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Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California

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Geographic studies of environmental racism have focused on the spatial relationships between environmental hazards and community demographics in order to determine if inequity exists. Conspicuously absent within this literature, however, is any substantive discussion of racism. This paper seeks to address this shortcoming in two ways. I first investigate how racism is understood and expressed in the literature. I argue that although racism is rarely explicitly discussed, a normative conceptualization of racism informs the research. Not only is this prevailing conception overly narrow and restrictive, it also denies the spatiality of racism. Consequently, my second goal is to demonstrate how various forms of racism contribute to environmental racism. In addition to conventional understandings of racism, I emphasize white privilege, a highly structural and spatial form of racism. Using Los Angeles as a case study, I examine how whites have secured relatively cleaner environments by moving away from older industrial cores via suburbanization. I suggest that the historical processes of suburbanization and decentralization are instances of white privilege and have contributed to contemporary patterns of environmental racism. Thus, in addition to interpreting racism as discriminatory facility siting and malicious intent, I also examine a less conscious but hegemonic form of racism, white privilege. Such an approach not only allows us to appreciate the range of racisms that shape the urban landscape, but also illuminates the functional relationships between places—in particular between industrial zones and residential suburbs, and how their development reflects and reproduces a particular racist formation.
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Rethinking Environmental Racism:
White Privilege and Urban Development in
Southern California
Laura Pulido
2000. Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90(1), 12-40.1
The concept of environmental racism the idea that nonwhites are
disproportionately exposed to pollution emerged more than ten years ago with the
United Church of Christ’s study, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States (1987).
Given the social, ecological, and health implications of environmental hazards,
geographers have explored environmental racism with the goal of contributing to better
policymaking. Studies have sought to determine if inequalities exist and the reasons for
such disparities, and to make recommendations (Cutter, 1995). While these are
obviously important research contributions, studying environmental racism is
important for an additional reason: it helps us understand racism.
Although the study of racial inequality is not new to geographers (Anderson,
1987; Gilmore, 1998; Jackson and Penrose, 1994; Kobayashi and Peake, 1994; S.
Smith, 1993; Woods, 1998), environmental racism offers us new insights into the
subject, particularly its spatiality. Unfortunately, scholars of environmental racism
have not seriously problematized racism, opting instead for a de facto conception
based on malicious, individual acts. There are several problems with this approach.
First, by reducing racism to a hostile, discriminatory act, many researchers, with the
notable exception of Bullard (1990), miss the role of structural and hegemonic forms
of racism in contributing to such inequalities. Indeed, structural racism has been the
dominant mode of analysis in other substantive areas of social research, such as
1 Reprinted with permission from Wiley-Blackwell Publishing and Laura Pulido.
Laura Pulido
533
residential segregation (Massey and Denton, 1993) and employment patterns
(Kirschenman and Neckerman, 1991), since at least Myrdal’s An American Dilemma
(1944). Not only has the environmental racism literature become estranged from social
science discussions of race, but, in the case of urban-based research, it is divorced from
contemporary urban geography. A second and related concern is that racism is not
conceptualized as the dynamic sociospatial process that it is. Because racism is
understood as a discrete act that may be spatially expressed, it is not seen as a
sociospatial relation both constitutive of the city and produced by it. As a result, the
spatiality of racism is not understood, particularly the relationship between places. Yet
pollution concentrations are inevitably the product of relationships between distinct
places, including industrial zones, affluent suburbs, working-class suburbs, and
downtown areas, all of which are racialized. A final problem with a narrow
understanding of racism is that it limits claims, thereby reproducing a racist social
order. By defining racism so narrowly, racial inequalities that cannot be attributed
directly to a hostile, discriminatory act are not acknowledged as such, but perhaps as
evidence of individual deficiencies or choices. Yet if we wish to create a more just
society, we must acknowledge the breadth and depth of racism.
In this paper, I investigate how racism is conceptualized in the environmental
racism literature. Using Los Angeles as a case study (Figure 1), I apply an alternative
concept of racism, white privilege, in addition to more common understandings of
discrimination, to explain disparate environmental patterns. I identify three specific
issues that contribute to a narrow conception of racism: first, an emphasis on
individual facility siting; second, the role of intentionality; and third, an uncritical
approach to scale. Typically, a study may acknowledge environmental inequity if
nonwhites are disproportionately exposed to pollution, but environmental racism is
only conceded if malicious intent on the part of decision makers can be proven.2
I argue that the emphasis on siting, while obviously important, must be located
in larger urban processes, and thus requires us to “jump scales” in our analysis (N.
Smith, 1993). This is especially true given recent findings that pollution concentrations
are closely associated with industrial land use (Anderton et al., 1994b; Baden and
Coursey, 1997; Boer et al., 1997; Colten, 1986; Pulido et al., 1996). This research
recasts issues of intentionality and scale, as it requires us to examine the production of
2 A word on terminology is in order. In early studies, the term “environmental racism” was used
to denote disparate patterns. Over time, the term “environmental equity” became popular as it was more
inclusive, encompassing both racial and economic disparities. Many activists, however, also saw it as an
effort to depoliticize the antiracist consciousness underlying the movement. Moreover, as Heiman
(1990) has pointed out, environmental (in)equity implies the problem is with the allocation of pollution
and environmental hazards, rather than with a particular economic system. Activists eventually adopted
the term “environmental justice,” as it was inclusive and offered a more politicized conception of the
problem. While supportive of the environmental justice movement, I use the term environmental racism
to highlight racial disparities. At times, I will use “environmental inequities” to refer to allocation issues.
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
Urban Development in Southern California
534
industrial zones, their relation to other parts of the metropolis, and the potentially racist
nature of the processes by which these patterns evolved.
Because of the limitations of the prevailing approach to racism, I seek to
broaden our understanding through a complementary conception of racism: white
privilege. My understanding of racism begins from the premise that race is a
material/discursive formation. Because race exists in various realms, racial meanings
are embedded in our language, psyche, and social structures. These racial meanings are
both constitutive of racial hierarchies and informed by them. Thus, it would be
impossible for our social practices and structures not to reflect these racial
understandings. Given the pervasive nature of race, the belief that racism can be
reduced to hostile, discriminatory acts strains logic. For instance, few can dispute that
U[nited] S[tates] cities are highly segregated. Can we attribute this simply to
discriminatory lenders and landlords? No. Residential segregation results from a
diversity of racisms. Moreover, there is growing evidence that racial responses are
often unconscious, the result of lifelong inculcation (Devine, 1989; Lawrence, 1987).
Thus, focusing exclusively on discriminatory acts ignores the fact that all places are
racialized, and that race informs all places. Clearly, our preoccupation with discrete
discriminatory acts ignores vast dimensions of racism.
A focus on white privilege enables us to develop a more structural, less
conscious, and more deeply historicized understanding of racism. It differs from a
hostile, individual, discriminatory act, in that it refers to the privileges and benefits that
accrue to white people by virtue of their whiteness. Because whiteness is rarely
problematized by whites, white privilege is scarcely acknowledged. According to
George Lipsitz, “As the unmarked category against which difference is constructed,
whiteness never has to speak its name, never has to acknowledge its role as an
organizing principle in social and cultural relations” (1995, 369). White privilege is
thus an attempt to name a social system that works to the benefit of whites. White
privilege, together with overt and institutionalized racism, reveals how racism shapes
places. Hence, instead of asking if an incinerator was placed in a Latino community
because the owner was prejudiced, I ask, why is it that whites are not comparably
burdened with pollution (see Szasz and Meuser,
1997)? In the case of Los Angeles, industrialization, decentralization, and
residential segregation are keys to this puzzle. Because industrial land use is highly
correlated with pollution concentrations and people of color, the crucial question
becomes, how did whites distance themselves from both industrial pollution and
nonwhites?
Laura Pulido
535
Figure 1. Los Angeles-area communities identified in this study.
This study does not attempt to prove that environmental racism exists in Los
Angeles, as six studies have already done so (Boer et al., 1997; Burke, 1993; Pulido et
al., 1996; Sadd et al., 1999; Szasz et al., 1993; UCC, 1987). Nor do I suggest that this
particular narrative of racism, white privilege, operates in all places in the same way.
Rather, my goal is to consider the larger sociospatial processes of inequality that
produce environmental racism. In this paper, I first develop the concept of white
privilege. Second, I review how racism and space have been conceptualized in the
literature and the geography of urban environmental racism. Third, drawing on both
primary and secondary sources, I examine the historical processes and their racist
underpinnings that have contributed to the environmental racism we see in Los
Angeles today. I conclude by summarizing my findings and their implications.
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
Urban Development in Southern California
536
Racism and White Privilege
A clear definition of race and white racism is in order. I employ Omi and
Winant’s (1994, 55) idea of race as “a concept which signifies and symbolizes social
conflicts and interests by referring to different types of human bodies”. This definition
not only recognizes the physical, material, and ideological dimensions of race, but also
acknowledges race as contributing to the social formation. Specifically, it allows us to
see race as more than colored bodies. It enables us to recognize the pervasive and
hegemonic nature of race, its multiscalar nature, and its multiple forms of existence,
including ideas, words, actions, and structures. This approach to race serves as a basis
for a broader and more fluid definition of white racism. I define white racism as those
practices and ideologies, carried out by structures, institutions, and individuals, that
reproduce racial inequality and systematically undermine the well-being of racially
subordinated populations.
