Morgan Franklin, @morganmfranklin
January 30, 2013


Week Three: Environmental Justice and Racial Justice

While reading or listening to an engaging story, most people imagine physical descriptions for the entities presented within the narrative. For instance, if I were to tell you “The racist went to the store”, what’s the mental image that you conjure? Did you imagine a hooded figure in white sheets strolling down the cereal aisle? Now let’s move from characters to abstract concepts.  If I said “That was an act of racism”, what would you automatically assume?  Do you see a burning cross? Do you imagine a ‘coloreds only’ sign? In an effort to have an informed discussion concerning environmental and racial justice, it is important to have shared definitions for what those concepts mean. This helps us understand what an associated injustice might look like.

Racism is more complex than just this image, reminded Professor Harris-Perry, even though it's often what is chosen to explain the construct

This week in class Professor Harris-Perry asked us for our definitions of racism. She encouraged us to work towards a deeper understanding of the concept, one that doesn’t just fit into a mold dished out in textbook paragraphs devoted to civil rights or in original movies broadcast during February. When examining racism it is critical to remember not only racial intent, the version of racism most likely to be discussed, but also inequality of distribution, disparate impact, and unequal privilege. Though often overlooked, these forms of racial injustice are prevalent in specific societal and institutional workings, with circumstantial realities certainly no exception.

So how does this conversation on race relations tie into environmental justice? Let’s look to the assigned reading for today’s class. In “African-American Farmers and Civil Rights,” a piece by Peter Daniel that sheds light on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s lacking record on civil rights, the author discusses the ways in which institutional racism within USDA programs affected black farmers throughout the twentieth century. According to his account, in spite of opportunities to add to equal opportunity and increase the level of African American farmers’ success, the USDA systematically short-changed black farmers and contributed to a “landscape of broken promises” for black citizens in agriculture.  In this instance of environmental regulation, it is clear that racial intent, unequal distribution, disparate impact, and privilege all played a role in the USDA’s actions.

As Daniel’s text asserts, the period of time in which black farmers lost the most ground occurred during the civil rights movement. This setback of African American citizens in an environmental justice context during the modern civil rights movement is particularly unsettling due to the Civil Rights Movement’s spawning of modern environmentalism.

Aspects of modern environmentalism, which began in the 1960s

As discussed in class, ironically this period of environmentalism focused on demanding protection from the government and the inclusion of unheard voices. This era, following that of conservationism stemming from the 1920s, precedes both mainstream and grassroots environmentalism. It is clear then that our present conception of environmental justice has roots in organizing techniques and principles of inclusion prevalent in the modern civil right movement. Additionally, it focuses on data, has an international presence and values tangible indicators of success.

To this point, Professor Harris-Perry asked us to think about whether or not it deserves to be called a social movement. (Slide 17). Due to its focus on common goals, its ability to mobilize and its heightened consciousness, one might be inclined to believe so. But is that all it takes? Based on your understanding of EJ so far, what do you think? We’d love to hear your feedback in the comments. As per usual, thanks for joining us this week in class!

Is environmentalism a social movement?

The “This Week in Class” blog series is written by Morgan Franklin, AJC Head Research Fellow and a student in Professor Harris-Perry’s class. You can download the full class syllabus, and then join Morgan every week as she invites to think about the class lecture and join the discussion.

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