Chat with us, powered by LiveChat Flooding in Accra, Ghana: examining the impacts of flooding on residents through the dimensions of class and environmental racism, and how capitalism as a structural force (political ecology), drives flooding. How can the theories of informality and infrastructure be informed, as coping mechanisms? - Writeedu

Flooding in Accra, Ghana: examining the impacts of flooding on residents through the dimensions of class and environmental racism, and how capitalism as a structural force (political ecology), drives flooding. How can the theories of informality and infrastructure be informed, as coping mechanisms?

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Flooding in Accra, Ghana: examining the impacts of flooding on residents through the dimensions of class and environmental racism, and how capitalism as a structural force (political ecology), drives flooding. How can the theories of informality and infrastructure be informed, as coping mechanisms? See document for all instructions.

Progress report

Geographies of race and ethnicity II: Environmental racism, racial capitalism and state-sanctioned violence

Laura Pulido University of Southern California, USA

Abstract In this report I argue that environmental racism is constituent of racial capitalism. While the environmental justice movement has been a success on many levels, there is compelling evidence that it has not succeeded in actually improving the environments of vulnerable communities. One reason for this is because we are not conceptualizing the problem correctly. I build my argument by first emphasizing the centrality of the pro- duction of social difference in creating value. Second, I review how the devaluation of nonwhite bodies has been incorporated into economic processes and advocate for extending such frameworks to include pol- lution. And lastly, I turn to the state. If, in fact, environmental racism is constituent of racial capitalism, then this suggests that activists and researchers should view the state as a site of contestation, rather than as an ally or neutral force.

Keywords environmental racism, racial capitalism, state violence

I Introduction

We need to rethink environmental racism. The

environmental justice (EJ) movement arose in

the early 1980s and over the last 35 years acti-

vists have succeeded at blocking both new proj-

ects and the expansion of existing ones.

However, it is questionable if the environments

of vulnerable communities have actually

improved through EJ. There is compelling evi-

dence that environmental disparities between

white and nonwhite communities, what I call

the environmental racism gap, have not dimin-

ished and that the situation may have worsened

(Bullard et al., 2007). EJ scholars have hinted

at why the movement has failed to achieve

substantive results, including industry capture

of the state (Faber, 2008; Lievanos, 2012; Holi-

field, 2007); state co-optation of EJ activists

(Harrison, 2015); and a less oppositional EJ

movement (Carter, 2014; Benford, 2005). Yet,

I argue a fundamental problem characterizing

both EJ activism and research is the failure to

theorize environmental racism as a constituent

element of racial capitalism. Numerous prob-

lems stem from not conceptualizing the problem

accurately, including not giving sufficient

weight to the ballast of past racial violence, and

Corresponding author: Laura Pulido, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA, USA. Email: [email protected]

Progress in Human Geography 2017, Vol. 41(4) 524–533

ª The Author(s) 2016 Reprints and permission: DOI: 10.1177/0309132516646495

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assuming the state to be a neutral force, when, in

fact, it is actively sanctioning and/or producing

racial violence in the form of death and

degraded bodies and environments.

My goal in this essay is to reposition envi-

ronmental racism so that it is recognized as fun-

damental to contemporary racial capitalism.

Although the environmental justice movement

is global, I focus on the US. Besides originating

in that country, it is in the US that EJ has most

fully articulated a racial framework and relied

heavily on the state. Hopefully other researchers

will apply and modify this framework to other

parts of the world as appropriate. Developing a

more radical analysis of EJ places it in closer

conversation with political ecology (Holifield,

2015; Heynen, 2015), the environmentalism

of the poor (Nixon, 2011), and other radical

streams emanating from the Global South. In

addition, I hope to further acquaint geographers

with research on racial capitalism coming from

critical ethnic studies scholars, such as Jodi

Melamed, Lisa Cacho, and John Marquez, as

well as geography’s own Ruth Wilson Gilmore.

Although I focus on environmental racism,

I believe other parts of the social formation

share structural parallels that might benefit from

a similar analysis.

