As David Walker conveys throughout his Appeal to the Coloured Citizens of the World, African American people have historically been treated in such a manner that arguably makes them the most oppressed group of people in recent history (Walker and Hinks 2000, 6-7). In regards to environmental conditions, African Americans have historically been discriminated against in the same way, both directly and indirectly (Williams 2018, 253-255). Environmental injustice towards minorities is a common feature of many American cities today and this is not only a recent phenomenon; as the Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty (2008) report suggests, race and environment seem to be inextricably linked in most American cities, as areas that were mostly black “suffer from greater environmental risks than the larger society”. (Bullard et al 2008, 377)
Throughout my research, I attempted to find the cause of this discrimination that negatively influences the lives of many African Americans today. I specifically looked through documentation of segregation throughout American history to answer the question of the extent segregation, both in its de facto and de jure forms, plays a role in shaping the environmental injustices associated with environmental racism in the United States today. For context, de jure segregation refers to “the legalized segregation of Black and White people” while de facto segregation refers to the form of segregation rooted in “common understanding and personal choice” (Edupedia 2018). Thus, throughout my investigation, I aimed to determine how both of these forms of historical segregation have caused the environmental injustices that face African American people today. Through my analysis, I have concluded that both de facto and de jure segregation have had an immense influence on the difference in environmental conditions in locations where most African American people reside as opposed to communities where most white people live.
De jure segregation was a common feature in the South following Reconstruction. Its implications on the region and its people are vast (Oldfield 2004, 71-91). Its roots in Southern politics were established in the Reconstruction period, culminating with the Supreme Court decision that legally permitted segregation in the form of Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which declared that “separate but equal” public spaces were legal under the Constitution (Supreme Court of the United States 1896). Plessy v Ferguson was essential in causing the conditions that have brought upon the environmental oppression in the South. By legally allowing for the racialization of geographical distribution, (by declaring “separate but equal” as constitutional) the federal government allowed for whites in the South to create geographies that were to their advantage (as in, whites used their power to move to nicer communities and to pass laws that kept minority groups in less desirable areas) (Hoelscher 2003, 671). By harnessing the power to create their own geographies and to influence the demographic makeup of a given area or neighborhood during the era of Jim Crow, the whites in the South were effectively able to choose to reside in communities that were cleaner and nicer, which could be seen as a direct cause of the environmental racism that plagues the nation today.
Through their report on the demographic variation in high and low-lying communities in the South, Ueland and Warf concentrate on the racialization of topography (the differences in altitude between communities that were mostly white and communities that were mostly black) in the region. They conclude that, in a majority of Southern cities, African Americans tended to reside in lower-lying communities, which were more prone to environmental hazards and health risks (Ueland and Warf 2006, 50-73). Through the decision that Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) established, segregation was a legal phenomenon for many years and, because of this, whites in the South were able to continue to oppress black people through the usage of geography.
I believe that, as a direct result of the segregation that the 1896 decision yielded, environmental racism was produced. Had it not been for the legality of the policy “separate but equal,” whites in the South would not have been as easily able to have the power to create geographies and communities that segregated themselves off from black people. Through Ueland and Warf’s report on the geographical causes of environmental racism in the South, it is plausible to argue that de jure segregation in the Jim Crow South does indeed still have implications in furthering environmental racism as the altitudinal difference between black communities and white communities, which was, at least in part, due to the legality of segregation established by Plessy v. Ferguson. Therefore, de jure segregation in the South stemming from policies established by Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) (as well as a multitude of other laws passed in the Jim Crow South) has a great influence on modern-day environmental racism as it allowed for the creation of geographies that favored white people and pushed minorities into communities that were more environmentally hazardous.
By the same token, segregation that was enabled through the creation of urban infrastructure, the suburbanization of the white community, and other forms of de facto segregation that have caused the environmental inequalities that shape many American cities today. To begin, in Los Angeles, African Americans reside in districts that have disproportionately more environmental hazards, which “is largely a function of severe spatial containment and the historic practice of locating hazardous land uses in black areas” (Paulido 2017, 31). Despite not being a part of the Jim Crow South, Los Angeles still exhibits similar racial injustices environmentally as the segregated Southern cities, thus supporting the notion that environmental racism is not solely a product of de jure segregation. Since Los Angeles’ environmental racism, according to Pulido, stems from segregation based on de facto strategies employed by whites to empower themselves through advantageous geographies (for example, Pulido cites white communities in LA making harsh zoning laws to keep minorities out), one can plausibly argue that de facto segregation could play a crucial role in the racist environmental landscapes of the modern-day United States (Pulido 2017, 31).