Because there are multiple motives and forms of racism (Cohen, 1992;
Goldberg, 1993; Omi, 1992), there are various ways of analyzing racisms. In this
paper, I consider only two: scale and intention. In any attempt to understand racism,
scale is an important analytical tool in that it is both defined by racism and transcends
it. Consider the various scales at which racism exists: the individual, the group, the
institution, society, the global. While all are distinct, there is a dialectical relation
between these scales. So, for instance, an individual racist act is just that, an act carried
out at the level of the individual. Nonetheless, that individual is informed by regional
and/or national racial discourses, and his/her act informs and reproduces racial
discourses and structures at higher scales. Thus, we can focus on a particular scale, but
we must always be cognizant of its relationship to other scales of racism.
A second crucial issue is the question of intent. While most social science
scholars acknowledge institutional and structural racism, popular understandings focus
heavily on individual malicious intent. Indeed, this trend is reflected in court rulings
that have increasingly required proof of intent (e.g., Washington v. Davis)3. For many,
a hostile motive is considered necessary for an action or inequality to qualify as racist.
While aware of the power of hostile and malicious acts, we cannot allow their
reprehensible nature to obscure the range of racist motives that exist. For instance, in
this society, there are white supremacists, those who avoid people of color, and those
who advocate a “color-blind” society. Each of these positions evinces a different
motive. And while they may not be morally comparable, they are all racist because
they systematically undermine the well-being of people of color (Delgado, 1995).
White privilege is a form of racism that both underlies and is distinct from
institutional and overt racism. It underlies them in that both are predicated on
3 Washington v. Davis was an employment discrimination suit in which the Court ultimately
ruled that a law that produced a racially disparate impact regardless of motive is not unconstitutional.
Laura Pulido
537
preserving the privileges of white people (regardless of whether agents recognize this
or not). But it is also distinct in terms of intentionality. It refers to the hegemonic
structures, practices, and ideologies that reproduce whites’ privileged status. In this
scenario, whites do not necessarily intend to hurt people of color, but because they are
unaware of their white-skin privilege, and because they accrue social and economic
benefits by maintaining the status quo, they inevitably do. White privilege thrives in
highly racialized societies that espouse racial equality, but in which whites will not
tolerate either being inconvenienced in order to achieve racial equality (Delgado, 1995;
Edsall and Edsall, 1991; Lipsitz, 1998; Quadagno, 1994), or denied the full benefits of
their whiteness (Harris, 1993). It is precisely because few whites are aware of the
benefits they receive simply from being white and that their actions, without malicious
intent, may undermine the well-being of people of color, that white privilege is so
powerful and pervasive.
White privilege allows us to see how the racial order works to the benefit of
whites, whether in the form of economic and political benefits (Almaguer, 1994;
Harris, 1993; Ignatiev, 1995; Oliver and Shapiro, 1995), or psychological ones (Fanon,
1967; Roediger, 1991). White privilege is distinct from both white supremacy, a more
blatant and acknowledged form of white dominance (Fredrickson, 1981, xi), as well as
from more individual, discriminatory acts. Rather, it flourishes in relation to these
other forms. Because most white people do not see themselves as having malicious
intentions, and because racism is associated with malicious intent, whites can
exonerate themselves of all racist tendencies, all the while ignoring their investment in
white privilege. It is this ability to sever intent from outcome that allows whites to
acknowledge that racism exists, yet seldom identify themselves as racists.
Evidence of white privilege abounds. It includes the degree to which whites
assume ownership of this nation and its opportunities, people of color’s efforts to
“pass” in order to access whiteness, whites’ resistance to attempts to dismantle their
privilege, and, conversely, even whites’ efforts to shed their privilege4. Consider the
case of white resistance. White resistance to integrating schools, housing, and the
workplace has all been well documented (Almaguer, 1994; Foner, 1974; Massey and
Denton, 1993; Quadagno, 1994; Saxton, 1971). This resistance is hardly surprising and
is justified by any number of rationales. What is important is the fact that whites resist
because they feel they have something to lose. According to Lipsitz (1998), they have
a “possessive investment in whiteness,” meaning, whiteness pays off and whites wish
to retain those benefits. Legal scholar Cheryl Harris has observed,
The set of assumptions, privileges, and benefits that accompany the
status of being white have become a valuable asset that whites sought to
protect and that those who passed sought to attain by fraud if
necessary. Whites have come to expect and rely on these benefits, and
4 Many thanks to John Paul Jones for this insight.
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
Urban Development in Southern California
538
over time, these expectations have been affirmed, legitimated, and
protected by law (1993, 1713).
This “pay off can take the form of higher property values, better schools, or the
ability to exclude people of color from the workplace. That whites feel they have the
right to exclude others attests to the degree to which they assume ownership of this
nation’s opportunities5. The privileged position of whites is visible in almost every
arena, including health, wealth, housing, educational attainment, and environmental
quality6.
White privilege is particularly useful in the study of urban landscapes because it
is simultaneously historical and spatial. Attempts to understand contemporary racial
inequality in light of white privilege must be rooted in the past, precisely because of
the absence of a hostile motive or single act. Since landscapes are artifacts of past and
present racisms, they embody generations of sociospatial relations, what might be
called the “sedimentation of racial inequality” (Oliver and Shapiro, 1995, 5). Similarly,
white privilege, as a form of racism, is spatially expressed, indeed it is partially
contingent upon a particular set of spatial arrangements. Take the case of
neighborhoods. The full exploitation of white privilege requires the production of
places with a very high proportion of white people. “Too many” people of color might
reduce a neighborhood’s status, property value, or general level of comfort for white
people.
A brief example may demonstrate how white privilege allows us to historicize
environmental racism: A polluter locates near a black neighborhood because the land
is relatively inexpensive and adjacent to an industrial zone. This is not a malicious,
racially motivated, discriminatory act. Instead, many would argue that it is
economically rational. Yet it is racist in that it is made possible by the existence of a
racial hierarchy, reproduces racial inequality, and undermines the well-being of that
community. Moreover, the value of black land cannot be understood outside of the
relative value of white land, which is a historical product. White land is more valuable
by virtue of its whiteness (Oliver and Shapiro, 1995, 147-61), and thus it is not as
economically feasible for the polluter. Nor is it likely that the black community’s
proximity to the industrial zone is a chance occurrence. Given the Federal
government’s role in creating suburbia, whites’ opposition to integration, and the fact
5 An oft-cited example of this is Senator Jesse Helm’s 1992 campaign TV ad featuring a white
working-class man denied a job, what should have been his job, because of affirmative action (Omi and
Winant, 1994, 182).
6 This is not to deny the vast differences within the categories of “white” and “people of color.
Whites are obviously fragmented by class, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity (Brodkin, 1998). Likewise,
various nonwhite groups are differentially racialized. For instance, although Asian Americans have the
highest incomes of all people of color, they also are frequent targets of hate crimes. The point is that
“the color line” remains a central axis of difference and inequality.
Laura Pulido
539
that black communities have been restricted to areas whites deemed undesirable, can
current patterns of environmental racism be understood outside a racist urban history?
The final issue of white privilege is, at whose expense? It is impossible to
privilege one group without disadvantaging another. White privilege comes at the
expense of nonwhites. Historically speaking, suburbanization can be seen as a form of
white privilege, as it allowed whites to live in inexpensive, clean, residential
environments (Jackson, 1980). It was a privilege denied to most people of color, but
one they also bore the cost of, both in terms of an erosion of central-city quality of life,
and in their direct subsidization of white suburbia through their tax dollars
(Guhathakurta and Wichert, 1998). White privilege is useful in discussing
suburbanization and environmental racism because it shifts our understanding of
racism beyond discrete siting acts, while also emphasizing the spatiality of racism.
Racism and Space in Environmental Racism Research
Currently, many methodological issues are being debated within the
environmental justice literature (Cutter, 1995; see Been, 1995). Unfortunately, the
nature of racism is not one of them. In a review of thirty recent empirical studies, only
a handful attempted any substantive discussion of racism itself (Baden and Coursey,
1997; Bullard, 1990; Hamilton, 1995; Krieg, 1995; Pulido et al., 1996; UCC, 1987)7,
although others have probed the nature of race and racism in general (Bullard, 1994;
Goldman, 1996; Pulido, 1996; Szasz and Meuser, 1997; Zimmerman, 1994). Instead,
the literature is largely characterized by “common sense” assumptions that reflect
uncritical, popular understandings of racism8. A similar pattern exists in terms of
spatiality. While space has received considerable attention, spatiality, meaning the
relationship between social space and society (Soja, 1989), has not. Instead, spatial
discussions have centered on issues of distance, location, and scale, eschewing a more
theoretical conception of space (see Cutter and Solecki, 1996, 395, for an exception).
