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Historian Carl Zimring believes that the concept of whiteness has been missing from environmental justice discussions


Illustration by Kailey Whitman

Illustration by Kailey Whitman

Whitewashing History

interview by Heather Shayne Blakeslee

For centuries, Americans have conflated whiteness with cleanliness. It’s so thoroughly ingrained in our culture that even during the 2007 presidential election, Joe Biden tried—and failed spectacularly—to compliment presidential candidate Barack Obama by describing him as “clean and articulate.” In his book “Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States,” Carl Zimring describes the pernicious roots of that cringe-worthy moment. 

From the attempts to scientifically justify slavery, through the rise of the Klu Klux Klan and to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. during the 1968 Memphis sanitation worker strike, Zimring unpacks how the history of environmental justice and waste is tightly woven with class, but more importantly with who is considered “white.”

Environmental justice is a modern concept, but your book goes all the way back to the antebellum South to show the roots of the idea that white people were clean and black people were dirty, and it explains how that purposeful misconception has influenced who handles and lives by our waste.
CZ: My goal with the book was to look at not only how communities of color have been affected by environmental inequality, but how conceptions of whiteness have been shaped over time to produce those inequalities. In the 17th century, slavery was a major part of the economy and society, but it wasn’t spoken about in racial terms so much as it was religious terms: There were Christians and there were “savages.” 

This breaks down by the beginning of the 19th century, into a discussion of physical difference, specifically skin color: There are white people and nonwhite people—and the white people are intrinsically more civilized, and this is very much a justification for doing things such as pushing indigenous Americans off their land and enslaving people of African origin. 

As the international sentiments against slavery really turn in the early 19th century, in 1808, the international slave trade is banned, the racial justifications for keeping slavery become more and more toxic and related to racialized science. There are a lot of books by physicians, oftentimes from the Deep South, that claim that people who are not white are physically inferior, intellectually inferior and morally inferior, and this scientific racism becomes more and more popular. … [It’s] an attempt to try to reassert [dominance]. “Well, what is white identity now? We’ve lost our political power… We may have lost a foothold in our economic power. What does it mean to be white?”

And this is a time when the Ku Klux Klan starts developing as a terror organization to redeem past supremacy. And the language it uses is one of purity and sanitation, notions of miscegenation. 

In social history, we talk about the fact that “whiteness” is historically constructed, and we don’t in the literature about environmental racism. One of the crucial elements for the book is the notion of whiteness being very much native-born whiteness—Northwest European origin coming into this country and being native-born. [It] was a big aspect of what it meant to be white during that crucial period in the early 19th century, when the notion of race became an even greater obsession. One of the crucial aspects of structural racism is understanding the culture that shapes the institution—shapes the structures. Waste management, especially, became something that shifted from people who are economically disadvantaged to burdens [placed] specifically on people by the classifications of race.

You do a deep dive on the fluidity of race by looking, for instance, at how census identifications changed as people from certain countries of origin—Italy and Ireland for instance—assimilated into American society over time, and how those conceptions of race related to the waste management industry.
If we’re talking about 1820 in the United States, economic status is the determinant factor in whether or not you are handling waste materials and whether or not you live near them. 

That changes in the late 19th century. The worries about social upheaval in this country, with the end of slavery, with mass migration coming from not only Southern and Eastern Europe, but also Asia and Latin America, led to a new definition of white identity that somehow separated whites—native-born whites—from all this chaos, this unknown quantity, be it humans from other places or pathogens that could cause disease. 

Those stereotypes really take shape after the Civil War with [developing] waste management structures. Both formal ones, such as the development of streets and sanitation departments—but also informal ones like the way we recycle in this country, which started with a lot of small, independent junk dealers. As it turns out, that became an extraordinarily racialized labor market by 1880.

We still have stereotypes today of the Chinese laundryman, the Jewish rag man or the Italian trash hauler, none of whom were considered white at the beginning of those trades. It’s easy to forget that certain ethnic groups were essentially boxed out of other employment and handled dirt and waste to survive. Then those businesses were passed on.
CZ: It’s a complicated history in many ways. This is very much shunting the burden onto these people who are in these very risky trades. Dealing with waste materials is among the most dangerous work in industrial society—and yet, because there was such a stigma associated with doing this work, it was possible for some of these immigrant-founded businesses to make tremendous amounts of money. The largest waste management company in the world, Waste Management, was formed by Dutch immigrants.

Martin Luther King Jr. was in Memphis in 1968, where he was assassinated, in part because of a sanitation worker strike protesting the conditions of the workers, two of whom had just been killed on the job. You write that while the words, “environmental justice” didn’t pass anyone’s lips at the time, “The burdens of waste and race had become a nationally recognized civil rights issue.” That same year, activists in Houston sued the city over racially discriminatory practices of waste siting.
CZ: The Memphis strike showed the template for both recognizing the inequalities and gave the structure for resisting them in an effective way… [It] took place where it was clear that waste management was something that African-American men did, in the city of Memphis. 

Over a thousand men, picking up the garbage of Memphis—almost all of them are African-American men—and the conditions that they had to deal with were very much shaped by a mayor whose family had made money in laundry, putting the brunt of the hazards of doing laundry on African-American women, paying them very little over decades and reaping the profits.

We talk a lot about the modern hazards of living next to a waste incinerator, but we don’t talk about the fact that the people who pick up the waste and work in the plants are also in dangerous situations.
CZ: Think about what we put in recycling bins—we put in metal, we put in glass… If you are handling this, either collecting the bins from curbside or going and processing this material and sorting it—sorting is crucial for recycling to work—you’re exposed to broken glass, rusty metal. If you’re working in a metal recycling plant, you might actually be exposed to automobile parts including fuel tanks that might explode. Any number of caustic chemicals might be in the goods that you are sorting, and so fire, tetanus, amputation, explosion, these are all possible hazards that people dealing with discards face every day… T
his has been true since the industry of salvage developed in the 19th century. 

As mass-produced household items became available, it touched off a period of “conspicuous consumption” where we not only started producing much more waste, but consumption also became class performance. To what extent is that still true today?
CZ: Attempting to discern identity and status through consumption remains a very large thing. The Republican Party is about to nominate for president a gentleman who’s got a solid gold bathroom in his home. There’s a reason you do that: It’s not for any functional use in the bathroom, but it’s to show that you can do that. What clothes you wear, what car you drive, what your interior decor is… that aspect of our culture, I would argue, has endured to this day.

One of the problems with persistent environmental racism is that we just have too much polluting industry and too much waste. It has to go somewhere. What has to change?
CZ: We must dispense with the idea that we can put waste out of sight and out of mind. Noting all waste has consequences can lead to personal decisions to use less, and industrial decisions to design for less. Doing otherwise will continue to burden the most vulnerable among us.

Carl Zimring is an environmental historian and associate professor of sustainability studies at Pratt Institute. His books include “Cash for Your Trash: Scrap Recycling in America” and “Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States.”

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