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Excerpted From: Eric K. Yamamoto and Jen-L W. Lyman, Racializing Environmental Justice, 72 U. Colo. L. Rev. 311 (2001) (264 Footnotes) (Full Document)


YamamotoLyman“[Racial c]ommunities are not all created equal.” Yet, the established environmental justice framework tends to treat racial minorities as interchangeable and to assume for all communities of color that health and distribution of environmental burdens are main concerns. For some racialized communities, however, environmental justice is not only, or even primarily, about immediate health concerns or burden distribution. Rather, for them, and particularly for some indigenous peoples, environmental justice is mainly about cultural and economic selfdetermination and belief systems that connect their history, spirituality, and livelihood to the natural environment.

This article explores the meaning of “environmental justice,” focusing on race as it merges with the environment. The word “environment” triggers images of the physical surroundings--water, trees, ecosystems. Society tends to separate physical environment from social environment--the latter including people, culture, and social structures. But the “race” in “environmental racism” suggests that the physical and the social are integrally connected. Indeed, understanding “our environment” is impossible without understanding both its physical and social aspects, and their interplay. Much of the scholarly writing on environmental justice does not address with adequate complexity or depth the interplay between the natural and the racial.

Rather, many articles make unexplored assumptions about racialized environments, failing to inquire into distinct cultural and power differences among communities of color and their relationships to “the environment.” For instance, while some might describe the siting of a waste disposal plan near an indigenous American community as environmental racism, that community might say that the wrong is not racial discrimination or unequal treatment; it is the denial of group sovereignty--the control over land and resources for the cultural and spiritual well-being of a people. Alternatively, the community might say that the siting is, on balance, desirable because it provides needed jobs in the area and is an aspect of group economic survival.

This article examines assumptions and misassumptions about racialized environments. It also suggests that to build strong alliances and address contemporary environmental injustice in concrete situations, scholars, lawyers, and activists must treat racial and indigenous communities and their relationships to “the environment” with greater complexity. That means grappling with racial and cultural differences, understanding the often unacknowledged role of whiteness in environmental law and policy, and, in sum, rebuilding the established environmental justice framework itself.

The early environmental justice movement, with its community organizing, scholarly writing, lobbying, and litigating produced some substantial gains for communities of color. Those who developed theory and fought on the community frontlines deserve considerable credit for their achievements. We submit, however, that in present-day America, characterized in many locales by a “retreat from racial justice,” original understandings of and initial approaches to environmental racism need to be rethought.

Accordingly, this article is divided into five parts. Part I describes the established environmental justice framework generated by much of the scholarly writing and the misassumptions it tends to make about health, distributive justice, culture, and race. Part II explores Native American legal scholars' more contextual approaches and their implications for environmental justice. Part III offers insight into the evolving environmental justice movement by using critical sociological and race theories to explain how groups acquire different identities, status, and power and develop or sustain differing cultures and relationships to the physical environment. We call this “racializing environmental justice.”

Part IV employs this approach to environmental justice in order to explore one particular racialized environmental controversy: a water controversy in Hawai'i that illustrates the need for scholars, activists, lawyers, and community leaders to integrate community history, racial and political identities, and socio-economic and cultural needs in defining environmental problems and in fashioning remedies. Finally, the article concludes with a suggestion: that by treating each racialized community with greater complexity, according to its specific cultural values, racialized history, socio-economic power, and group needs and goals, we move from a universalized, overly-broad environment/racism paradigm to a more integrated particularized approach to racialized environmental justice.

[. . .]

Racializing environmental justice goes beyond treating race as fixed and biological. It acknowledges the construction of race and racial categories through politics and culture. It also entails expanding environmental justice to recognize that each racial group is differently situated according to its specific socio-economic needs, political power, cultural values, and group goals. In doing so, racializing environmental justice enables scholars and activists to better grapple with varying forms of subordination and to tailor specific remedies for the harms that are specific to each racial community.

The preliminary analysis of the Waiahole Ditch controversy illustrated aspects of this approach to racializing environmental justice by highlighting the complexity of racial and Native peoples' issues in an attempt to characterize claims and fashion remedies addressing the specific needs of the particular communities.

The earlier discussion of the R.I.S.E. case illuminated other aspects of the approach. It revealed the district court's limited, perhaps myopic, view of the racialized nature of the siting decision. The court acknowledged the “disparate impact on African American communities” (measured against whites). But without examining the economic, cultural, or spiritual impacts on the specific African American communities, the court found that the decisionmaking board did not intend to discriminate and “balanced the economic, environmental, and cultural needs of the County in a responsible and conscientious manner.”

Examination of the R.I.S.E case also revealed the “bi-racial,” non-profit advocacy group's initial focus on traditional environmental harms such as pollution, traffic, and noise. For the group's predominantly white leadership, it appears, racial community harms were largely an afterthought. The district court found, dismissively, that “[r]ace discrimination did not become a significant public issue until it appeared that the initial [environmental] thrust was failing.”

How might the litigation in R.I.S.E have differed, politically and legally, had the controversy been conceptualized from the outset not as a pollution/noise/traffic problem? What if it had instead been conceived as continuing subordination of a particular African American community in the South, for whom the desecration of its church and communal center, founded by freed slaves, was a racial act with profound social and cultural meaning? How might the cross-racial alliance have been more effectively forged? How might the public's understanding of the controversy, and other environmental justice disputes, have differed if the controversy had been differently conceived and advocated? The racializing environmental justice approach, offered here in preliminary form, does not definitively answer these tough questions. It does, however, raise them and suggest points of critical inquiry and analysis.

Not all scholars or practitioners will embrace the racialization of environmental justice. And further development and refinement is needed. This approach urges us, nevertheless, at a minimum, to begin rethinking the established environmental justice framework and to begin treating racial and Native communities and their relationship to the environment with greater complexity based on each community's cultural, historical, and political experience and its specific needs and goals. To deal meaningfully with environmental racism, the environmental justice movement must seriously take account of race. “[I]n order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.” And in doing so, we might also open fresh understandings of the interplay between communities and “the environment.”


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