An appreciation of spatiality, however, encourages greater attention to race, as it is one
of the key social forces shaping our cities (and the U.S. as a whole). In this section, I
review how racism and space are expressed in the literature by showing how three
7 The following studies included no significant discussion or problematization of racism:
Adeola, 1994; Anderton et al., 1994a, 1994b; Been, 1994; Boer et al., 1997; Boerner and Lambert, 1994;
Bowen et al., 1995; Burke, 1993; Cutter, 1994; Cutter and Solecki, 1996; Cutter and Tiefenbacher,
1991; Hird, 1993; Hurley, 1988; Lester et al., 1994; Mohai and Bryant, 1992; Napton and Day, 1992;
Perlin et al., 1995; Sadd et al., 1999; Scott et al., 1997; Szasz et al., 1993; U.S. GAO, 1995; Yandle and
Burton, 1996; Zimmerman, 1993. But Pollock and Vittas (1995), in a useful discussion, reconsider their
findings in light of alternative conceptions of racism.
8 This does not imply that the researchers themselves are not familiar with social scientific
understandings of race, but only that these ideas have not found their way into the literature.
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
Urban Development in Southern California
540
practices contribute to an overly restrictive conception of racism and space. First, I
discuss the emphasis on facility siting, second, the role of intentionality, and, third,
spatial scale. I will address the first two together, as they are closely related.
Siting and Intentionality in Discrete Acts of Racism
Although an earlier generation of scholars explored the relationship between
demographics and pollution (Berry et al., 1977), it was not until the 1980s that these
issues were framed as environmental justice (McGurty, 1995; see Szasz and Meuser,
1997 for a complete review). The initial literature on environmental racism
documented discriminatory outcomes (Bullard 1990; UCC 1987; U.S. GAO 1984), but
did not delve into the processes producing them. Drawing on traditional social science
understandings of racism, Bullard (1996) argued that discriminatory outcomes were
evidence of racism, regardless of the mechanism (siting, housing discrimination, job
blackmail), precisely because of the racist nature of the economy and the larger social
formation. He defines environmental racism as “any policy, practice, or directive that
differentially affects or disadvantages (whether intended or unintended) individuals,
groups, or communities based on race or color” (1996, 497). Subsequent scholarship,
however, has not only challenged the existence of environmental racism9, but has
produced an overly restrictive conception of racism. As a result, siting, as a discrete
and conscious act, is often analyzed solely with respect to the locations of racially
subordinated groups (Bullard, 1996, 493) without sufficient attention to the larger
sociospatial processes that produced such patterns. Likewise, interpretations of
environmental racism are considered suspect without “proof ” of intentionality.
Historical studies are a good example of how this shift towards a more
restrictive conception of racism has occurred. In addition to enhancing our
understanding of environmental inequities (Baden and Coursey, 1997; Been, 1994;
Krieg, 1995; Pulido et al., 1996; Yandle and Burton, 1996)10, historical research has
also problematized racism by asking, what if the people came first? While potentially a
fruitful line of inquiry, the narrow conception of racism informing the literature has
resulted in challenges to claims of racism: What were the intentions of the responsible
parties? For some scholars, if people subsequently moved to polluted locales, and if the
motive is unknown, claims of racism, cannot be substantiated:
9 In most cases, scholars simply want to establish if such inequities exist, but there has also been
a move on the part of both corporations and politically conservative institutions to refute such claims
(Anderton et al., 1994a, 1994b; Boerner and Lambert, 1994; see Goldman, 1996). I too, of course, am an
ideologically committed scholar, one who would like to reframe the debate from an antiracist
perspective.
10 I do not include Hurley’s seminal study of Gary, Indiana in this grouping because it appeared
at roughly the same time (1988) as the UCC report (1987). Clearly, he was ahead of his time.
Laura Pulido
541
which came first? Were the LULUs {locally undesirable land uses} or
sources of environmental threats sited in communities because they were
poor, contained people of color and/or politically weak? Or, were the
LULUs originally placed in communities with little reference to race or
economic status, and over time, the racial composition of the area
changed as a result of white flight, depressed housing prices, and a host
of other social ills? (Cutter, 1995, 117)
This quote summarizes an oft-stated sequence of events and conception of the
problem. I do not dispute its accuracy, but rather its underlying conception of racism,
and the absence within the larger literature of alternative explanations. This scenario is
predicated on understanding racism as a discrete and hostile act. In effect, the siting of
environmental hazards becomes the expression of a potentially racist act. Were
polluters or the state consciously targeting nonwhite neighborhoods? Geographers
have, understandably, preferred to address a more narrow set of concerns, rather than
the more fundamental issues of environmental degradation (Heiman, 1990) or racism
(Goldman, 1996; Pulido, 1996):
An issue as controversial as environmental equity requires research that
assesses the spatial coincidence between environmental disamenities and
minority or disadvantaged populations, prior to an analysis of causation
and the role of racial intent (Bowen et al., 1995, 655).
While a laudable position, the resulting research agenda remains theoretically weak
and offers only a limited understanding of how racism, environmental quality, and
urban processes intersect. The following quotes illustrate not only the emphasis on
siting, but also the extent to which siting and the motive accompanying it, versus
outcomes, are key to ascertaining if racism exists.
Clearly, discriminatory siting is not the primary culprit behind these
cases of “environmental racism.” Instead, Houston’s disproportionate
distribution of landfills can properly be attributed to the dynamics of the
housing market (Boerner and Lambert, 1994, 16, emphasis added).
There is, therefore, significant evidence of disproportionate siting. The
evidence is flawed, however, in several respects. First, the evidence does
not establish that the siting process, rather than market forces such as
residential mobility, caused the disparity. . . . Second, the evidence does
not establish that siting decisions intentionally discriminated against
people of color or the poor (Been, 1993, 1014, emphasis added).
A reasonable distinction is that between injustice in outcome and
injustice in intent. Injustice in outcome is what most research has
investigated, it can be ascertained by examining a point in time and
seeing if minorities or the poor are disproportionately represented in
areas where waste is. Injustice in intent concerns siting decisions that
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
Urban Development in Southern California
542
are racist in intent – the actual disproportionate siting of waste in poor,
minority communities (Baden and Coursey, 1997, 4, emphasis added).
There are two points that emerge from these authors’ attempts to analytically sever
racism from larger social processes (such as housing markets): First, they exhibit the
tendency to limit racism to siting, and second, they impose the requirement of
intentionality.
Siting The emphasis on siting is significant for two reasons. First, it reproduces
an erroneous understanding of urban dynamics as it separates larger sociospatial
processes from explanations of environmental inequity. Second, it is, unfortunately,
the primary mechanism considered in terms of discrimination. This can be seen, for
instance, in the way that discriminatory siting is carefully distinguished from market
forces, which supposedly are nonracist. Baden and Coursey (1997) go even further by
making explicit which historical scenarios are potentially racist and which are not
(Table 1). They offer six scenarios to explain a community’s proximity to dangerous
sites. Only scenarios 4 and 6, however, suggest a clear judgment of environmental
racism (1997, 14). The authors make clear that siting is the only mechanism that can be
equated with environmental racism. In referring to scenarios 1, 2, and 3, they note, “if
people move into an area known to be dangerous they may be able to claim racism in
lending or economic inequality, but the charge of discriminatory waste siting is
tenuous” (1997, 14). This is not untrue, but it is highly problematic and illustrative of a
limited understanding of racism and space. Neither the narrow conception of racism,
nor the fetishizing of siting helps us understand the nature of environmental racism in
an urban context. In particular, it does not recognize that space is essential to the
(re)production of a particular racial formation, nor does it acknowledge the
fundamental relationships between racism and the production of industrial zones,
pollution, and residential areas (Arnold, 1998).
Laura Pulido
543
Intentionality In the quote by Been, above, the author has clearly found
evidence of disproportionate siting. Yet without using the word “racism,” she
contextualizes her findings so that the reader is alerted that charges of racism cannot be
fully substantiated. She does so, first, by suggesting that market dynamics have not
been considered, and second, by referring to the question of intentionality. Nor, she
writes, does the evidence “establish that siting decisions intentionally discriminated
against people of color.” In effect, intentionality becomes the litmus test as to whether
or not a racist act has been committed. Intentionality not only underlies discussions of
racism, but also serves several purposes in defining it, as critical scholars of legal
racism have pointed out (Armour, 1997; Crenshaw et al., 1995; Delgado, 1995). First,
the requirement of intentionality reduces the likelihood of viewing collective actions as
racist, as it is more difficult to prove group, rather than individual, intent. Second, the
emphasis on intentionality allows for a continual contraction in the definition of
racism, as seen in recent court rulings (Washington v. Davis). Finally, by the
requirement of malicious intent, entire dimensions of the social arena are exonerated
from contributing to racial inequality, including the unconscious (Devine, 1989;
Lawrence, 1987). The normal functioning of the state and capitalism are thus
naturalized, as racism is reduced to an aberration11.
