Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California



Geographic studies of environmental racism have focused on the spatial relationships between environmental hazards and community demographics in order to determine if inequity exists. Conspicuously absent within this literature, however, is any substantive discussion of racism. This paper seeks to address this shortcoming in two ways. I first investigate how racism is understood and expressed in the literature. I argue that although racism is rarely explicitly discussed, a normative conceptualization of racism informs the research. Not only is this prevailing conception overly narrow and restrictive, it also denies the spatiality of racism. Consequently, my second goal is to demonstrate how various forms of racism contribute to environmental racism. In addition to conventional understandings of racism, I emphasize white privilege, a highly structural and spatial form of racism. Using Los Angeles as a case study, I examine how whites have secured relatively cleaner environments by moving away from older industrial cores via suburbanization. I suggest that the historical processes of suburbanization and decentralization are instances of white privilege and have contributed to contemporary patterns of environmental racism. Thus, in addition to interpreting racism as discriminatory facility siting and malicious intent, I also examine a less conscious but hegemonic form of racism, white privilege. Such an approach not only allows us to appreciate the range of racisms that shape the urban landscape, but also illuminates the functional relationships between places—in particular between industrial zones and residential suburbs, and how their development reflects and reproduces a particular racist formation.