Morgan Franklin, @morganmfranklin
March 9, 2013

Photo by Melissa Checker, 2004. Taken in Hyde Park, Georgia. Copyright New York University Press. From Checker’s book Polluted Promises: Environmental Racism and the Search for Justice in a Southern Town

This Week in Class 7: That. Soil. Is. POISON

(Never Trust a Swing Set and a Slide)

Think back for a moment to the third grade version of yourself: you’re three hours into your school day, and just when you think you can’t take any more multiplication, the bell finally rings for recess! As you run out onto the playground, you feel the transition from ceramic to concrete to grass beneath your tennis shoes and your joy only increases. You climb to the top of the monkey bars, fling your arms wide, and breathe in the fresh air. Recess is perfection! Recess is freedom!

This experience is not universal; it hinges on students living somewhere where playing outside is safe. That requires not having dangerous environmental factors that make it unsafe for people to interact with nature at a level as basic as playing in the soil. Bit of a downer? Yeah, but you’re only reading about it. Imagine actually having to put mats down on top of the grass in order to make it safe enough to step beyond the concrete.

This week in class Professor Harris-Perry continued our discussion of environmental justice case studies, transitioning from last week’s look at recycling in Chicago to poisonous soil in a small town in the South. This week my classmates and I read the text Polluted Promises by Melissa Checker, an insightful work that highlights the existence of environmental racism and subsequent community activism in Hyde Park, a predominately African-American neighborhood located in Augusta, Georgia.

Checker’s work discusses the ways in which the fight for justice pushes for relief from contamination and for access to additional resources. It also highlights the agency of a marginalized community seeking fairness for themselves. This focus on activism from within an affected community is extremely important and is often missing from our national discourse around environmental justice work.

Professor Harris-Perry opened her lecture by presenting the challenge at the heart of our material for the week: “How does a community prove it is experiencing an environmental harm that impacts its health?” As we thought about such a daunting task, substantiating proof in a system that has already marginalized your community, she proceeded to ask us a series of questions about certain racial health disparities and the reasons for such inequities. First, she asked us to think about infant mortality rates and the potential causes for black infant mortality rates being more than double that of white infants. Next she asked us to offer hypotheses for why national rates of incidence were higher in the black population than among whites when it comes to Breast Cancer, Diabetes and HIV/AIDS.

As predicted, though we did place more emphasis on access barriers than expected (probably due to our environmental justice framing), our class followed the usual trajectory of moving toward a more dispositional framework and less of a structural one as we moved through the exercise. The exercise highlighted a critical takeaway: where we look for answers matters. It influences the results of our questioning, thus contaminating (pun only slightly intended) the objectivity that is supposed to be associated with scientific inquiry.

In evaluating our understanding of how race and health overlap, it is necessary to contextualize their evolution historically and institutionally. As Prof. pointed out, science has often been complicit, and employed, in making claims about the lack of value associated with specific communities. This ties not only to today’s class and this particular text (as Checker explains, “All accounts, even scientific ones, are made from particular positions… even scientists have agendas”) but also fits within our overarching understanding of the limitations of scientific study and the importance of being wise consumers of information.

Additionally, Prof. asserted that racial health disparities are a real challenge to a notion of post-racialism because we have to actually talk about race in order to analyze such issues. We also discussed the problematic aspects of linking race and class in this context: there are indicators that race actually serves as the salient factor in determining certain environmental inequality, not economic status. As Checker writes, “Race, numerous studies tell us, is the most potent variable in predicting where hazardous waste facilities are located-more powerful than poverty.” However, minority status and low socioeconomic status are often correlated and confound any racial issues. As usual, it’s complicated, and more than a little bit nuanced.

So what outcomes do we consider to be just? Back to our question about looking for answers in particular places, let’s turn to an example from our case study, Hyde Park. If we place a sign next to a playground stating that playing in or around the ditches that line the playground could be hazardous to one’s health, is that a positive step in the right direction, or an insulting action that serves to exacerbate the problem? Sure, the information is true, and one might say it’s a public health imperative and public service to alert residents of such an issue, but does it also serve to redistribute blame away from the true culprit?

As a classmate pointed out, if contamination is found within the soil in a community, residents will become afraid of eating out of their own gardens. Why? Because they’ve been told that the soil is toxic and the smart choice is to not eat the fruit. And if you’ve been told that the soil is toxic and internalized that reality, how will you react to organic and unprocessed goods for the rest of your life? Is it your fault, then, if you eat a higher quantity processed foods and develop a health issue later on? Did you actually make a choice about your eating habits, or were you backed into a corner from the very beginning based on the systems into which you born? If we make this about individual choice and solely look at personal agency, the true problem (that your neighborhood is trapped by nine polluting industries) is placed in the background.

When in the course of human events does it become necessary to petition the government for a redress of grievances? I’d say when arsenic shows up in your water is an acceptable moment. What strikes me most about this week’s conversation is that these Hyde Park residents weren’t people with extensive knowledge in environmental studies or containment procedures. They were family members who were tired of watching loved ones get sick and children unable to play on their school’s playground (denied access to King’s proverbial Funtown, not by segregation but through barriers related to race all the same) and their community being overlooked for critical resources time and time again. As we progress in the course, I’m looking forward to examining on-the-ground activism, and certainly to our in-class discussions about the progress environmental justice activists are making at the community level. We’d love to hear your insights on EJ work at the community level and beyond, and as always, thanks for joining us this week in class.

You can read the first chapter of Melissa Checker’s book here.

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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