A good example of limiting the domain of racism can be seen in conceptions of
the market. Instead of viewing the market as both constituted by racism and an active
force in (re)producing racism, scholars have treated it as somehow operating outside
the bounds of race (for a fuller discussion, see Mohai and Bryant, 1992; Pulido, 1996,
146-47). This is troubling, given the extent to which discrimination and racism have
been proven in the “free market,” including in employment (Kirschenman and
Neckerman, 1991), banking (Dymski and Veitch, 1996), and housing (Holloway,
1988). Do not these various forces shape a city, and influence where pollution will be
concentrated? Such a limited conception of racism prevents us from either grasping the
power and spatiality of racism or identifying its underlying effectivity in perpetuating
environmental injustice.
Scale and Racism
In addition to siting and intent, spatial scale is also implicated in producing a
narrow conception of racism, as it too reflects normative understandings of race and
space. Scale is a major methodological issue in the environmental-racism literature
(Bowen et al., 1995; Cutter, 1995; Perlin et al., 1995; Zimmerman, 1993). Not only
have researchers examined environmental inequity at different scales, but the question
11 The notion of racism as an aberration, or as an irrationality is an entrenched part of the liberal
discourse on racism. For a critique, see Crenshaw et al. (1995). On the history of racism, see Goldberg
(1993).
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
Urban Development in Southern California
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of what is the most appropriate scale has also been contested. Evidence suggests that
different units of analysis, such as counties, zip codes, or census tracts, may produce
different findings. For instance, county-level data may reveal a pattern of
environmental racism, but a census-tract analysis of the same area may not (Bowen et
al., 1995; Anderton et al., 1994a). Zimmerman illustrates how spatial scale may
confound attempts to “prove” racism.
How boundaries can affect the outcome of an equity analysis in the
judicial context was underscored in the East Bibb case. The court
used a census tract to define the boundary around an existing landfill,
and, on that basis, ruled that a predominantly white community
surrounded the landfill; plaintiffs, in contrast, argued that a larger area
encompassing both the existing site and a proposed waste site was
predominantly black (70%). Another case, Bean v. Southwestern Waste
Management Corporation, employed statistical analyses both city-wide
and for an area more proximate to a solid waste facility (defined at the
census tract level) The court, using statistical findings at both
geographic levels, ruled that even though no discrimination existed at the
tract level, smaller neighborhoods within tracts where the facilities were
located are important considerations in determining patterns of
discrimination (1993, 652-53)12.
This quote not only demonstrates the problems associated with treating racism
as an either/or phenomenon, but also suggests the extent to which a limited
understanding of scale is tied to a narrow conception of racism. Both are conceived as
discrete objects, rather than as social processes. I do not mean to suggest that courts
should not rely on such findings, or that discrete acts of racism are not important, but
as geographers, one of our tasks should be to explain patterns and processes. This
requires that we critically interrogate our concepts and tools. In this case, not only
must we acknowledge structural racism and reconceptualize it as a power relation, but
we also need to contextualize scale. As Neil Smith has argued, we need to recognize
scale as socially produced, rather than to treat it as a “methodological preference for
the researcher” (1993, 96). Besides appreciating the fuzzy edges of spatial units, we
must recognize that places are the products of a specific set of social relations (Massey,
1994; Soja, 1989). Moreover, the relevant social relations do not reside solely within
the spatial unit under consideration. Rather, places are produced by other places, what
Massey (1994) calls “stretched out” social relations. Thus, not only must our analysis
operate at several scales simultaneously, but we must also consider the functional role
12 The cases cited are East Bibb Twigs Neighborhood Association v. Macon-Bibb County
Planning and Zoning Commission. 888 F. 2d 1573 (11th Cir.), affirmed 896 F. 2d (11th Cir. 1989), and
Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corporation, 482 F. Supp. 673 S.D. Tex. 1979. In Bean, local
residents felt that the siting decision was discriminatory but lost because they could not prove
discriminatory purpose under Washington v. Davis.
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of those places and their interconnections. This has implications for how we use scale
in studies of racism. We must bear in mind that our selected scale of analysis may not
necessarily coincide with the scale of racist activity. If racism is constitutive of the
urban landscape and various types of racisms operate simultaneously, then great care
must be taken in our treatment of scale. Racism and its consequences do not
necessarily cease at the edges of census tracts or city boundaries.
Accordingly, instead of treating spatial units as if they exist in a vacuum, the
study of industrial pollution requires that our focus not be limited to the individual
facility, but rather should address the larger industrial zone in which it is located
(Arnold, 1998). In turn, the industrial zone must be understood in relation to working-
class suburbs, affluent suburbs, “inner cities,”13 and downtown areas. All of these
places represent specific class relations that are functionally linked. At the same time,
all these places are racialized, and racism works in particular ways in their formation
and evolution.
Collectively, these three practices, the emphasis on siting, intentionality, and a
static conception of scale, have a limited ability to explain the geography of urban
environmental hazards, particularly their concentration in industrial zones (Anderton et
al., 1994b; Baden and Coursey, 1997; Cutter and Tiefenbacher, 1991; Sadd et al.,
1999; Pulido et al., 1996). Anderton et al. (1994b, 239), in their national study of
transfer, storage, and disposal facilities (TSDFs), found “the clearest and most
consistent finding across the country is the apparent association between the location
of TSDFs and other industrial enterprises”14. This finding suggests the need to clarify
the relationship between industrial zones, suburbanization, inner cities, and race. As
Been has suggested,
Many factories and other sources of hazardous waste were traditionally
located in the center city because of greater access to transportation and
markets. In some cities, developers provided cheap housing for workers
in the surrounding areas. As workers moved away, either because
factories closed or because more desirable housing became affordable
elsewhere, the cheap housing in the center cities became
disproportionately populated by the poor and by people of color (Been,
1993, 1017, emphasis added).
13 I place the term “inner city” in quotes to denote both the fact that it is socially constructed and
problematic as a policy and social science concept.
14 The work of Anderton et al. (1994a and b) has been widely criticized on several grounds. The
authors’ finding of no environmental racism has been challenged on methodological grounds (Been,
1995), as has their participation in industry-supported research (Goldman, 1996, 132-34). Nonetheless,
their [views] on industrial land use has increasingly been corroborated.
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546
This process of how “workers moved away” is one key to understanding
contemporary patterns of environmental racism. It is my task to unpack this process.
Environmental Racism, Urban Space, and White Privilege in
Southern California15
Environmental Racism in Los Angeles County
There have been six systematic studies of environmental racism in Los Angeles
(five at the county level and one at the city), examining three environmental hazards:
uncontrolled toxic waste sites (UCC, 1987), TSDFs (Sadd et al., 1999), and air toxins
based on the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) (Boer et al., 1997; Burke, 1993; Pulido et
al., 1996; Szasz et al., 1993). Table 2 summarizes these studies. All studies found that
nonwhites were disproportionately exposed. Most vulnerable were working-class
Latinos16.
The fact that three different hazards have been examined sheds light on distinct
aspects of the urban environment. For instance, uncontrolled waste sites are often
abandoned sites, thereby illuminating past industrial activities (Colten, 1986; Krieg,
1995; Newton, 1998). TRI data, which lists facilities emitting at least 10,000 pounds of
air toxins annually, reflects largely contemporary industrial activities. TSDFs, despite
their relatively small number, receive an inordinate amount of attention because they
are high-profile projects requiring extensive permitting. In cities, they are often located
in industrial zones because of their hazardous nature, as well as their proximity to
waste generators.
The first study to suggest that environmental racism existed in Los Angeles
was the United Church of Christ (UCC, 1987) report. Although national in scope, it
examined the distribution of uncontrolled hazardous-waste sites in major cities,
including Los Angeles, and found that Latinos were disproportionately exposed. In
Figure 2, I have reproduced the original UCC map showing the concentration of waste
sites in the eastern part of the city. Out of 57 waste sites, 35 (61.4 percent) were
located in zip codes that were at least 50-percent Latino (UCC, 1987, 38)17. This area is
not only one of the older industrial zones but also a longstanding Chicano barrio
15 For this study, southern California is limited to Los Angeles and Orange Counties.
16 Mexicano refers to persons of Mexican origin, mostly Mexican immigrants; Chicanos to
persons of Mexican ancestry born in the U.S.; and Latinos, all Latin Americans.
17 Although the UCC study was based on 1980 census data and is therefore somewhat dated,
this part of the city has only become more Latino during the 1980s and 1990s. Latinos now constitute
upward of 90 percent of the population in this area (see Allen and Turner, 1997).
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(Pulido et al., 1996; Romo, 1983; Sanchez, 1993). The area is legendary for its foul-
smelling air, and includes one of the most polluted zip codes in the state (Kay, 1994).
