Doing Environmental Studies During Times of Racialized Violence

environmental justice and radicalized violence

In the last few weeks, two grand juries declined to indict the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner. We, as scholars in the humanities and social sciences who are committed to environmental justice, cannot stay silent.

But what do any of us have to say?

Contextualizing the mobilization in Ferguson since August 9, 2014, Lisa Miller, a political scientist at Rutgers University, argues that Michael Brown’s killing, “should also prompt us to see the link between police violence and other deeply racialized deadly risks in American society that emerge from the same set of socio-political factors.” Miller refuses to understand these deaths at the hands of law enforcement as aberrant abuses of power. Rather, she aptly refers to these events as “racialized state failure” in which black Americans are disproportionately exposed to the risk of state violence.

Understanding these killings in terms of exposure and risk immediately resonates with the vocabulary of environmental justice. The environmental justice movement, born in the 1970s and 1980s, emphasized questions of the racialized and uneven exposure to urban environmental health hazards and risks.  As a social movement and a theoretical framework, environmental justice makes tangible the deep-seated structural issues of racism in American life.

Now more than ever, as claims of a post-racial society assert the decreasing importance of race in American life, it is imperative to recognize environmental racism and its history of structural violence. By the same token, a sustained response to the instances of anti-black state violence in Ferguson, New York City, and across the country must speak to the multifaceted condition of being black in America: in short, the response must be at once economic, social, political, and environmental.

Already, many of our colleagues across the social sciences and humanities are speaking out. But there has not been a prominent scholarly contribution from the environmental humanities and social sciences that connects race, urban environments, and state violence.

What would such a contribution look like?

Members of the Center for Culture, History and Environment frequently engage with issues of environmental justice around race, exposure, and risk. Parsing these differential exposures and risks is difficult because they occur slowly, over large time frames—a process that Rob Nixon has called slow violence. Scholarship that uses slow violence, as both a concept and a call to action,  makes visible the incremental but inextricable forms of violence against peoples and ecosystems. Reading the Brown and Garner killings and their histories in terms of slow violence establishes important connections for how these killings can be protested, responded to, and narrated as a call for sustained action.

“I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” Michael Brown’s last words. Image by journalist and filmmaker Shirin Barghi.

Eric Garner, who suffered from asthma, died in a police officer’s chokehold, screaming, “I can’t breathe.” These horrifying last words have been transformed into a protest chant across the United States. But they must also be historicized, attuned to both slow violence and recent acts of police violence. Before Eric Garner was exposed to the act of state violence that killed him, he was caught up in what Gregg Mitman calls an “ecology of injustice that structures urban life.” In New York City’s ecology of injustice, “asthma disproportionately affects people of color living in impoverished inner-city communities.” These disproportionate rates of suffering are a result of differential exposure to health risks, such as living close to bus depots, polluting industries, cockroach allergens, and pesticides.

Rather than claiming a direct connection between, say, asthma and police brutality, we are recruiting concepts such as slow violence and ecologies of injustice to unpack the complexity of the events surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other victims of racialized state violence. Moreover, it connects the recent killing to a broader history of unjust urban ecologies that expose some people to risk more than others. The environment thus becomes not a marginal concern, but a central issue in understanding risk and exposure in the struggle for justice.

Admittedly, it is hard to know where to go from here. There are many forms of silence, and varied reasons for not speaking, some of which include uncertainty and caution. But the terms we have identified–ecology, complexity, scale, violence, history, risk, exposure–resonate broadly beyond environmental studies to address the current moment.

One could imagine a world in which a victim’s history of asthma and environmental exposure was used to exonerate an act of police brutality. Without mobilizing these critical concepts in environmental studies, our work can be made complicit in perpetuating anti-black state violence.

Featured image by journalist and filmmaker Shirin Barghi.

Danya Al-Saleh is a PhD student in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, working on globalized higher education, urbanization, and subjectivity 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 U.S. branch universities. Contact.

Mohammed Rafi Arefin is a PhD Student in the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research interests include urban geography, waste, psychoanalytic geography, and development. He explores these interests in projects on the relationship between garbage, culture, power, and politics. His work has taken him to Cairo to examine the politics of garbage in the January 25 Revolution. Other projects include work on representations of hoarding and hazardous waste. Contact.

7 Responses

  1. Jason says:

    This is a timely, and much needed, post. It would be great to see more research about the intersection of these issues – there is a dearth of discussion concerning the connection between environmental and social violence, prejudice, and hegemony.

  2. “Now more than ever, as claims of a post-racial society assert the decreasing importance of race in American life, it is imperative to recognize environmental racism and its history of structural violence. By the same token, a sustained response to the instances of anti-black state violence in Ferguson, New York City, and across the country must speak to the multifaceted condition of being black in America: in short, the response must be at once economic, social, political, and environmental.”

    Indeed. Plus, the more we scratch and sniff into this reality, we learn how all these seemingly separate disciplines come together under one net. I also like the concept of slow violence – incremental, sustained and deadly – to human beings and the planet. When we look at ecological processes, as far as habitat sustainability, and all beings living inter-connectedly to thrive within those habitats – racism, violence, sexism, etc. become deep ecological concerns that threaten communal (habitat) livelihood.

    Important discussion here.

  3. Joe says:

    Wow, nice connections drawn here with a novel application of environmental humanities framework. I’ve been searching for new ways to historicize racism in light of these recent police murders, and refracting this through risk and exposure, and “slow violence”, looks like a promising direction in this regard. While the environmental conditions of urban poverty (i.e. higher asthma rates due to relegation of poor black people to unhealthy living environments) are undoubtedly connected, it would be really interesting to push this for example, by examining how the unhealthy environment of urban poor, which originated from racist zoning policies, further fuels racism when police, politicians, and gentrifiers discriminate against people BECAUSE OF their living conditions, creating a dialectical relationship between racism and geography. In other words, more, please!

  4. Terry says:

    I want to echo Joe — more, please — and offer this comment: when has there not been a time of racialized violence in the U.S.? It’s never been gone and so far has never gone away.

  5. Zoe says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful and articulate piece.

    I integrated discussions of how imbalanced policing has not been well presented in context by most, into my political ecology class last term. I’ll integrate this piece and others into my upcoming environmental justice class.

    Thank you!

  6. Just to keep this conversation going: A new story in the Washington Post reveals Freddie Gray had elevated blood lead as a child and was part of a subsequent lead lawsuit. http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/freddie-grays-life-a-study-in-the-sad-effects-of-lead-paint-on-poor-blacks/2015/04/29/0be898e6-eea8-11e4-8abc-d6aa3bad79dd_story.html?postshare=7371430496766479

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