The 'Greening' of Racism

Western environmentalism and the white man's burden


| August 19, 2004


The word 'park' indicates a separation of nature from civilization, a boundary, however small, that provides retreat from urban bustle. For many years, the park served as a cultural signifier for the white man's civilizing power. Environmentalism, then, is still inevitably linked, to some degree, to this hegemonic history, and the Western Environmentalism movement has continued to exploit class and race to further its ends. The case of Afton, North Carolina, in which North Carolina Governor James Hunt ordered toxic soil to be buried in a predominantly African American community, demonstrated how ready environmental activists are to utilize racial issues to bring attention to important issues. In the case of Afton, activists' concerns were certainly legitimate, but the case points to the establishment of 'environmental justice,' a racialized version of environmentalism which seeks to blur the boundaries between affluent white land, which is seen as worth protecting, and poor black land, which is not.

Some environmental activists, however, seem to be operating under the assumption that communities of color are actually responsible for environmental degradation. These leaders disguise racism under a kind of anti-immigration rhetoric which blames environmental pollution on migrants. Some prominent ecological and environmental leaders have even called for an immediate moratorium on immigration. Though rural overcrowding is certainly a problem, the factors that create it go well beyond immigration, and those activists that attack migrants are simply singling out one factor in a very complicated problem. Even the Sierra Club has advocated a reduction in net immigration. The rhetoric employed by such groups is that of the traditional 'park' -- 'the environenment,' property of civilized whites, must be protected from the savage, polluting other. Clearly, race and environmentalism is not a black and white issue.
-- Brendan Themes

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