The next group of studies examined facilities releasing air toxins (TRI). Figure
3 presents a map based on the data analyzed in the Sadd et al. (1999) study.18 This
dataset contains by far the largest number of pollution events. Burke (1993) identified
three key variables associated with census tracts containing TRI facilities: the high
presence of minority populations (primarily Latinos), lower incomes, and high-
population densities. The study by Sadd et al. (1999, 111) found that sites were
concentrated in the “heavily urbanized metropolitan Los Angeles area … in which the
percentage of African American or Latino residents exceeds the mean for the study
area”. They, along with Szasz et al. (1993), also found that facilities were concentrated
18 Many thanks to Jim Sadd and Environmental Data Resources, Inc. for allowing me to use this
dataset. For both Figures 3 and 4, we took environmental hazards data from Sadd et al. (1999) and Boer
et al. (1997) and overlaid it on 1990 census data.
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
Urban Development in Southern California
548
in working-class areas, rather than poor or wealthy ones (see also Cutter and Solecki,
1996). The study by Pulido et al. (1996) focused on emission clusters and found that
the largest concentration of sites was located in the greater east Los Angeles and south
Los Angeles areas19.
Figure 2. Southern California’s first study of environmental racism: The United Church of Christ’s
study of uncontrolled hazardous wastes in Los Angeles city, 1987. The UCC study did not include the
entire city – the “shoestring,” or narrow corridor connecting the main part of the city with the harbor, is
not shown.
19 The single largest emitter was an oil refinery in Torrance, a mixed, middle-income city (see
also Burke, 1993); at a more refined scale, however, it was found that the neighborhoods immediately
adjacent to the refinery were primarily Latino.
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549
The final hazard studied is TSDFs. Figure 4 represents data analyzed by Boer
et al. (1997). In this study, the authors found a pattern similar to Sadd et al. (1999) and
Szasz et al. (1993): the disproportionate exposure of working-class communities of
color. Using a multivariate model, the authors found that “race remains a factor along
with industrial land use and employment in manufacturing; rising income, on the other
hand, has a positive, then a negative effect on the probability of TSDF location” (1997,
795). They found that 5.2 percent of blacks and Latinos lived in a census tract
containing a TSDF, but only 2.9 percent of whites did.
The results of these six studies suggest important racial and spatial patterns
associated with these three forms of pollution. First, it appears that most industrial
hazards in southern California are concentrated in the greater central and southern part
of Los Angeles County. This older core is inhabited by people of color, while whites
live on the periphery. Within this large zone, one group of hazards follows a major
transportation corridor, the Interstate-5 freeway and the railroad, stretching from east
Los Angeles through downtown and into the eastern San Fernando Valley. A second
major grouping forms a wide swath from downtown to the harbor. This distribution
reflects both contemporary and historic industrial patterns. Second, as previously
stated, all studies found evidence of environmental racism, even when accounting for
income. This substantiates Perlin et al.’s (1995) finding that pollution is concentrated
in a few large urban areas with substantial minority populations. Third, it is working-
class Latinos, and to a lesser extent, African Americans, who are disproportionately
impacted. This reflects both patterns of residential segregation, as well as Latinos’
historic and continuing role as the region’s low-wage working class (Morales and Ong,
1993; Ong and Blumenberg, 1993; Scott, 1996a). What is significant is the degree to
which almost no whites live in these areas and therefore are not exposed to the hazards
under consideration20. As the maps in Figures 2-4 suggest, there is simply far less
pollution in the outlying areas. I maintain that we can only understand these
contemporary patterns by examining the historical development of urban space at the
regional scale and that these processes are inherently racialized. While some forms of
environmental racism are directly attributable to overt acts of discrimination, I will
emphasize how white privilege contributed to this larger pattern.
20 An important exception might be Superfund sites. Military production is responsible for
serious ground and groundwater contamination, such as the Lockheed site in North Hollywood/Burbank,
and Rocketdyne in the western San Fernando Valley. There has been no systematic study of this form of
pollution throughout the region.
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
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Figure 3. Distribution of Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) emission sites and non-Hispanic white
population in Southern California.
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Figure 4. Distribution of Transfer, Storage, and Disposal Facilities (TSDF) and non-Hispanic white
population in Southern California.
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The Historical Geography of White Privilege and Environmental Racism
in Los Angeles
The data suggest that people of color’s disproportionate exposure to pollution in
Los Angeles is not by chance. Although the geography of environmental racism is the
result of millions of individual choices, those choices reflect a particular racial
formation, and are a response to conditions deliberately created by the state and capital
(Harvey, 1985; Hise, 1998; Walker, 1981). My goal is to show the historical evolution
of these patterns and how racism contributed to the spatial patterns associated with
environmental racism.
Before offering this historical geography, however, it is useful to consider how
Los Angeles is both similar to and unique from other urban areas. Although the nature
and definition of suburbia is contested (Fishman, 1987; Garreau, 1991; Kling et al.,
1995; Sharpe and Wallock, 1994), there is no denying that urban regions have
undergone a fundamental restructuring over the last five decades, as whites and the
middle class of all colors have moved outwards with significant consequences for
inner cities. This process of deconcentration has been described as a “massive regional
dispersal of population, industry, and commerce,” entailing “the restructuring of both
the central city and the outlying areas” (Gottdiener and Kephart, 1995, 33-34).
Los Angeles has not escaped these profound shifts, but its experience is also
unique (Davis, 1992; Dear and Flusty, 1998; Soja, 1989, 1996). Unfortunately, the
reality of Los Angeles is often obscured by the many misconceptions of the region
(Soja, 1996, 427). For example, because of its legendary sprawl, many overlook the
historical and contemporary significance of Los Angeles’s inner cities. Though inner
cities are often considered to be sites of poverty and pathos, this is too simple a
reading. While both the eastside barrio and South Central are home to poor people of
color, they are also sites of vibrant communities and an assortment of industry and
warehousing. In addition, perhaps because of the influence of Hollywood and
Disneyland, many do not realize that Los Angeles is the leading manufacturing county
in the nation. Accordingly, the historical geography of industry has been a powerful
force in shaping the region (Soja, 1989).
Suburbanization is also unique in Los Angeles, where, although not pioneered
there, suburbia peaked, as real-estate speculation and “living the good life” became
economic and social cornerstones of the region (Fishman, 1987, 155). Finally, while
many U.S. cities have historically been characterized by bipolar racial structures
(usually black/white), only recently have they become multiracial. In contrast, Los
Angeles has always been racially diverse. This is important in that the long presence of
various racial/ ethnic groups illustrates how nonwhites differentially experienced
racism, underscoring the profundity of white privilege.
Early Residential and Industrial Patterns, 1848-1920s Early suburbanization
emanated partly from the refusal of middle-class whites to live near immigrants and
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people of color. Whites pursued suburbanization for many reasons, but regardless of
their motives, their choice was predicated on white privilege. Historian Robert
Fogelson (1993) has pointed out that soon after the Anglo takeover of Los Angeles
(1848), the city was transformed from a spatially clustered community to a rapidly
expanding city. This transformation was driven by several forces, including a growing
population, land speculation, and the fact that many newly arrived white Angelenos
were native-born and refused to live near socially subordinated groups. Fogelson
(1993) has argued that because the whites who came to Los Angeles were relatively
secure financially, they were more concerned with lifestyle issues, rather than
economic survival, and their affluence led them to embrace suburbia. Hence, whites’
residential desires and real estate interests were two of the more powerful forces that
shaped early Los Angeles:
the unique dispersal of Los Angeles reflected not so much its
chronology, geography, or technology as the exceptional character of its
population. It was not like Chicago … inhabited largely by impoverished
and insecure European immigrants, who were confined to the city’s
teeming tenements and crowded ghettos. … Los Angeles was populated
principally by native[-born] Americans with adequate resources and
marketable skills, who faced the problems of adjustment confidently
because of a common language and similar background. Moreover,
the native[-born] Americans came to Los Angeles with a conception of
the good community which was embodied in single-family houses,
located on large lots, surrounded by landscaped lawns, and “isolated”
from business activities. Not for them multi-family dwellings
separated by cluttered streets and industry. Their vision was
epitomized by the residential suburb (Fogelson, 1993, 144).
In addition to the exclusionary desires of white Angelenos, suburbanization was
also promoted by industrialists who sought to provide housing for the white working
class as a means of avoiding labor unrest. According to one promotional brochure,
The real secret of the efficiency of the workers of Southern California
may be found in their home life. … A tenement is unknown here and the
workers live in their own little bungalows surrounded by plenty of land
for fruits, vegetables and flowers, and where children romp and play
throughout the entire year. … This spells contentment and contentment
spells efficiency (LA Chamber of Commerce Industrial Department,
1926).
As whites moved outward, Chicanos, African Americans, Japanese Americans,
Chinese Americans and the remnant Indian population were relegated to San Pedro,
Watts, and the central city (including downtown and the eastside) (Anderson, 1996,
342-46; Horne, 1995, 27; Romo, 1983; Sanchez 1993; Warren, 1986-1987). Beginning
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
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554
in the 1920s, residential segregation was violently enforced (De Graff, 1970; Massey
and Denton, 1993). As a result, for thousands of
Mexicans, Japanese, and Negroes who lived amidst commerce and
industry in the small ghettos of central Los Angeles and San Pedro{,}
there were a million white Americans who resided in the suburbs
sprawling north to Hollywood, east to Pasadena, south to Long Beach,
and west to Santa Monica (Fogelson, 1993, 147).
