- Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States by Carl A. Zimring
The words “environmental racism” typically conjure up the practice of locating toxic dumps and industries in neighborhoods or regions inhabited by minority populations, especially African Americans. In this respect, Zimring’s book seems mistitled, for it does not constitute a history of environmental racism in the typical sense. Instead, Zimring tackles a broader subject—namely, the historical development, in the United States, of an association of white racial identity with cleanliness and blackness with waste or contamination, and how this conflation manifested itself geographically and socially.
The book begins with Thomas Jefferson, noting that he and his contemporaries made no explicit connection between dirt and race. That developed later with urbanization and the rise of sanitarians, especially in the wake of the Civil War, when explicit connections between hygiene and health were more fully explored. Too, postwar industrialization and the growth of consumerism produced a veritable “age of waste,” and the various means of handling this waste broke down along ethnic and racial lines, as European immigrants, especially Jews and Italians, found a niche as scrap merchants. Obsessions with racial purity, as manifest in the Ku Klux Klan and the growing eugenics movement, ran parallel to the growing obsessions with sanitation, so that “immigrants were characterized as pollutants threatening American purity, rather than as raw materials just waiting for the transformative power of Americanization” (86).
One of the most interesting parts of the book analyzes period advertisements, especially cleansers depicted as so effective they could essentially change the race of the user to white. With the passage of time, immigrant populations “became” white and the waste industries became more and more the domain of African Americans: “African American representation in the sanitary industries in 1950 was more than twice their representation in the general population, and African Americans increased their share of the sanitary labor force over the next twenty years” (184–185). Zimring’s last chapter explores the strike of sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee that was proceeding when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, while touching briefly upon the growing location of toxic sites in predominantly black areas.
Though Zimring casts a fairly wide net in exploring the conflation of waste and race, he overlooks America’s history of racial cleansing, or the expulsion of African Americans from certain communities, creating what became known as “sundown towns.” Some of these communities, such as Mena, Arkansas promoted themselves using the rhetoric of health and cleanliness. Indeed, a 1920 advertisement for Mena listed its all-white status just above its lack of mosquitoes and its modern sewer system.
Honestly, this is an odd book. At times, it feels simply like a recapitulation of the work of David Roediger with some meditations upon waste inserted into the narrative, not always convincingly. However, as one proceeds through the text, the central argument becomes a little more convincing. At the bottom, Zimring insists that scholars must cast a wider net, both geographically and temporally, in defining environmental racism. This book, despite its title, is not a real history of environmental racism. It leaves only in passing its most noteworthy manifestation. However, it is a cogent argument for reconsidering just what we mean by that term, for putting under its rubric developments that long preceded modern environmentalism in the United States. [End Page 106]