Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States

Reviewed by Andrea Beck, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The conflation of race and waste has a long history in the United States, with serious material consequences for the lives and well-being of ‘non-white’ immigrants and African Americans.

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by Carl A. Zimring Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, New York University Press, 2015, 273 pp

In Clean and White, historian Carl A. Zimring explores how environmental factors have shaped social constructions of race in the United States, from the age of Jefferson to the Memphis Public Works Strike of 1968. Rather than treating race and ethnicity as static constructs, as is often the case in studies of environmental racism, Zimring carefully unpacks the ways in which concerns about urban health, hygiene and sanitation were increasingly conflated with concerns about race over more than one hundred years of American history. Whereas whiteness became equated with cleanliness and purity to justify white supremacy, other skin colors came to be associated with waste, dirt, dust and disease. The infamous Ku Klux Klan, as well as some academics, helped develop and spread these linkages. Advertisers of soap and cleansers likewise promoted notions of race and cleanliness in popular culture.

Beyond their discursive importance, the author shows how these constructions of environmental racism had far-reaching material consequences for the affected groups. With white Americans considering waste-handling beneath their dignity, “dirty” jobs such as laundry, waste collection and scrap recycling were disproportionately relegated to African Americans, Asian Americans, and new immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe, exposing them to serious environmental health risks. In addition to occupational structures, environmental racism also shaped the spatial organization of cities. Between 1870 and 1960, racial residential segregation increased markedly, as whites “fled” the urban core for the suburbs, and noxious industries and waste-handling businesses clustered in non-white residential areas. Spatial environmental inequalities were facilitated by racially restricted lending practices, municipal zoning ordinances and lax enforcement of regulations in non-white neighborhoods.

After World War II, many Jews and Italian Americans (long perceived as non-white) merged into white society. At the same time, the environmental burdens on African Americans and Hispanics remained and intensified, culminating in the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968. Although workers and organizers in Memphis did not explicitly use the term “environmental justice,” this strike would become foundational for the emergence of the environmental justice movement in the 1980s. Several examples at the end of the book remind us that environmental racism has endured well into the twenty-first century.

By drawing attention to the social constructions of waste and race, and their material implications, Zimring’s research makes a significant contribution to existing scholarship on environmental racism and environmental justice. What is wanting in the book are specific reflections on where we can go from here. How can American society overcome the long-standing and deep-seated biases uncovered in Clean and White? And how can the book’s message best be translated into public policy? Answering these and other questions will be critical to applying Zimring’s important historical research to life in contemporary America.


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