In order to build my argument I first briefly

demonstrate the limited gains of the EJ move-

ment. I then consider how racial capitalism pro-

duces environmental racism by elaborating on

three points. First, I emphasize the centrality of

the production of social difference in creating

value. Second, I review how the devaluation of

nonwhite bodies has been incorporated into eco-

nomic processes and advocate for extending

such frameworks to include pollution. And

lastly, I turn to the state. If environmental

racism is indeed a function of racial capitalism,

then the state immediately becomes problematic

in new ways. This is crucial because in the

US most activists and researchers are steeped

in a liberal politics in which they work with the

state. Instead, the state must become a site of

opposition, as it sanctions racial violence. In

order to move forward both as a movement and

scholarly field, we must rethink environmental


II The environmental racism gap

While nobody has compared the difference in

environmental quality between white and non-

white communities, numerous researchers have

assessed the efficacy of state-based EJ initia-

tives. Key to understanding EJ efficacy is what

I call the ‘environmental racism gap’. Recent

scholarship has called attention to ‘environmen-

tal privilege’, which seeks to problematize the

environmental quality enjoyed by more privi-

leged populations (Park and Pellow, 2011). In

contrast, the environmental racism gap high-

lights the persistent inequality between white

and nonwhite communities. This gap, which is

manifest in practices, regulations, and out-

comes, requires discerning between universal

and EJ regulations. Universal regulations seek

to improve the environment across the board,

such as the Clean Air Act. Despite neoliberal

deregulation (Faber, 2008), there has been some

progress over the last 40 years. For example,

researchers have documented significantly

increased lung function in youth as air pollution

has declined (Gauderman et al., 2015). In con-

trast, EJ initiatives are intended to protect vul-

nerable populations and address the problem of

differential exposure, especially concentrations

(Noonan, 2015). This requires different tools,

often called environmental justice.

Below, I present some of the key avenues in

which EJ activists have sought relief from the

state (see Pulido et al., 2016, for a fuller discus-

sion). Studies typically are narrowly focused in

order to produce a rigorous and detailed analy-

sis. Though such an approach is the norm and

entirely appropriate, seen individually it

obscures larger patterns. Seen collectively,

however, it is difficult to escape the conclusion

of failure.

Pulido 525

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The first arena in which activists have

appealed to the state is through lawsuits. To date,

eight EJ lawsuits have been filed based on the

Equal Protection clause of the 14th amendment

to the US Constitution. All have failed. The pri-

mary problem is the inability to prove discrimi-

natory intent – a requirement of a 2001 Supreme

Court decision (Alexander v Sandoval), which

contracted the definition of discrimination. A

second register is Title VI Complaints. Under

the Civil Rights Act, public agencies receiving

federal funds are prohibited from discriminat-

ing. As of January 2014, activists had filed 298

Title VI complaints with the EPA, yet only one

has been upheld – a success rate of 0.3% (see

also Deloitte Consulting, 2011; Mank, 2008;

Gordon and Harley, 2005).1 A third and distinct

sphere of state engagement is Executive

Order 12898. This order, issued by President

Clinton in 1994, requires all federal agencies

to consider the EJ implications of their acti-

vities. A 2003 Civil Rights Commission eva-

luation of the implementation of EO 12898 by

the EPA, Housing and Urban Development,

and the Departments of Transportation and

Interior found that all four agencies had failed

to fully incorporate EJ into their activities (see

also Gross and Stretesky, 2015; Guana, 2015;

Noonan, 2015).

A fourth site for the reproduction of environ-

mental racism is regulatory enforcement.

Though definitive assessments cannot yet be

made, there is strong evidence to suggest discri-

minatory enforcement along racial lines, espe-

cially in Latina/o communities (Konisky, 2009;

Konisky and Reenock, 2013; Lynch et al., 2004;

Mennis, 2005).2 Finally, EJ initiatives have

been developed in over 30 states (Targ, 2005).

These offer a microcosm into the consistent

refusal and/or inability to reduce the environ-

mental racism gap. This was apparent, for

example, in California’s Global Warming Solu-

tions Act (AB 32), in which it was knowingly

decided to continue allowing pollution concen-

trations’ in vulnerable communities as part of a

larger effort to reduce global warming (London

et al., 2008, 2013; Lievanos, 2012).

III Environmental racism and racial capitalism

Failure on such a scale cannot be resolved by

tinkering with policy. While geographers typi-

cally attribute such dynamics to neoliberalism

(Faber, 2008; Holifield, 2007), this is only part

of the story. For instance, what is the connection

between court decisions that contract the defi-

nition of discrimination and neoliberalism? Pel-

low (2007) is one of the few to combine political

economy and race in his analysis of transna-

tional pollution, although Heynen (2015) has

made some important moves in this direction.

I build on Pellow’s work as well as research

from critical ethnic studies to argue that envi-

ronmental racism is part of racial capitalism.

Ethnic Studies scholars have long grappled

with the relationship between racism and capit-

alism (Barrera, 1979; Marable, 1983; Alma-

guer, 1994). Cedric Robinson coined the term

racial capitalism in Black Marxism: The Making

of the Black Radical Tradition. First published

in 1983, he argued that racism was a structuring

logic of capitalism. His work did not initially

circulate beyond a small circle of scholars

(e.g. Kelley, 1990; Gilmore, 2007), but the rise

of critical ethnic studies (Márquez and Rana,

2015) has introduced a new generation to it.

