Posted Friday, July 01, 2016 - 9:53 AM

Beyond Flint, Michigan: Addressing the Challenge of Environmental Racism

faculty insightThe water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and high levels of lead found in the water supply of schools in Newark, New Jersey, and other underserved communities have heightened concerns and awareness of the issue of environmental racism. Carl Zimring, associate professor of social and cultural studies within the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences and author of the book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, gives some background on environmental racism and some of its causes, effects, and possible solutions.

What is environmental racism?

“Environmental racism” refers to the conditions and structures that place undue environmental burdens and hazards on peoples based on race and ethnicity.

It may be articulated in individual behavior, such as asserting that people belonging to one race are somehow dirty and denying them work or housing on that basis. More broadly, however, environmental racism is one example of structural racism, in which social and economic structures such as housing markets and employment patterns represent unjust norms that produce environmental inequalities based upon race. Even without conscious acts of discrimination, we engage in environmental racism by relying on waste management patterns that site landfills, waste transfer stations, and recycling facilities in communities that are largely nonwhite.

Would moves to broaden sustainable initiatives such as switching to renewable energy sources instead of fossil fuels reduce environmental hazards and pollution in economically challenged neighborhoods?

To give a short answer, the use of fossil fuels involves air pollution on two relevant scales: local and global. Local air pollution has undue effects on areas subject to heavy traffic and without much green space. In Chicago, for example, areas with the highest asthma rates in the 1990s included the primarily Hispanic Pilsen and Little Village neighborhoods, and the primarily African-American far South Side—areas located near highways. Removing combustion of fossil fuels from the local environment is a step toward improving human health in these neighborhoods. (Other hazards, such as lead paint and water pipes, require attention beyond our energy sources.)

Global atmospheric pollution from burning fossil fuels has many effects, including climate change, which increases the chance of more volatile and severe weather. In New York City (Superstorm Sandy) and New Orleans (Hurricane Katrina), we have seen the disproportionate effects of severe weather on communities where class and race have led to siting in floodplains.

Slowing or stopping the effects of climate change from fossil fuels would not undo the social structures that produced the inequalities, but it would contribute to reducing risks. The Earth Day 2016 signing of the Paris Agreement will not end environmental racism, but it may lead to practices that reduce some environmental burdens.

Can teaching students about the history of environmental racism and related inequities lead to new design approaches and solutions that can help address these issues? If so, how?

Yes, and designers agree. One of the most influential figures in industrial design is Dieter Rams. In 1976, Rams said “you cannot understand good design if you do not understand people; design is made for people.” Understanding the problems facing humanity will allow us to contemplate solutions for these problems. After all, what is good design if not an attempt to solve identified problems?

At Pratt, we provide frameworks for sustainable design strategies in many departments’ studio classes, in the interdisciplinary Sustainability Studies minor housed in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies, and in the resource available to all Pratt students, the Center for Sustainable Design Strategies. 

Understanding the social dimensions of environmental inequities is not only useful for design education, it is vital if the designers we educate are to be the leaders Rams envisions, and the responsible contributors to society Pratt aims to produce.  We must first recognize the problems before we can begin to design approaches to solve them.

More information on Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States can be found here.