Working at the intersection of geography and ethnic studies, Laura Pulido has researched issues around environmental justice, social movements, racial and class oppression, and radical tourism. Her early work has shown how white residents fled from Los Angeles to escape environmental hazards, putting others, particularly people of color, in harm’s way. More recently, she’s looked at how the regulatory noncompliance of one polluter (Exide Technologies), a battery recycling facility in Vernon, California, is a form of white supremacy. She’s also tried to understand how and why people participate in collective action and movements for social justice, in addition to writing on the importance of incorporating ethics into political practice.
We had the chance to speak with her about her work on environmental racism, her shift to calling attention to white supremacy as part of the racist dynamics shaping landscapes of environmental injustice in U.S. cities, and her latest project on the settler colonial histories of Los Angeles.
Heather Rosenfeld and Danya Al-Saleh: In your work, you have argued that there are different forms of racism, which lead to different urban geographies. One form of racism that you have emphasized, early in your work, is white privilege. How has white privilege shaped your thinking about environmental justice and environmental racism in cities?
Laura Pulido: Well, it has shaped my thinking in a big way. I think even before I had the language of white privilege, I was very frustrated about the way people were talking about environmental racism and justice, which I have talked about as “looking for the smoking gun” and trying to individualize it. The idea that if we could only find these bad apples, then we could just solve the problems. I thought that was not the way, for the most part, that environmental racism works and operates. White privilege is a structural approach, it argues against a discrete-action approach, and it allows us to think of racism as an ideology that is embedded in the landscape and economic systems. A lot of landscapes of environmental injustice are created through white privilege.
HR and DA: Yes, and also recently you published a piece in Progress in Human Geography where you revisit your earlier work on white privilege and highlight how more aggressive forms of racism, such as white supremacy, have been overlooked. What kinds of racist dynamics does the lens of white supremacy draw attention to that white privilege does not?
LP: There are two things I want to say to that. The first one is about the timing of the earlier article. The first article came out in 2000. This was a period of “colorblind politics.” The idea that we live in a post-racial world was becoming a dominant feature of US society, and so the space to talk about things like white supremacy had really constricted. I think that’s one of the reasons why white privilege became so popular. It allowed people to talk about racism without blaming any particular white people.
Having said that, the fact that it does take the onus off of white actors is problematic, right? That’s the privilege of white: you can be unaware of what’s happening. But if we take that too far and embrace white privilege too heavily, we have lost any sense of agency. Who is doing the action? There are people doing the action, right? That’s where I thought we really needed to talk about white supremacy, because we have moved too far in the other direction. Frankly, when white people are raising white privilege, there should be some discomfort, right? There should be some level of struggle because we are talking about serious forms of domination and injustice that should make all of us uncomfortable – not just white people, but other people too, who have certain kinds of investments in whiteness and white supremacy. And so, for example we could look to Chicana/o history and we could see different examples, in which the Mexican-origin population has tried to address its discrimination by investing in whiteness, by claiming that they are white. That is a clear example, to me, of white supremacy.
Those were some of the big concerns. I thought we [activists, scholars, and scholar-activists] needed to foreground, once again, questions of agency and action. Having said that, I remember very clearly in the 80s and 90s that white supremacy was very clearly linked to Klan territory. People could understand the link between white supremacy and the Ku Klux Klan. But anything short of the Klan did not register as white supremacy. White supremacy is really thinking about two different levels: the individual action or group action, as well as linking it to structural practices and structural features of the racial formation.
HR and DA: So, the concept of white supremacy allows you to talk more about these individual or group actions, in the context of structural issues and violence, more so than white privilege? Or are we misinterpreting?
LP: No, you’re not misinterpreting. In white privilege, one can talk about individual actions, but there is always a shadow of unawareness undergirding it. That’s one thing that separates white supremacy and white privilege: [with white supremacy,] you are aware of what’s going on. If you are aware, then how can that be a form of privilege? In the case I give in terms of Exide Technologies [a lead acid battery smelter in east central Los Angeles profiled in her Progress piece], I don’t think Exide’s primary objective is to contaminate people of color. They would rather not do that, I’m sure. But they’re not willing to abide by the law, or to pay the higher costs that would be involved, and [follow] the regulatory procedures to protect their neighbors, so they willfully engage in this kind of behavior.
HR and DA: White privilege is definitely a powerful way of explaining structural issues, but at the same time we could see it being co-opted by a “multicultural,” “diverse,” “post-racial” discourse. So when we read the white supremacy piece, we were thinking about the contemporary moment and the real need to recognize more aggressive forms of racism.
LP: I think the answer would have to be yes to that. Having said that, I think that sometimes when people do “inclusivity” training, white privilege can be a difficult thing, so I don’t want to pretend like it’s not, particularly for people who are invested in developing an anti-racist consciousness. It is an important process, which can be difficult and painful.
For many years I have been very critical of the whole diversity, political-correctness kind of thing. Had you asked me this a year ago, I would have been much more dismissive of it. Now we’re at this particular moment [the 2016 presidential primary] when very overt forms of racism are being articulated and enabled and I have a new appreciation for it in terms of keeping certain people in check. Keeping people in check results in other people not getting hurt, and killed, and violated, and harmed.
I don’t think I’ve fully appreciated, as a radical scholar, the work that a multicultural discourse actually performed. And I didn’t appreciate it until I saw the opposite.
LP: Right, so this next project is called Sangre en La Tierra, which means Blood in the Soil and it is an attempt to develop a methodology to encourage cities to grapple with their histories and geographies of foundational racial violence. Most cities, certainly in the United States, are based on histories of foundational violence, but we go to extremes to erase and forget about that. I think that if we were to actually move towards racial justice in the United States, one of the first steps would be truth and honesty.
It’s a very geographic project in that I am trying to use place and landscapes as vehicles for people to access that history—kind of like portholes to the past. This is challenging in a place like Los Angeles, because the physical city is built on top of the erasure of Native and Mexican settlement. In terms of the actual ideology of the city, this is the land of Hollywood, amusement parks, and beaches. This is the land where you come to reinvent yourself, so LA has a very deep investment in forgetting, in deliberate erasure. I want to try to find those places within the city that might lead us to reconnect to that past. That’s hard when you have paved over 5000 square miles. But there are these places and pockets where it can still be done. I am interested in those places and their meaning and their role in the landscape and how we can harness them as vehicles for a larger awareness of the histories and geographies of our places and cities.
Danya Al-Saleh is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at the UW-Madison, working on globalized higher education and urbanization with an area focus on the Arabian Peninsula. Her dissertation research will focus on Education City in Doha, Qatar, a physical and administrative campus composed of six US branch universities. Contact.
Heather Rosenfeld is a geography graduate student at UW-Madison. Her research interests include human-nonhuman relations, alternative economies, technology and environmental justice, and feminism in the academy. She is currently working on a dissertation on farm animal sanctuaries, focusing primarily on chickens. She makes comics as part of her research process, and for fun. Twitter. Contact.