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In the wake of the recent water crisis in Flint, Michigan, attention has turned, albeit briefly, to the environmental health hazards and infrastructural inequalities that disproportionately burden African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities. Some have characterized the crisis, and others like it, as environmental racism. Carl Zimring gives environmental racism a much-needed long history. In Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, Zimring argues, “Although racism has been a structuring factor in creating environmental inequalities concerning waste, American constructions of race, of waste, and of their interactions have evolved [End Page 454] since the nation’s founding,” influencing residential segregation, employment discrimination, and other material inequalities (p. 3). Zimring unsettles the “static constructs” of race and ethnicity present in much of the environmental inequality literature, showing how whiteness and environmental racism evolved over two centuries (p. 3).
Roughly the first half of the book explains the development of a culture of environmental racism that defined white as clean and non-white as dirty and polluted. Thomas Jefferson espoused a worldview that disdained the pollution of cities, saw blackness as inferiority, and celebrated the salubrious countryside. The development of scientific racism and sanitary science before the Civil War defended slavery, justified the Cherokee Indian removal, and established the language that cast non-whites as a literal and figurative pollution, trends that would coalesce into environmental racism. Zimring mines advertisements and popular culture sources to demonstrate the American “obsession with purity to conflate white identity with sanitation” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (p. 79). Despite the efforts of black leaders to promote and prove the hygiene of African Americans, they failed to sever the conflation of whiteness with cleanliness.
Much of the second half of the book demonstrates the consequences of an ever-tightening association of cleanliness with whiteness, a racial conceptualization that structured residential segregation, employment opportunities, and other advantages. Dirty jobs increasingly were reserved for non-whites and those with limited access to capital. For Chinese immigrants, running a laundry required little capital, as did junk trading, which was often associated with Jewish and Italian immigrants. In an engrossing chapter titled “Out of Waste into Whiteness,” Zimring illustrates how the burdens of waste fell increasingly on African Americans and Latinos as “white ethnics” made the journey into whiteness and its cleansing privileges, using the examples of Jewish and Italian-Americans who left behind scrap and waste trades to become white. While many scholars have traced the beginnings of the environmental justice movement to the early [End Page 455] 1980s, in a gripping final chapter Zimring shows how the patterns explored throughout the book led to the Memphis Public Works strike of 1968. The strike featured African American workers and Martin Luther King Jr. organizing for unionization, safer working conditions, and a concept that would later be called environmental justice.
In Clean and White, Zimring pulls together many threads that have previously been treated separately to produce a fresh interpretation of environmental racism. Scholars of environmental history, whiteness, capitalism, urban history, and many other areas will find valuable insights. Some aspects of environmental racism deserve further attention, such as the impact of environmental racism on spatial patterns of metropolitan development and the siting of toxic facilities. This is less a critique than an invitation for scholars to follow on the heels of Clean and White to demonstrate the insidious nature of environmental racism in American life. Flint likely will not be the last public health crisis affecting a minority community, and with Zimring’s scholarship, we have a firmer understanding of the origins of environmental racism and inequality. [End Page 456]
BRANDON M. WARD teaches history at Georgia State University–Perimeter College. He is revising a book manuscript exploring the rise of urban environmental activism in post–World War II Detroit.