One may critique this argument by pointing out its inability to be generalized to most American cities. However, this trend of de facto mannerisms of the mid and late 1900s contributing to modern-day environmental racism can be seen through analyzing the impact of these mannerisms on the landscapes of other modern U.S. cities. For example, freeways in the Chicago area have adversely impacted African Americans there. As claimed by Rashad Shabazz, “the mammoth Dan Ryan Expressway, which, after its opening in 1967, cut off access to Bridgeport, the working/middle-class, white, and resource-rich community…” which resulted in a wide range of consequences for Chicago’s black population (Shabazz 2017, 64). The construction of the I-90/I-94 freeway complex through Southern Chicago directly resulted in environmental consequences that unjustly affect African Americans as it spatially contained Chicago’s black population to the so-called “Black Belt,” which was “roughly a seven-mile-long by one-mile-wide strip of land” (Shabazz 2017, 40). As Illinois’ Better Government Association cites, the South Side neighborhoods of Chicago (that were cut off from white neighborhoods by the construction of freeways like the Dan Ryan) are some of the most polluted and unhealthy environments in the city’s metro area (Chase and Judge 2019). Thus, the construction of freeways in Chicago, which spatially restricted black communities from access to neighboring white communities, could be seen as a cause of the unequal environmental geography in the city.
Furthermore, the Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty report also states that, “Six metropolitan areas account for half of all people of color living in close proximity to all of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities: Los Angeles, New York, Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, and Orange County, CA” (Bullard et al 2008, 405). As the report suggests, Northern (and Western) cities are hubs for racist environmental injustices. As segregation was not legally enforced in the North to the extent that it was in the Jim Crow South, it would be incorrect to suggest that only segregation upheld by law has historical roots in environmental racism as the biggest oppressors (in regards to hazardous waste facilities) are, in fact, Northern cities. Therefore, as seen through examples such as the freeway planning in Chicago and suburbanization in Los Angeles, de facto segregation is a prevalent theme in urban neighborhoods across the country; de facto segregation in Northern and Western urban hubs has directly sparked environmental injustices that can be observed today.
Similar to the de facto segregation established through suburbanization, infrastructural projects, and other urban projects that spatially contained minorities, segregation that was not institutionalized (de facto) in the business realm (both through nonprofit lobbyists and through specific privatized industries) also could be traced to as a potential cause of racism through environmental inequality. To commence, in the 1970s and 1980s, environmental non-profit organizations in Southern Arizona directly influenced the variance in environmental conditions based on racialized geographies, as they raised funds and made efforts to make white districts of Tucson and other cities cleaner and more sustainable, while leaving minority communities behind (Clarke and Gerlak 1998, 862). Through the usage of governmental and business power (despite being non-profits), white environmental organizations were able to fund projects that would be most advantageous to their communities, leaving Hispanic and African American communities in more environmentally hazardous zones. Thus, de facto segregation spurred through the agenda of non-profit organizations led by white people could be seen as a key cause in the disparity in environments between white and black communities in cities like Tucson.
To further this, rural environments are also scenes of environmental subjection today. In the South, pesticides that were toxic and linked to certain diseases played a key component in the efficiency of agriculture in the region, thus giving whites in power, like Jamie Whitten (a U.S. representative, white supremacist and advocate for the pesticides industry despite its racist attributions) the incentive to use the pesticides on a wide scale, even if this caused health consequences for laborers in the region, who were generally black (Williams 2018, 243-258). Williams analyzes historical accounts of doctors and medical professionals in the Mississippi Delta region and concludes that African Americans were clearly adversely influenced (in regards to health) by the introduction of pesticides to Southern agriculture, therefore, representing that business ventures also produced environmental racism (Williams 2018, 243-258).
As exemplified by Williams’ case study on the impact that the pesticide industry’s power in the South has had on African Americans in the region, business practices and agendas have also played a role in the development of environmental racism. Businesses and industries, like the pesticides industry, that were funded and are still funded by rich white people to the expense of the well-being of black people, could be seen as agents of environmental racism in many cases; given that the policies they advocate for, in desire for maximized profits and white power, are harmful to African Americans’ health and sense of well-being. Therefore, there are several contributions that non-profit organizations and businesses/industries run by whites in power have made that have directly caused environmental injustice, in the form of health risks and hazards that disproportionately affect the black community. These contributions took the forms of advancements for white communities as well as the creation of obstacles to the African American community’s success and overall well-being.
Thus, de jure and de facto segregation prevalent in the Jim Crow South and urban North in the early and mid 1900s, as well as the de jure and de facto segregation established through business practices and urban plight in the late 1900s have all played a crucial role in developing the environmental injustices that face the African American community today. As seen through the interconnections between controversial expressways in Chicago (Shabazz 2017, 64), to the disproportionate representation of black people at low-lying (unfavorable) topographies in Southern cities (Ueland and Warf 2006, 50-73), to the environmental hazards plaguing black people in urban neighborhoods in the West and North (Bullard et al 2008, 405) to the not-so “color blind” (Jaime Whitten hypocritically said he advocated for “color blind” politics when clearly his policies directly caused African American people to get sick) politics of the pesticide industry and its place in Southern agriculture (Williams 2018, 243-59). Environmental racism in its current form can be traced back to historical forms of segregation, whether legally mandated or not, that produced the geographies and conditions that are associated with modern-day environmental racism. Therefore, both twentieth century de jure and de facto segregation play a vital role in shaping modern-day racialized environmental injustice.
About the Author:
My name is Logan Cimino. I am a second year student at the University of California Santa Barbara studying economics and geography. I am an aspiring urban planner and I hope to introduce more left-wing policies to planning in order to make cities more sustainable and equitable. I am particularly interested in advocating for solutions to residential segregation and environmental racism.