While this is new to some (Bonds and Inwood,

forthcoming; Driscoll Derickson, 2014; Ruiz,

2015), there is, in fact, older geographic scho-

larship that sees capitalism as deeply racial

(Wilson, 1992; Blaut, 1993; Woods, 1998; Gil-

more, 2002). Thus, the ideas are not necessarily

new. What is new is the term, the intellectual

moment, and the political urgency. The time is

ripe for a deep engagement with racial


A focus on racial capitalism requires greater

attention to the essential processes that shaped

the modern world, such as colonization, primitive

526 Progress in Human Geography 41(4)

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accumulation, slavery, and imperialism. As

McKittrick notes, ‘the geographic management

of blackness, race, and racial difference (and

thus nonblackness) hinges on a longstanding

but unacknowledged plantation past’ (2011:

953). By insisting that we are still living with

the legacy of these processes, racial capitalism

requires that we place contemporary forms of

racial inequality in a materialist, ideological

and historical framework.

Dominant historical narratives of racism

locate its origins in European colonization.

Robinson (2000) challenges this notion by doc-

umenting its prior roots in Europe. This is key,

because although he and others, such as Mel-

amed (2015: 77), insist that, ‘capitalism is racial

capitalism’, this historicization suggests that

racism predates capitalism and therefore can

be used by diverse economic systems, including

colonization and slavery. Indeed, to treat colo-

nization, for example, as solely an economic

process is not to fully grasp its human impact,

logic, or legacy (Said, 1979; Blaut, 1993;

Fanon, 1965; Galeano, 1973; Blackhawk,

2008). We can never overlook the fact that

racial ideology (along with guns) enabled colo-

nization. Though conquest and domination were

not always the sole motives, the elaborate ideol-

ogy that constructed indigenous people as less

than fully human was entirely necessary for the

colonial project. Indeed, Smith (2012) has sug-

gested the genocide is the core logic driving

colonization. In the case of the US and other

settler societies, colonization led to massive

land theft, which was not only a form of primi-

tive accumulation, but also became the basis of

those countries’ national territories at the cost of

native nations (Hixson, 2013).

Earlier debates sought to reconcile racism

and capitalism (Wilson, 1992; Barrera, 1979;

Almaguer, 1994), but critical ethnic studies and

its precursors insist that race cannot always be

contained by capitalism (Omi and Winant,

1986; HoSang et al., 2012; Roediger, 2008;

Lipsitz, 2006). Though racism has been and is

deployed to facilitate maximum accumulation,

racism can also exceed the desires of various

fractions of capital. Consider the overt racism

of the contemporary US Republican Party,

which is arguably counter to the desires of much

of multicultural corporate America (Melamed,

2011). Given the variability of racism to capit-

alism, I consider the production of difference

and value as the most fundamental point of con-

nection. Accordingly, this should be the starting

point for EJ analyses.

1 Producing difference and value

The centrality of value to capitalist production

is well-known. But there are multiple ways of

conceptualizing value, and by extension, differ-

ential value. Differential value refers to the pro-

duction of recognized differences that result in

distinct kinds of values. These differences in

value become critical in the accumulation of

surplus – both profits and power (Cacho,

2011; see also Gilmore, 2002). Just as uneven

space is essential to the unfolding of capitalism

(Harvey, 2001), human difference is essential to

the production of differential value.

Relationality is key to the production of dif-

ferential value (Cacho, 2012: 13). For example,

whiteness derives its meanings and value from

various forms of nonwhiteness, which Cacho

and Barrett call a kind of negativity. Negativity

is important because it ‘forms the ground of

possibilities for value’ (Barrett in Cacho,

2012: 13). While this is familiar terrain for crit-

ical human geographers (Anderson, 1987;

Kobayashi and Peake, 1994), it is rarely

reflected in empirical geographic work. Instead,

most of us examine racial outcomes without

considering racial production. Analyzing racial

production is not merely a theoretical exercise

however. Rather, it informs how a problem is

conceptualized, and thus shapes political strat-

egy. Indeed, focusing on a particular racial/eth-

nic group, rather than racial capitalism, per se,

may lead to improved conditions for some,

Pulido 527

while overlooking capitalism’s incessant need

to actively produce difference somewhere.

Capital can only be capital when it is accumulat-

ing, and it can only accumulate by producing and

moving through relations of severe inequality

among human groups – capitalists with the means

of production/workers without the means of sub-

sistence, creditors/debtors, conquerors of land

made property/the dispossessed and removed.

These antinomies of accumulation require loss,

disposability, and the unequal differentiation of

human value, and racism enshrines the inequal-

ities that capitalism requires. (Melamed, 2015:


By theorizing the racialized production of dif-

ferential value, racial capitalism illuminates not

only the inevitability of environmental injus-

tice, but the structural challenges facing


2 Operationalizing nonwhite devaluation

Theories of racial capitalism highlight how

racial difference is produced and how that rela-

tive valuation gets operationalized. This means

not only how ideas and practices of devaluation

circulate, but how they become institutiona-

lized, and the implications for the racially sub-

ordinate and dominant. There are many ways

racism can be harnessed by economic processes.