These early differences in environmental quality were codified by zoning laws in the
1920s, which resulted in a concentration of industrial activity in nonwhite and
immigrant areas (The Zoning Map Company, 1930).
This early process of white outmigration was characterized by various forms of
racism. For one, the fact that nonwhites were considered undesirable reflects a racial
hierarchy. More conscious was the exclusion of people of color from white housing
developments. While most developers practiced overt discrimination by denying
housing to people of color, they may have had distinct motives. Some may have
opposed nonwhites living with whites, while others may simply have realized that the
presence of nonwhites would reduce property values. Regardless of the motive,
however, all these actions were predicated on white privilege and served to undermine
the well-being of people of color. This is an example of how white privilege can
coexist with other forms of racism in shaping residential patterns.
Until the 1920s, the industrial sector was weak and clustered downtown due to
limited infrastructure. During the 1920s, however, civic leaders sought to build the
region’s manufacturing base in order to diversify the economy. Between 1919 and
1933, Los Angeles County rose from twenty-seventh to sixth in terms of the value of
manufactured goods (LA Chamber of Commerce Industrial Department, 1934).
Several factors guided this growth, including the success of the “branch plant”
strategy, capital’s desire to escape organized labor and zoning regulations (LA
Chamber of Commerce, Industrial Department, 1929), and the coordinated efforts of
industrialists, developers, and planners to transform the basis of Los Angeles’s
landscape from tourism and land speculation to manufacturing (Hise, 2000; Fogelson,
1993).
The resulting manufacturing and residential geographies have had an enduring
influence. Mexicanos and industry were continually pushed eastwards from the central
Plaza, towards the Los Angeles River (Romo, 1983; Sanchez ,1993), further cementing
the barrio’s role as an industrial district. Industrialists and planners chose to develop
this site, given its proximity to the railroad, in hopes of generating cargo tonnage (Los
Angeles Central Manufacturing District, 1923). Partly because of the existing
industrial infrastructure (railroads, industrially zoned land, already-contaminated land),
and the availability of a large pool of low-wage labor, the eastside remains an
important industrial area.
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The production of urban space in Los Angeles in the 1920s shows how race
and class influenced the location of both residential and industrial districts. Affluent
whites moved to residential suburbs like Pasadena, Bel Aire, Rancho Palos Verdes,
and Beverly Hills, and were never seriously threatened with industrial activity. Instead,
industry developed in conjunction with nonwhite spaces (the eastside and south of
downtown) and the white working class. As previously mentioned, industrialists’
desire to avoid labor unions (concentrated downtown), and to placate white labor
through home ownership, led to the development of industrial suburbs. The creation of
communities like Torrance, Huntington Park, and Bell offered a suburban experience
to all whites, regardless of class (Parson, 1984). The strength of the color line can be
seen in the way Bell, for instance, boasted of providing “homes for industrial workers
{with} no Negroes and very few Mexicans and Chinese” (LA Chamber of Commerce
Industrial Department, 1925). Likewise, Compton described itself as having
“inexpensive homes of individuality, where flowers and gardens may be grown the
year round. White help prevails” (LA Chamber of Commerce Industrial Department,
1925). Yet, despite the overwhelming power of white privilege in (re)producing the
color line, it is also evident that this articulation of racism is predicated not only on
class divisions within the white population (which allowed for the creation of affluent
communities), but also an attempt to incorporate those who were previously
considered to be “not quite white” (Brodkin, 1998) into new forms of consolidated
whiteness.
As suburbanization continued, what were once the near suburbs became the
inner city, as white workers moved away, and people of color subsequently took their
place, a process known as ethnic succession21. Consequently, wealthy whites were
never systematically burdened by pollution, while over time, the white working class
was able to escape by taking advantage of new housing opportunities. Thus, regardless
of class differences, all whites enjoyed white privilege, albeit to varying degrees.
Residential and Industrial Expansion in the World War II Era The Depression
and World War II greatly intensified the process of white suburbanization, but instead
of it being a private project, the state actively subsidized suburbanization, to the
detriment of people of color living in the central city (Ebner, 1987, 234-35;
Guhathakurta and Wichert, 1998). Figure 5 shows the exodus set in motion by the
policy and economic shifts of World War II. Not only did whites continue their
outward migration, but millions of newly arrived white Angelenos settled in the
suburbs. In contrast, newly arriving African Americans and Mexicanos were relegated
respectively to the ghetto and barrio. And Japanese Americans, upon their postwar
release from concentration camps, clustered in black and brown spaces, such as the
21 This is an important issue that few have seriously addressed the historic exposure of the
white working class. The fact that working-class whites may have been disproportionately exposed in
the past does not detract from the argument that environmental racism exists today. Rather, it suggests
the changing nature of race, and the need to historicize its spatiality.
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
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556
Crenshaw area and Boyle Heights, as well as in rural communities like Gardena
(Warren, 1986-1987).
The economic growth triggered by defense dollars not only provided jobs, but
housing these workers created a construction boom. Hise has argued that this period is
pivotal to explaining the contemporary fragmentation of southern California: “the
emergence of Los Angeles as a fully urbanized region occurred around a set of
decentralized industrial growth poles … {and the} industrial and housing policy
associated with the defense emergency accelerated this emergent pattern of
decentralization” (1993, 97-98) (Figure 6).
Federal policies, such as Titles I and VI of the Federal Housing Act (FHA),
sought to increase the housing supply (Doti and Schweikart, 1989), in an overtly racist
way. Perhaps of greatest significance was the institutionalization of redlining practices
by the Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) and the FHA. Although these
measures were intended to protect small homeowners from foreclosure, they ranked
neighborhoods in descending order from “A” to “D,” with profound consequences for
future urban development. “A” ratings were reserved for “newer, affluent suburbs that
were strung out along curvilinear streets well away from the problems of the city” (in
Jackson, 1980, 424).
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Figure 5. Racial/ethnic outmigration from central Los Angeles between 1940 and 1960.
At the other extreme were nonwhite neighborhoods. Indeed, HOLC’s survey of
the Los Angeles area shows the suburban communities of Pasadena, Beverly Hills,
Santa Monica, and Palos Verdes as all “A” areas. Working-class white communities
were “B,” and Black, Latino, and Asian neighborhoods, primarily in the eastside,
central Los
Angeles, and south of downtown, were “C” and “D” (U.S. Division of Research
and Statistics, 1939). A confidential report by the survey team illustrates the degree to
which black and brown people were considered a problem and a potential threat to
white residential development:
Negroes do not constitute a racial problem in the area as a whole, for
although they too have been increasing rapidly in number, their ratio to
the total county population has remained constant since 1890. The Negro
race is fairly well confined to a few sections within the county. They
occupy one large area southwest of the business district. … Although
Beverly Hills shows a larger than average number of Negroes, these are
made up entirely of servants and they do not own property in the
community. The major racial problem existing in Los Angeles, and
one which is not revealed by the census data, is that created by the large
numbers of Mexicans, who are classed as Whites by the Census Bureau.
While many of the Mexican race are of high caliber and descended
from the Spanish grandees who formerly owned all the territory in
southern California, the large majority of Mexican people are a definite
problem locally and their importation in the years gone by to work the
agricultural crops has now been recognized as a mistake (Bowden and
Mayborn, 1939, emphases added).
The results of such overt and institutionalized forms of racism were evident in
dramatic urban inequalities. For instance, despite the outlawing of restrictive covenants
in 1948 (which Californians subsequently repealed), less than two percent of the
housing financed with federal mortgage insurance was made available to blacks
(Anderson, 1996, 345). Moreover, in 1955, the ratio between single-family and
multifamily starts was more than nine to one in Los Angeles (Cohan, 1956, 46).
Because they were largely excluded from the new suburbs, the limited production of
multifamily units meant greater crowding in the barrio and ghetto. Minority
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
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558
communities were also disadvantaged insofar as massive funds were channeled into
suburbia22.
Not only was less money available for inner-city development, but such
projects were often built literally at the expense of nonwhites. For example, Los
Angeles’s freeway system, upon which the suburban structure was predicated, was
largely built through communities of color, particularly Chicano neighborhoods,
resulting in severe disruption to the community and its housing stock (Avila, 1998).
The result of these practices was evident in growing racial and economic polarization.
In 1960, the average income in central and east Los Angeles was $5,916, while it was
$8,575 in the outlying, newly developing areas (“Los Angeles 1965: Market and
Media”, 1965, M12)23.
A related segregation tool was suburban city incorporation. The exclusionary
nature of suburbanization is underscored by the fact that once people arrived, they
sought to insulate their investment through incorporation. Not only did this protect
their tax dollars, but it offered them more control over local land use, including
industry, schools, and the ability to exclude outsiders, through, for example, restrictive
covenants, advertising practices, and minimum lot-size standards (Babcock and
Bosselman, 1973; Miller, 1981). Between 1955 and 1960, twenty-five communities
incorporated in Los Angeles County (Miller, 1981, 22), resulting in a total of more
than 76 incorporated cities (“Los Angeles 1965: Market and Media”, 1965, M3)24.
