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Environmental Justice WRT Class And Race

This article makes some good points about the classism-dressed-up-as-anti-racism of many liberals' attitudes toward white rural people. But at times it gets a little too caught up in its own (unoriginal, but not therefore wrong) thesis about the need for coalition-building with the despised "rednecks." For example, the author criticizes the tendency of prevailing narratives of the environmental justice movement to focus on racial inequities over economic ones:

The environmental justice movement set out in part to rectify that. The founding notion was to address the way that environmental hazards—refineries, incinerators, toxic dumps—are often sited in poor communities and communities of color. But class and thereby poor white people very quickly vanished from the formula. Toxic dumping in a rural North Carolina African-American community is said to have launched the environmental justice movement in 1982, but the prototypical environmental injustice had been exposed a few years earlier, in the mostly white community at Love Canal in western New York. It wasn't an anomaly either. The 1972 Buffalo Creek flood occurred when a coal-slurry impoundment dam on a mountaintop in WestVirginia burst and killed 125, left 4,000 homeless, destroyed many small communities, and devastated the survivors—almost all of whom were white. And modern-day coal mining continues to ravage poor, mostly white regions of the South in what environmental journalist Antrim Caskey calls "the government-sanctioned bombing of Appalachia." Caskey describes how "coal companies turn communities against each other by telling their employees that the environmentalists want to take away their jobs."

Let's take the larger point about privileging race over class as given, though I find it hard to see environmentalists as ignoring Love Canal and Appalachian mountaintop-removal coal mining. There's more to the story than liberals' disdain for rednecks. One important aspect of the story is the efforts by people opposed to the environmental justice movement to push class as an alternative, and exonerating, explanation. Overt defenses of racism in the US are gauche, so it's tough to argue that there's nothing wrong with putting all the toxic sites in communities of color. However, the myth of the free market sorting the deserving from the lazy is still powerful. So opponents of the environmental justice movement tried to push the idea that the observed inequalities were all, at root, class-based -- that is, people of color live near toxic sites because they are poor, not because there's any specifically racial element to the siting. Examples like Love Canal and Appalachia are directly used to prove that environmental inequality is not environmental injustice. In this context, it's no wonder that people concerned with environmental justice spend a lot of time focusing on the fact that race is indeed a factor independent of class.

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Blogger Alon Levy said...

I agree with your explanation of class-over-race arguments, but I think there's also another motivating factor. American populism is traditionally racist: it's based on Northern ethnic whites and Southern rednecks in opposition to both blacks and capitalist excesses. It's only after the 1960s that there developed any economic populism that incorporated blacks, but nowadays it's anti-Hispanic. A class-trumps-race argument is powerful when your constituency is poor whites.

This can also partially explain why conservatives would use these arguments. Economic populism hasn't been dominant in any mainstream party since William Jennings Bryan. Nixon and Reagan both effectively appealed to white blue-collar workers who felt alienated by rich liberals who weren't concerned with the rising crime rate.

2:56 AM  

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