I will mention two that are widely-

acknowledged as manifestations of racial capit-

alism: land and labor.

Land is thoroughly saturated with racism.

There are at least two primary land processes

to consider: appropriation and access. Appro-

priation refers to the diverse ways that land was

taken from native people, as previously men-

tioned. Once land was severed from native peo-

ples and commodified, the question of access

arose, which is deeply racialized. Numerous

laws and practices reserved land ownership for

whites. Indeed some groups, such as Asians,

actually lost land they once owned (Ruiz,

2015; Curry, 1921).

Differential value is also produced and

extracted via racialized labor systems – black

chattel slavery being one of the most profound

examples. Smith (2012) asserts that slavery is

one of the key logics of white supremacy: the

ability to commodify human beings. Under-

standing slavery’s history and ballast enables

us to appreciate the extent to which devalued

black bodies, to paraphrase Ta-Nehisi Coates,

have financed both whiteness and the American

Dream (2015: 132), and I would add global

white supremacy (da Silva, 2007). Recent

research reveals the economic contributions of

slavery to the US economy and infrastructure,

as well as the extreme violence necessary to

maintain such a system (Baptist, 2014; Johnson,

2013; Wilder, 2013; for a critique, see Hudson,

2016). Upon slavery’s conclusion, numerous

legal and de jure forms of labor discrimination

and exploitation limited the life chances of non-

white workers while boosting the opportunities

and status of white ones (Roediger, 1991). Dual-

wage systems, racially-exclusive labor unions,

racialized divisions of labor, share-cropping,

and related practices ensured a vulnerable sup-

ply of low-wage workers (Barrera, 1979; Sax-

ton, 1995; Almaguer, 1994; Kelley, 1990;

Woods, 1998). Racialized economic policy has

amplified these effects, as seen in the 1935

National Labor Relations Act’s limited protec-

tions for occupations dominated by African

American, Mexican, and Asian workers. More

recently, Gilmore (2007) has shown how the

problem of surplus labor, which is disproportio-

nately nonwhite, has been ‘solved’ by the rise of

the prison industrial complex.

Just as labor arrangements and economic and

social policy are constituitive of economic for-

mations, so too are ecologies of resource extrac-

tion, processing, and disposal. Many EJ policies

and scholarship conceptualize both racism and

waste practices as externalities, rather than as

fundamental to the very fabric of racial capital-

ism. Yet if racism is continually creating differ-

ential value, it is only logical that capital (and

528 Progress in Human Geography 41(4)

other nondemocratic economic systems) would

incorporate this uneven geography of value into

its calculus. As Pellow has noted,

the production of social inequalities by race,

class, gender, and nation is not an aberration or

the result of market failures. Rather, it is evidence

of the normal, routine, functioning of capitalist

economies. Modern market economies are sup-

posed to produce social inequalities and environ-

mental inequalities. (2007: 17)

Industry and manufacturing require sinks –

places where pollution can be deposited. Sinks

typically are land, air, or water, but racially

devalued bodies can also function as ‘sinks’.

Taking this a step further, Moore (2015) has

argued that capitalism is a way of organizing

nature. Specifically, capitalism functions by

restructuring nature. And since humans are

nature, we must recognize that capitalism is

reproducing itself by restructuring humans on

a cellular level. This has nothing to do with

malicious intent (Pulido, 2000) and other lib-

eral conceptions of racism. Rather, this is cap-

ital acting upon a larger differential valuation

(Pellow, 2007), or, in the recent case of lead-

contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, the

neoliberal state, both of which are part of the

‘ecology of capitalism’ (Moore, 2015).

3 Environmental racism as state-sanctioned racial violence

This brings us to the state. If environmental

racism is part of racial capitalism, then its reg-

ulation becomes the province of the state. Kurtz

(2009) has observed that the racial state has

been overlooked by EJ scholars. Fortunately,

researchers have begun analyzing state pro-

grams and practices, showing how the state

needs to be problematized (Holifield, 2007;

Harrison, 2015; Konisky, 2015). Earlier I pre-

sented literature indicating that the state has not

seriously sought to intervene in the environmen-

tal racism gap. Indeed, the state is deeply

invested in not solving the environmental

racism gap because it would be too costly and

disruptive to industry, the larger political sys-

tem, and the state itself. Instead, the state has

developed numerous initiatives in which it goes

through the motions, or, ‘performs’ regulatory

activity, especially participation (London, Sze,

and Lievanos, 2008; Kohl, 2015), without pro-

ducing meaningful change. The problem is not a

lack of knowledge or skill, but a lack of political


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