environmental justice that prides itself on “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income” (Brulle and Pellow 104).

Brulle and Pellow continue to illustrate the point that environmental inequality (yet another term that encompasses environmental racism and injustice) may have “racism [as] the driving factor,” but “there has been considerable debate in some corners about the degree to which this phenomenon is a function of racial inequalities or class-based market dynamics” (Brulle and Pellow 106). The questioning has produced a sub-debate about race vs. class, which has helped narrow the methodology in researching this problem, but it has missed the general problem of the production of toxins and their unequal distribution in terms of location as the main point. In most of these cases, race and class are merged together as one and cannot be viewed separately.

Environmental racism’s original definition by Dr. Chavis was as pointed as one could get, but through the years it has evolved to include not only race, but class and other socio-economical standings. The problem with environmental racism is no longer trying to identify what it means, but where it is within the United States and the world.

Example of environmental racism

There are two classic examples of how environmental racism occurs in the United States and the world and this section will discuss them both shortly. One example is where a corporation enters into town to place a hazardous and toxic facility within the community and promise jobs and economic stability to the area. Unbeknownst to the community, said corporation is playing them for fools and utilizing the use-value paradigm. The other example involves an area being seen as a haven industry and being built to house as many factories as possible and once the area has been used up, it is deemed “unfixable and undesirable.” This place is cast aside and forgotten, rarely thought of in the crusade to promote environmental consciousness. The first example is of the arrival of a US agribusiness company in the Brazilian state of Piaui and the second example is of the treatment of the North Portland peninsula of Portland, Oregon.

Tania Pacheco, in her article “Inequality, environmental justice and racism in Brazil,” discusses at length how there is a disproportionate amount of toxic facilities in the north of Brazil compared to the southeastern parts. She describes “in Brazil, it was, by contrast, the Southeast that made the less prosperous North the ‘sacrificial zone for the toxic waste of the nation” (Pacheco 717). Pacheco details that the racism that developed and occurs in Brazil stems from the days of Brazil’s conquest and the minute differences in appearance caused a definitive schism amongst Brazilians (think Hutu-Tutsi of Rwanda). To Pacheco, the social and environmental injustice that occurs in Brazil is an indissoluble equation and the example of a US agribusiness’ arrival is proof. In 2001 this business came into the state of Piaui (a northeastern state) and was exempt from paying taxes for 15 years so it could establish itself in the southern municipality of Urucui, creating a job market there. Piaui, one of the poorest states in Brazil, was forfeiting 200 million Reais (~$126 million) per year, and on top of that was allowing this corporation to ravage the cerrado (the savannah) of its trees for production of soy beans. Given the gravity of the resource depletion, the continuous pollution and lack of employment, the people of Piaui began “accepting jobs that are dangerous for themselves and their families or for the surrounding communities…the conditions of absolute poverty…yielding their women and children to the greed of the ‘market’” (Pacheco 717). It was clear that the company did not care about the development of the state of Piaui or its people. It was clear that the Brazilian government did not care at all for the inhabitants or the resources of Piaui as it became more naked and dead by the day. In Pacheco’s eyes it will never change until there is a conscious effort to see that there is a problem with this system of inequality.

In Portland, Oregon, the story is a bit different. The northern peninsula was seen as place where industry could really thrive because of its proximity to a channeled waterway called the Columbia Slough. The inhabitants of the peninsula during the early years of industrial development, according to Ellen Stroud in her article “Troubled Waters in Ecotopia: Environmental Racism in Portland, Oregon,” were “predominantly working-class people of European ancestry” (Stroud 70). It was not until after World War II, and after a huge affordable house development was built, that the area saw an increase in African-American population. The increase of African-Americans coincided with Henry Kaiser, owner of the Oregon Shipbuilder Corporation, offering jobs at his company building ships. Continuing with the use-value paradigm mentioned earlier in the paper, Kaiser and many of the politicians in Oregon enjoyed having these people work and live in the area until they started growing tired of it. “Many political leaders began to lambast the development…the clamor of nearby factories was disturbing and to everything that could not be explained adequately it was called a ‘negro problem’” (Stroud 73).

This outlook on the peninsula did not bode particularly well for the inhabitants because it follows suit of the use-value paradigm: the course had been run and the end was near. Enabling fruitful community and livelihood means nothing to progression of business and the northern peninsula became another victim to capitalism. Instead of discussing how to fix the problems within the northern peninsula, policy makers decided it was better to avoid discussion and continue to build industry and pollute the area because they had deemed it expendable. The businesses that took up roots in the North Portland Peninsula range from metal production plants to wood-treatment facilities to construction materials plants. These businesses contributed to the accumulation of lead, pentachlorophenols, polychlorinated biphenyls, cyanide, chromium, hydrochloric acid, dioxins and other pollutants into surrounding area. The African American demographic increased because of the devalued housing prices that were influenced by the toxicity of the neighborhoods. The irony of this is deep because the toxicity is influenced by the high density of African American residents and the low housing prices only increased the density of African American residents.

