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Framing Environmental Justice

The environmental justice movement cut its academic teeth in the 1980s with a number of studies -- most famously the national analysis by the United Church of Christ's Commission on Racial Justice -- documenting a high correlation between the locations of toxic facilities (landfills, chemical plants, etc.) and racial minority communities (as well as a much weaker correlation with income). The obvious explanation, and the one championed by the movement's political arm, was that siting decisions were racist. The movement typically asserted that it was conscious racism (and there was evidence for that in some cases where information about the decisionmaking process became public), but also argued that siting that led to disproportionate impacts on minorities was unjust even if no racist animus motivated the decision.

In the early 90s, a study by Vicki Been investigated whether the direction of causality might not be the other way around -- toxic facilities might be sited in a racially neutral manner, but since they stigmatized an area and depressed property values, they would draw disadvantaged people to live near them. Been's study found that this alternative hypothesis was not supported, at least at the scale of analysis she was using (environmental justice studies are notoriously sensitive to scale effects). Yet her alternative hypothesis was quickly popularized among opponents of the environmental justice movement, while the movement excoriated it.

Now, however, something quite like Been's alternative hypothesis has been taken up in the environmental justice literature, notably by Laura Pulido. Pulido argues in the case of LA that "white privilege" -- structural conditions that make certain choices more available to whites -- allowed whites to move away from toxic sites into the suburbs, while blacks and hispanics could not.

Why is Pulido's version of the egg-follows-chicken story more acceptable than Been's? I suspect framing may have quite a bit to do with it. Been's version was conceived in terms of minority immigration to neighborhoods near toxic sites. This seems to subtly blame the victim (and is easily turned into an explicit victim-blame by marrying it to a crude libertarianism that sees only the making of choices and ignores the structural conditions that shape the menu and choice-process). The environmental justice movement is resistant to the idea that minorities might, even under duress, choose a toxic neighborhood (witness the harsh debates about Native American tribes that have chosen to host nuclear waste storage sites), as it seems to allow the legitimacy of a tradeoff between polluting industry and health. Pulido's framing, on the other hand, emphasizes the emigration of whites. While she insists that the process is one of unjust structures channeling individually innocent choices, there is a subtle sense of blame on the whites. More importantly, she focuses on the presence of unjust structures that constrain minority choices. In so doing she openly confronts the kind of crude libertarianism that exploited Been's hypothesis, hopefully preventing it from getting a foothold.


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