The issue of incorporation versus suburbanization demonstrates the multiple
forms of racism shaping the region. For some, moving to suburbia might simply be
taking advantage of opportunities based on one’s white skin. While this opportunity is
predicated on institutionalized racism, incorporation is potentially a more conscious
and deliberate act to maintain one’s privilege (often in the form of property values). In
Torrance, for instance, an integration campaign led by the Congress on Racial Equality
22 This occurred through both a diversion of funds and a direct subsidy. For instance, the
Bradly-Burns Act of 1956 authorized local municipalities in California to collect a one-cent sales tax for
their own use. Because many urban residents shopped in new suburban malls, they in effect subsidized
outlying areas, thereby allowing them to maintain low or nonexistent property taxes (Davis, 1992, 166).
23 I reached these figures by averaging the reported incomes for the following communities as
identified in the Los Angeles Times media market. For the inner city, I included the Northeast, East,
Central, and Southeast. For the periphery, the San Fernando Valley, Glendale, South Coast, and Orange
County (“Los Angeles 1965: Market and Media”, 1965, 15, M12).
24 An important impetus for this incorporation boom was the planned community of Lakewood,
which pioneered a contract-based form of municipal government (Brill, 1996, 98). Many communities
emulated this plan, what has been called the “Lakewoodization” of southern California (Davis, 1992,
166).
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(CORE), a civil rights group, was fiercely resisted by whites. White opposition
ranged from parades featuring Nazis and the Klu Klux Klan, to white homeowners
planting American flags and signs on their lawns saying “without property rights there
are no human rights” (Weeks, 1963). While the reference to “property rights” may
appear disingenuous, it is quite telling in that it reveals the necessity of preserving
whiteness in order to protect one’s investment and a particular quality of life.
Figure 6. Distribution of industrial concentrations in Southern California, 1961.
What is significant is not that some whites refused to live among nonwhites,
but the extent to which social status and a desired quality of life are predicated on
homogeneous whiteness.
That suburbanites effectively wall out those unlike themselves after
arriving {in suburbia}, however, suggests that a major force driving their
migration is the wish to escape racial and class intermingling. In the
United States, upward mobility and social status are predicated on living
apart from racial and economic groups considered inferior. … Thus, it
is not simply the racism of individuals but also the collectively perceived
threat that race and class differences pose to homeownership and social
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
Urban Development in Southern California
560
standing that drives suburbanites to keep their territory segregated
(Sharp and Wallock 1994, 9, emphasis added).
The quote emphasizes the connection between individual actions and social structures.
While some undoubtedly had malicious intentions, others did not. Yet, in order to
preserve and fully exploit the privilege associated with whiteness, presumably well-
intentioned individuals respond to market forces and social structures in ways that
reinforce racist hierarchies.
This process highlights not only the spatiality of racism, but also the fact that
space is a resource in the production of white privilege. Indeed, neighborhoods are not
merely groupings of individuals, homes, and commerce, they are constellations of
opportunities with powerful consequences, for both the recipient and nonrecipient
populations. Although whites must go to ever greater lengths to achieve them,
relatively homogeneous white spaces are necessary for the full exploitation of
whiteness (Frankenberg, 1993).
Beginning in the 1950s, the urban exodus was driven by the relocation of key
industries and government services. Led by Northrop, Hughes, and Lockheed,
aerospace firms left central Los Angeles in a leapfrog pattern, creating industrial
agglomerations (Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, 1953; Scott, 1996b). As a result, well-
paying defense jobs shifted to Los Angeles’s periphery (Law et al., 1993), and racial
and economic polarization became more entrenched. There was a strong relationship
between the defense industry and white workers. White workers followed the industry,
which moved to areas amenable to whites. For instance, a labor-market survey
described Fullerton as undergoing a “significant expansion in industries related to the
missile program” (California Department of Employment, 1960), and as having a labor
force that was primarily “native-born white” (California Department of Employment,
1952).
Many factors contributed to this industrial and urban decentralization. Besides
population growth, new production methods required larger lots, which were
increasingly hard to find in Los Angeles. Indeed, 76 percent of Los Angeles’s capital
investment in 1955 was spent on existing businesses as they sought to expand (Banks,
1956, 63). In addition, there was a desire to escape congestion, and quality of life
concerns greatly intensified after the Watts riots (1965). Consequently, new
communities were built along Los Angeles’s periphery, including the San Fernando
Valley, the South Bay, and Orange County (Kling et al., 1993, 3; Scott, 1990, ch. 9).
Between 1960 and 1965, Los Angeles
County experienced a population growth rate of 21.4 percent, while Orange
County averaged 137.5 percent (“Los Angeles 1965: Market and Media”, 1965, M14).
Despite Orange County’s exceptional growth, however, relatively few people of color
moved there. While Los Angeles’s population was 19.2 percent nonwhite in 1960,
Orange County was only 8.8 percent nonwhite (LA Chamber of Commerce, 1964).
Laura Pulido
561
Besides affordable housing and well-paying jobs, white Angelenos were lured
to new, attractive, segregated communities, such as Irvine, the quintessential planned
community. The developer, the Irvine Company, believed that both affordable and
integrated housing would reduce property values and deter desirable buyers. One
official explained that a multiracial advertisement, “would scare off every white person
I had even the slightest hopes of getting” (Schiesl, 1995, 68).
Nonetheless, by the 1970s, a decrease in overt racism and a strong economy
allowed people of color to enjoy more housing options. The San Gabriel Valley
became the path of upward mobility for Chicanos, and Asian Americans became
increasingly dispersed throughout the region. Eventually, the enforcement of civil
rights laws enabled blacks to move beyond central and south Los Angeles.
Contemporary Patterns Due to 150 years of racism as well as recent social and
economic shifts, southern California remains highly segregated, despite a reduction in
overt forms of racism. Three interrelated factors help explain why the central city
remains a nonwhite place, and whites continue to dominate the periphery: immigration,
residential mobility, and economic restructuring. These factors also help explain why
Latinos, in particular, are disproportionately exposed to industrial pollution.
Immigration has dramatically affected both the economy and residential
patterns of the region. Between 1970 and 1990, the Asian population of Los Angeles
increased by 451 percent (Cheng and Yang, 1996, 308), while between 1980-1990, the
Latino population rose from two million to well over three million (Morrison and
Lowry, 1994, 28). Although these new arrivals settled throughout the region, many
clustered in east, central, and south Los Angeles. At the same time, African
Americans, while still heavily concentrated in south Los Angeles, have been moving
east to the “inland empire” and even returning to the South (Johnson and Roseman,
1990). Immigrants have moved into these black and brown spaces because they are
affordable and accessible. Immigrants do not settle just anywhere, however. Their
decisions are informed by the geography of past racial regimes. As a result, central Los
Angeles continues to be a nonwhite space (Allen and Turner, 1997, 46). This growth is
juxtaposed by the loss of 352,000 whites between 1980 and 1990 (Sabagh and
Bozorgmehr, 1996, 86). Not only do whites continue to move to Orange County
(especially popular are the southernmost communities where whites sometimes
constitute up to 90 percent of the population), but the flight of white Angelenos has
spread to San Diego, central California, and throughout the West (Frey and Liaw,
1998). Even white “holdout” communities feel their days are numbered. According to
one Lakewood resident,
I’ve got three blacks {families} on my block, right now … and well, you
know the problem with blacks, they have friends, and they have visitors.
That is the problem. We can’t encourage our people to stay if this keeps
up. Our housing stock has stayed pretty solid, but some people can’t be
encouraged much more to stay” (quoted in Brill, 1996, 110).
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
Urban Development in Southern California
562
The complexion of Orange County, particularly the inland areas, has changed
considerably, as the number of Latinos and Asian/Pacific Islanders has grown.
Nonetheless, blacks still constitute only 1.8 percent of the population (Roseman and
Lee, 1998, 208). The net result of all these shifts is that although people of color can
now be found throughout the region, they are concentrated in the mature suburbs, the
eastern San Fernando Valley, and the San Gabriel Valley25. Central Los Angeles
remains almost completely nonwhite, and whites continue to congregate along the
periphery.
As Figures 2-4 suggest, many of the industries and land-uses associated with
environmental hazards are concentrated in central Los Angeles, and, to a lesser extent,
along industrial arteries. Both blacks and Latinos are disproportionately exposed, but
for somewhat different reasons. As the most segregated population, black Angelenos
were confined to south Los Angeles beginning in the 1920s (De Graff, 1970). While
many blacks have left, south Los Angeles is still heavily black (Allen and Turner,
1997, 62), and contains portions of an old industrial corridor. Despite the fact that
blacks were only intermittently hired in them, south Los Angeles housed many Fordist
industries, the majority of which left in the 1970s and 1980s (Oliver et al., 1993, 122).
This “rust belt” not only harbors various environmental hazards but, as a politically
weak and industrially oriented area, attracts projects like incinerators and the proposed
Pacific Pipeline (Aspen Environmental Group, 1993). Thus, blacks’ exposure to
environmental hazards is largely a function of severe spatial containment and the
historic practice of locating hazardous land uses in black areas.
