GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

Pulido "Rethinking Environmental Racism"


Laura Pulido. (2000). Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California. Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 90(1): 12-40.

What do you think when you hear the word racism?
That is "what bad people do because they are bad"?
If so, this article calls for a change of perspective and introduces a concept of structural racism.

The article, our final reading for this week, is an article that has had a transformative impact on how geographers approach the spatial dimensions of inequality and injustice. This article, published in the flagship academic journal in American geography, explores different ways of understanding environmental racism, and emphasizes "white privilege" as a particularly influential form of racism that has shaped urban and suburban development in the United States.

Pulido's groundbreaking contribution to geography (and environmental justice studies) in this article is that she combines the mapping of racial demographics and siting of toxic facilities with spatial renderings of suburbanization and white flight to produce a more complex understanding of environmental racism as an ongoing process.

Those of you who have not read a lot of geographic scholarship before may need to work through this reading with extra care. Please take the time to look up terms with which you are unfamiliar, and read to find Pulido's central arguments about how racism works.

The following terms are particularly important. Remember, your first job is to understand how Pulido is defining these concepts and using them in her analysis, and your second job is to think about how her arguments differ or agree with the other assigned materials, popular media, and your own perspective.

  • Structural racism (hint: this is different from individual racist prejudice, the idea that an individual holds racist beliefs. Click here for an article on social structure for a brief introduction to the concept of social structures). From the week's introduction, remember that Pulido is analyzing racial and class inequality at a structural level, instead of at the level of individual people. This means that they are NOT focused on the kind of racism that manifests as one individual hating and intentionally discriminating against another person because of her race.
  • White privilege (hint: this does not mean that all white people live in luxury or do not suffer hardship).
  • Spatial scale and its importance to analyzing how risks, benefits, and opportunity are unevenly distributed across the urban landscape.
2 images-malicious intent:a guy throwing balls @ a disabled man&Structural discrimination:2 men using sinks, 1 struggles b/c of wheelchair
The difference between "malicious intent" discrimination and "structural" discrimination.

The key difference between the two pictures is the presence/absence of "the bad guy" as we would typically think.

It seems unfair to label the able-bodied person in the right picture as "the bad guy" in the right-hand side picture. But it is also clear that the right-hand side picture is not a desirable situation and a struggle is clearly present for the handicapped person that he wouldn't have to undergo if he were without the handicap.

It can be helpful that Pulido's concept of racism does NOT seek to label the able-bodied person (the white) bad and start a blame game, but it seeks to address and correct a situation or structure where a specific group(e.g. black people, the handicapped) of people are receiving disadvantage that other people don't. In short, the point of Pulido's argument is to address and eradicate "racism without racist".

As you read, consider the following questions:

  • What is the difference between racism as "malicious intent" and "structural" racism? How does individual responsibility factor into the different forms of racism?
  • Pulido focuses on the history of industry siting and suburbanization in southern California. Can you think of similar patterns of spatial clusters where you live?
  • How do the perspectives of scholars discussed in this article help you think about the processes that shape human use of the environment?
  • What are the dangers of ignoring race and other forms of inequality in human-environment analyses, and in efforts to improve environmental conditions?
  • What changes in policy and research does Pulido call for? Can you think of others that would support environmental justice?