The example of Piaui, Brazil goes to show the institutionalized discrimination that Chavis and Bullard mentioned in their definition of environmental racism, while the northern peninsula of Portland, Oregon signifies the blatant placement of toxic factories in communities of color.

Causes of Environmental Racism

If there is one cause of environmental racism that every one of these articles agrees on, it is that the system of capitalism throughout the world breeds this disregard for the environment and human life. According to Brulle and Pellow, “the expansion of the economy drives two fundamental dynamics of a market economy: first, the creation of economic wealth, and second, the creation of the negative byproducts of the production process” (Brulle and Pellow 108). To surmise this point, the only persons that gain the positives out this dynamic are the businesses and the affluent communities who can consume what is produced. The ones that are left with the negative impacts are the ones that could not resist the environmental risks of the productions process. This is to say that these people could not mobilize in a fashion that would stymie corporations, the government, etc. from treating them unjustly. The processes of production are “blind and deaf to the dangers” (Brulle and Pellow 108), they are senseless and without empathy towards those that may suffer the horrid consequence of their (the processes) actions.

The inability to form resistance feeds into another cause of environmental racism: many times, not only is race and class a determining factor, but the ability to form a successful coalition can help decide whether or not a toxic facility is placed in a community. Girshin writes, “as evidenced above, political power is tightly connected to economic power: the economically disadvantaged lack political representation and agency” (Girshin 158). By knowing a certain community will not be able to put up a strong fight makes it that much easier for environmental racism, injustice and social injustice to persist in a community, in a nation and in our world. This point is further proven as Girshin discusses a 1984 document that was provided to the California Waste Management Board “which outlines which neighborhoods are ‘most likely to organize effective resistance against incinerators’” (Girshin 158). Brulle and Pellow agree by writing, “people of color are concentrated in highly segregated communities… they are more isolated socially and relatively powerless politically” (Brulle and Pellow 109).

Just off of that document alone it was passed that none of the middle to higher socioeconomic strata neighborhoods were to be within a one-to-five mile radius of incinerator plants, however, the lower income neighborhoods are where the waste-disposal sites will be placed. Girshin opines that this way of thinking is the same that justified the beating and torture of slaves: the greater the power one possesses, the easier it is to exploit those with little to none. This oversight falls on the legislative shortcomings that fail to live up to the democratic policies they hold in such high regard.

Fixes to environmental racism

Finding a cure to environmental racism, environmental injustice and social injustice is not an easy task. It might not even be a viable possibility because of how deep rooted it is in the way that humans think and behave. Nevertheless, the Environmental Justice Movement is striving to make strides in ending the vicious cycle of oppression and negligence. Writes Brulle and Pellow:

“the Environmental Justice Movement was born and articulated a framework for social change: the right of all individuals to be protected from environmental degradation, adopt a public health model of prevention, shift the burden of proof to the polluters, allow disparate impact and statistical weight (as opposed to “intent”) to infer discrimination and redress disproportionate risk burdens through targeted action and resources” (Brulle and Pellow 110).

From that rubric, it is clear to see that the Environmental Justice Movement has a plan to combat the scores of environmental racism cases around the US and the world by following the plan it has laid out. The tenet that makes this plan so powerful in the quest to end environmental racism is forcing the polluters to show that their emissions and effluent are not toxic, carcinogenic or life threatening. It is relieving the community that has had to endure the scourging of having to live with these toxic facilities to not have to prove that there is something going wrong in the air, water or soil. And finally, after the polluters have shown that they in fact have or have not (but being completely honest, most polluters are polluting) been polluting, there need to be national and international policy changes that will help shift paradigms and create a healthier earth.

Thomas Girshin and Tania Pacheco’s idea to end environmental racism is to end the utilization of the use-value paradigm and move on from a capitalist system to an ethic that is based on “the principles of interdependence and biospherical egalitarianism” (Girshin 160). While their hope is a noble one, and a cry recalling of Marxian views, it is a solution that seems more like a dream than a possible reality. Though it is possible to continue to escape the clutches of the use-value paradigm, to build a better intercorporeality and environmental ethic, all that would need to happen is for humans to interact with each other better. Once humans begin to interact on a newfound level of mutual respect, the respect for nature and her wonderful processes will re-emerge.

Environmental racism is a very complex and riveting topic that has seen much evolution in how it is defined, studied and seen across the United States and the world. It is disheartening to say the same cannot be said for how it is dealt with in legislation, or how it is handled by the government. While there are many possible fixes to what has been called an unsolvable problem, there is hope in the Environmental Justice Movement to continue to turn the wheel and develop a stronger, more dedicated and willing group to help stop the degradation of our human community and of our earth. By continuing to build up the communities that have been affected by environmental racism and injustice to be able to have the political power to say “not in my backyard,” there is hope that one day we as a global community can say, “not on my earth.”


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