In contrast, Latinos’ exposure is more a function of their role as low-wage
labor within the racialized division of labor and the historic relationship between the
barrio and industry. Latinos have always lived close to industry, but unlike blacks, they
have, at times, been hired in large numbers (Morales and Ong, 1993; Ong and
Blumenberg, 1993). Latinos’ contemporary exposure cannot be understood outside of
industrial and immigration shifts. Over the last twenty years, the region has undergone
a simultaneous industrial decline and expansion (Soja, 1989, 200). While the finance
and service sectors have grown dramatically, manufacturing declined in Los Angeles
in the 1980s. In the 1990s, however, a selective reindustrialization was realized (Scott,
1996a) by high-technology industries and low-wage Latino labor. As a result, Latinos
live near industry, since both are concentrated in central Los Angeles and industrial
corridors, and they are exposed to hazards on the job (Ong and Blumenberg, 1993).
Thus, their exposure is a function of their class and immigrant status, as well as their
racial position. As Latinos, they live where brown and black people have historically
lived, or in spaces vacated by the white working class.
25 This is in keeping with studies suggesting that despite the growing presence of people of
color in suburbia, they remain segregated and live in more marginal suburbs (Phelan and Schneider,
1996).
Laura Pulido
563
Environmental hazards are concentrated in central Los Angeles (including the
inner suburbs) in several distinct ways. First, because a significant portion of these
communities are industrially zoned, industry continues to locate there (Cordoba Corp.,
1987, 22). Yet because of the poverty of central Los Angeles and its land
fragmentation and poor services, few of the large, well-financed firms in growth
sectors move there26. Instead, small polluting activities and large-scale hazards, such as
incinerators, are drawn to these areas, as “cleaner industries are dissuaded from
locating in the area because of the toxic contamination” (LA Design Action Planning
Team, 1990, 12). According to one official from Paramount, an inner suburb, “we
provide a place for industry that nobody wants” (Carbajal in Flanigan, 1999). Scott has
pointed out that low-technology, labor-intensive industries are now clustered near
downtown; metallurgical and machinery industries are found in old industrial zones
throughout the region, including the eastern San Fernando Valley, South Central, and
northern Orange County; and high-technology industries are located on the fringe
(1996a, 220-21; see also Kaplan, 1998).
Consider the Eastside and Southeast Planning Districts in the city of Los
Angeles. In both cases, 20 percent of the land is zoned as industrial (City of Los
Angeles Department of City Planning, 1988, 9; Garrow et al., 1987, 54). Not
surprisingly, both of these communities were targets for incinerator projects in the
1980s. The City of Los Angeles proposed a waste-to-energy incinerator for South
Central, but Concerned Citizens of South Central, a group of largely African American
women, successfully resisted the project. In the second case, the city of Vernon,
adjacent to Boyle Heights, proposed a hazardous waste incinerator. This time, the City
of Los Angeles assisted the Mothers of East L.A. in defeating the project (Blumberg
and Gottlieb, 1989).
Conflicting land uses are also a serious problem that intensifies potential
environmental hazards. One planning document described the eastside as consisting of:
small, older, single family homes situated between or adjacent to large
commercial and industrial buildings. … The noise, dirt, heavy truck and
trailer traffic along industrial/residential edges also severely detracts
from the quality of life of nearby residents. Views from homes to
loading docks, auto wrecking and repair yards, and heavy machinery do
not provide the amenities traditionally associated with residential life
(Garrow et al., 1987, 54).
eyond the general unsightliness, such land uses pose a severe threat to residents.
Because of the lack of buffers and the hazardous nature of industry, there have been
mass evacuations, school contaminations (Frammolino, 1999), explosions (Sahagun,
26 Indeed, the eastside, south central, and northeast corner of the San Fernando Valley have all
been designated as Enterprise Zones, in the hopes of attracting economic development.
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
Urban Development in Southern California
564
1989), potential cancer clusters (Gold, 1999), and workers killed (Malnic and Ramos,
1997). Newer suburban communities do not have the same concentration of hazardous
industrial activities, and enjoy more effective zoning and land-use regulations. Overall,
there are simply fewer pollution clusters along the coast (see Figures 2-4). With the
exception of the port, coastal communities are cleaner (and whiter) than the central
city. Besides the fact that the suburbs house better capitalized firms more likely to have
the best available technology, the coastal breeze blows pollution inland, thus further
cleansing the coastal suburbs.
In short, looking at the region as a whole, it is clear that people of color are
disproportionately exposed to a particular set of environmental hazards. Such patterns
are not the result of any single decision or particular act. Instead, they are the result of
urban development in a highly racialized society over the course of 150 years.
Conclusion
I have argued that restrictive conceptions of racism characterize the
environmental racism literature. In particular, the emphasis on siting, intentionality,
and scale have contributed to conceptualizing both racism and space as discrete
objects, rather than as social relations. These dominant conceptions are problematic
because they prevent us from understanding how racism shapes places and the
relationships between places, and thereby limits our ability to detect environmental
racism. I have sought to challenge this approach by employing the concept of white
privilege, which offers a more structural and spatial understanding of racism. Such a
shift requires acknowledging that multiple forms of racism exist, including less
conscious forms not characterized by malicious intent and hostility. White privilege
allows us to see how environmental racism has been produced – not only by
consciously targeting people of color (as in the incinerator cases) but by the larger
processes of urban development, including white flight, in which whites have sought to
fully exploit the benefits of their whiteness.
In urban areas, explanations of environmental inequality must include careful
consideration of residential patterns, land use, and industrial development. The history
of suburbanization reveals that although many forces contributed to decentralization, it
has largely been an exclusionary undertaking. Moreover, the state has played a central
role in crafting such opportunities, choices, and landscapes. Although, in Los Angeles,
nonwhites have always lived adjacent to industry, people of color have recently begun
moving into the suburbs, and have taken over what were once white industrial suburbs.
Over time, these industrial suburbs have become part of the inner city, and are
increasingly populated by people of color. As a result, central Los Angeles with its
concentration of industrial hazards, remains a nonwhite space. In contrast, whites
continue to move to the periphery, which is relatively cleaner. These patterns
Laura Pulido
565
developed over a century and continue to inform the present, illustrating how various
forms of racism shape our landscapes.
This paper raises a host of policy, scholarly, and political issues. From a policy
perspective, I have argued for the need to direct more attention to industrial zones and
pollution clusters, rather than just the siting process and individual facilities. While the
latter are clearly important, particularly in terms of future pollution, most industrial
pollution does not involve new sitings, but is the product of already existing facilities,
land uses, and zoning.
Scholarship on environmental racism can also be strengthened. It is essential
that researchers begin to situate their work in terms of a larger sociospatial dialectic.
Such a move would not only illuminate the geographic and historical context in which
these patterns developed, but would also help us appreciate the extent to which places
are shaped by various forms of racism. Relatedly, the fact that many geographers are
hesitant to pursue these avenues of research underscores the need for greater breadth
within our discipline and the limitations of specialization. As a discipline that is
intimately associated with both human-environment relations and the study of space,
we should be at the forefront of contributing new theoretical, empirical, and technical
insights on the topic of environmental justice.
The issue of racism itself raises both scholarly and political concerns. I believe
that as geographers, we need to diversify and deepen our approach to the study of
racial inequality. Our traditional emphasis on mapping and counting needs to be
complemented by research that seeks to understand what race means to people and
how racism shapes lives and places. For instance, within the field of environmental
racism, a key question that has not been seriously addressed is differential exposure. In
other words, how might different experiences and histories of racism result in distinct
geographies of exposure, say for instance, between the Shoshone nation, rural Blacks
in the South, and an urban Asian American community in the San Francisco Bay area?
Not only are such questions important in and of themselves, but they would help
geography build bridges to other disciplines, such as ethnic studies.
But the question of racism within the discipline goes beyond research. And, as I
have shown, our approach to the subject, unfortunately, speaks volumes about the
collective politics of our discipline. What are we to make of a body of literature that
purports to address the question of racism but is estranged from mainstream scholarly
understandings of racism? Why do so many scholars cling to such a narrow conception
of racism? What are the consequences of such an approach in terms of our research,
teaching, and political efficacy? Perhaps a serious interrogation on the subject of
racism is in order. At the very least, I hope that this paper demonstrates how individual
scholars contribute to the reproduction of larger discourses and conceptions of race –
regardless of their motives. The point is not to lay blame, but to become aware of the
larger political and moral consequences of our actions.
Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and
Urban Development in Southern California
566
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... I saw violence unfold in a place in which planners had forsaken real people, real families and real futures. As is now common knowledge (Pulido 2000), we know that planning 5 has shaped the lives of African Americans and immigrants of all kinds in Los Angeles and elsewhere through racially restrictive covenants, housing discrimination, highway development, lending discrimination, occupation discrimination, and resource deprivation. Even as a child, I understood no one cared if we poor people killed each other. ...
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