- Introduction:Race, Environment, and Representation
In his preface to The Future of Environmental Criticism, Lawrence Buell writes,
W. E. B. Du Bois predicted that the great public issue of the twentieth century would be the problem of the color line. In the century just begun, that problem shows no sign of abating. But ultimately a still more pressing question may prove to be whether planetary life will remain viable for most of the earth's inhabitants without major changes in the way we live now.1
Climate change, deforestation, food and water shortages, and the steady increase in nuclear and chemical pollutants are just some of the risk factors that might affect the viability of "planetary life." Still, as Buell points out, the increasing prominence of ecological catastrophe does not signal a shift away from the problem of the color line. Race continues to play an active role in distinguishing between those who are relatively protected from (or compensated for) environmental harm and "most of the earth's inhabitants," who are left with the disproportionate burdens and not the material benefits of resource depletion, toxic dumping, and climate change. The distribution of environmental burdens and risks reflects the legacies of racialization and colonialism, and cannot be analyzed or remedied without attending to problems of racial inequality and geographically uneven development. If environmental criticism endorses an ecocentric outlook or land ethic that includes the earth itself in our sense of [End Page 199] community, it must also come to terms with Du Bois's observation that "whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!"2
Du Bois himself was deeply interested in the points of intersection between race relations and problems that expand our sense of what counts as environmental.3 In his early sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro (1899), Du Bois includes an entire chapter on "The Environment of the Negro," analyzing the effects of housing conditions on the health, character, and "social environment" of Philadelphia's black citizens.4 With different sections dedicated to the health, amusements, education, and employment of Philadelphia's African American population, the book anticipates environmental justice activists and scholars who "define the environment . . . as the places in which we live, work, play, and worship."5 Du Bois's later works also push toward an "anti-pastoral"6 conception of the environment: "Have you ever seen a cotton-field white with the harvest—its golden fleece hovering above the black earth like a silvery cloud edged with dark green, its bold white signals waving like the foam of billows from Carolina to Texas across that Black and human Sea?"7 Here, the deceptively lush landscape is produced by economic, political, and semiotic factors, its "signals" of white cotton supported by a less visible "Black and human Sea" of laborers.
Du Bois's description of a "dark green" landscape shaped by black labor and the political economy of cotton illustrates why terms like environment and nature cannot be fully understood without accounting for histories of social and racial stratification. As environmental justice scholars have documented, race, class, and gender have influenced the distribution not only of private property, but also of access to protected natural spaces, involvement in political decisions that have environmental impacts, and exposure to environmental risks. Du Bois's understanding of the interlinkings of race, class, labor, and environment seems to anticipate recent developments in the interdisciplinary field of ecocriticism. For example, Buell characterizes second-wave environmental criticism as tending to take anthropocentric approaches, focusing on how humans relate to and shape their environments.8 In contrast, earlier ecocriticism tended to focus on the representation and stewardship of untouched natural spaces—echoing a long history of U.S. exceptionalist discourses about virgin land and the frontier. The second wave conceives of environment more broadly, exploring how our perception of nature is mediated by race, class, gender, and geography. Not only urban dwellings and parks, but suburbs, garbage dumps, and offshore vacation destinations thus become key sites of environmental contestation and criticism. [End Page 200]
Instead of providing a comprehensive account of the field of environmental criticism, this introductory essay considers the...