From a Need for Hygiene to Environmental Racism

From the age of Thomas Jefferson and on, environmental racism in the United States and ideas about waste and cleanliness have shaped where people have lived, where people have worked, and how society’s refuse has been managed.

  • "Clean and White" addresses the destructive stereotype of whites being “clean” while all other races are “dirty.”
    Photo by Fotolia/nikolayshubin
  • “Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States” by Carl A. Zimring
    Photo courtesy of New York University Press

Clean and White (New York University Press, 2016) by Carl A. Zimring tells the history of the corrosive idea that ethnic “purity” is tied to cleanliness. This far-reaching mindset connecting waste and race began during a chaotic time for the nation—a time of emancipation, mass immigration, and the growth of an urbanized society after the Civil War. Hygiene became a central aspect of white identity, especially as certain immigrant groups took on waste management labor, fostering connections between the socially marginalized and refuse. The material consequences of environmental racism expanded through the twentieth century, shaping waste disposal systems and environmental inequalities that endure even today.

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Thomas Jefferson’s Ideal

Few Americans embodied the tensions of the new republic quite like Thomas Jefferson. An Enlightenment scholar who held slaves, and a champion of rural farm life whose presidency saw unprecedented industrial urbanism in the United States, Jefferson’s thoughts and actions reflected his country’s growing concerns about science, race, public health, and the role of government in the lives of the citizenry.

Although he died so destitute that his fellow Virginians raised money for him via lottery, Jefferson spent his final days on his beloved plantation, Monticello. It was there he drew his final breath at fifty minutes past noon on July 4, 1826, as the nation celebrated its fiftieth birthday. His final public utterance took stock of the nation he helped build, declaring it an enlightened land of liberty: “All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refreshed our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

Jefferson’s desire to live and die at Monticello reflected his vision of the young country he helped build. He was as worldly as any American of his time, an educated man and educator who took such pride in letters that the script he chose for his tombstone identified him as author of the declaration of American independence, founder of the state of Virginia for religious freedom, and, ultimately, father of the University of Virginia. Independence, religious freedom, and education were more important to the man in his dying days than the title he held as third president of the United States of America.

Jefferson chose to spend his final days on his plantation, a choice consistent with the values he had espoused for more than half a century. He saw himself as a farmer and his country as a society of farmers working together in a nation where none are king and all are learned equals. For Jefferson, the American farm was a symbol of self-reliance and egalitarian democracy, an “equilibrium of agriculture, manufactures and commerce… essential to our independence.” Cultivating the land produced people of “substantial and genuine virtue” while those involved in manufacture risked “subservience and venality.” In contrast, he found the great cities of Europe as “pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man” and felt that health and virtue could only thrive away from the polluted, impoverished urban slums. Far from the corruption of Europe, free people working the land had built a rugged, independent nation.

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