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Environmental justice in the United States : reconstructing "race" and "nature" Hall, Katherine

Abstract

Why were people of color largely absent in the participation of environmental organizations until the formation of the environmental justice movement? Until the 1980s, environmental groups in the United States remained relatively homogeneous along racial lines. With the emergence of the environmental justice movement spearheaded and mobilized by people of color, environmentalism was redefined as a civil rights issue. Today, there is a high degree of participation by people of color within environmental justice groups yet, there remains a lack of participation by people of color in mainstream American environmental groups. Few scholars have attempted to analyze the factors leading up to the extreme variation in racial participation of environmental organizations. This thesis attributes the extreme variation to the "differing priorities hypothesis." I theorize that alternate priorities amongst environmental groups resonate differently along racial lines. Mainstream environmental groups focus largely on priorities based on "environmental positives" such as conserving aesthetic beauty, recreation, and preservation for future generations. Alternately, environmental justice groups mobilize around defeating immediate "environmental negatives" in their communities such as toxic dumps, health threats, and polluting industries. Environmental justice definitions of environmentalism appear to resonate with the more pressing concerns of racial minorities as a result of the past and present racial inequality and de.facto segregation still persistent in the United States. This analysis significantly contributes to social constructivism arguments about "race" and "nature" by showing how the environmental justice movement reconstructed "environment" beyond wilderness to where people "live, work and play" while simultaneously countering the racist stereotype that people of color are not interested in environmental issues. The implications of contrasting the Sierra Club founding with the environmental justice founding in Warren County, North Carolina reveals that environmental decisions about what and who is protected are always political just as the concept of nature is never ahistorical. I argue that the homogonous portrayal of environmentalism and denial of the obvious differences between environmental priorities reifies white privilege consistent amongst mainstream society and acts as a barrier for the creation of a serious environmental movement capable of resonating with broader segments of the American population.

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