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Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States

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Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene. When Joe Biden attempted to compliment Barack Obama by calling him "clean and articulate," he unwittingly tapped into one of the most destructive racial stereotypes in American history. This book tells the history of the corrosive idea that whites are Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene. When Joe Biden attempted to compliment Barack Obama by calling him "clean and articulate," he unwittingly tapped into one of the most destructive racial stereotypes in American history. This book tells the history of the corrosive idea that whites are clean and those who are not white are dirty. From the age of Thomas Jefferson to the Memphis Public Workers strike of 1968 through the present day, ideas about race and waste have shaped where people have lived, where people have worked, and how American society's wastes have been managed. In the wake of the civil war, as the nation encountered emancipation, mass immigration, and the growth of an urbanized society, Americans began to conflate the ideas of race and waste. Certain immigrant groups took on waste management labor, such as Jews and scrap metal recycling, fostering connections between the socially marginalized and refuse. Ethnic "purity" was tied to pure cleanliness, and hygiene became a central aspect of white identity. Carl A. Zimring here draws on historical evidence from statesmen, scholars, sanitarians, novelists, activists, advertisements, and the United States Census of Population to reveal changing constructions of environmental racism. The material consequences of these attitudes endured and expanded through the twentieth century, shaping waste management systems and environmental inequalities that endure into the twenty-first century. Today, the bigoted idea that non-whites are "dirty" remains deeply ingrained in the national psyche, continuing to shape social and environmental inequalities in the age of Obama.


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Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene. When Joe Biden attempted to compliment Barack Obama by calling him "clean and articulate," he unwittingly tapped into one of the most destructive racial stereotypes in American history. This book tells the history of the corrosive idea that whites are Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene. When Joe Biden attempted to compliment Barack Obama by calling him "clean and articulate," he unwittingly tapped into one of the most destructive racial stereotypes in American history. This book tells the history of the corrosive idea that whites are clean and those who are not white are dirty. From the age of Thomas Jefferson to the Memphis Public Workers strike of 1968 through the present day, ideas about race and waste have shaped where people have lived, where people have worked, and how American society's wastes have been managed. In the wake of the civil war, as the nation encountered emancipation, mass immigration, and the growth of an urbanized society, Americans began to conflate the ideas of race and waste. Certain immigrant groups took on waste management labor, such as Jews and scrap metal recycling, fostering connections between the socially marginalized and refuse. Ethnic "purity" was tied to pure cleanliness, and hygiene became a central aspect of white identity. Carl A. Zimring here draws on historical evidence from statesmen, scholars, sanitarians, novelists, activists, advertisements, and the United States Census of Population to reveal changing constructions of environmental racism. The material consequences of these attitudes endured and expanded through the twentieth century, shaping waste management systems and environmental inequalities that endure into the twenty-first century. Today, the bigoted idea that non-whites are "dirty" remains deeply ingrained in the national psyche, continuing to shape social and environmental inequalities in the age of Obama.

30 review for Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tressie

    Sharply written. This book works on several levels. It is a good, tight summation of the formation of racialization in the U.S. (and, by extension, the global racial hierarchy). It also provides a really interesting cultural history of waste management, beginning with how race and class become conflated with ideas of clean and dirty. How we control dirt, or "misplaced matter", is partly due to how we have imbued these ideas with peoples, histories, and race. Nice interpretation of environmental Sharply written. This book works on several levels. It is a good, tight summation of the formation of racialization in the U.S. (and, by extension, the global racial hierarchy). It also provides a really interesting cultural history of waste management, beginning with how race and class become conflated with ideas of clean and dirty. How we control dirt, or "misplaced matter", is partly due to how we have imbued these ideas with peoples, histories, and race. Nice interpretation of environmental racism.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Claire

    As I read through Carl Zimring's Clean and White, it took me several chapters to figure out what exactly his book is about. The story eventually reveals that Zimring is interested in how racial roles became associated and disassociated with environmental conditions in cities, specifically waste management. This made the chapter on Thomas Jefferson at the beginning quite confusing - was this Zimring's attempt to trace the origins of dirtiness being conflated with race? If so the first half or eve As I read through Carl Zimring's Clean and White, it took me several chapters to figure out what exactly his book is about. The story eventually reveals that Zimring is interested in how racial roles became associated and disassociated with environmental conditions in cities, specifically waste management. This made the chapter on Thomas Jefferson at the beginning quite confusing - was this Zimring's attempt to trace the origins of dirtiness being conflated with race? If so the first half or even first 3/4 of the book offered nothing particularly enlightening that hasn't been argued or explained by other authors before. Further, the information did not generate an in-depth discussion of the links between dirtiness and race. It felt as if Zimring was only scratching the surface. Only during the last chapters and the sanitation strike does the book seem to take a more refreshing turn, and Zimring's work begs for another book written about race and what he labels the Environmental Justice movement of the 1970s-1980s. Too much of the argument here is implicit and too much of the history is summation of what has come before. While an interesting topic, Clean and White fails to deliver on its promise.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Becca

    I don't know if I read this for fun or if i read it for class but I had a good time I don't know if I read this for fun or if i read it for class but I had a good time

  4. 4 out of 5

    Eriche

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. DNF lost me at the diatribe/homage to child trafficker Thomas Jefferson’s opinions on race. He did not “carry on a relationship” with a 14 year old who could not consent for several reasons. Other people have done this topic more justice.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Lizzie

    This is an important contribution to the field of environmental literature. It clearly establishes - using data and case studies - the clear link between non-white people being considered dirty, the creation of whiteness as clean and pure, and the the environmental movement largely being led by whites. It definitively showcases how racism was behind so many of the supposedly environmental changes in our history, and how advances were structured to benefit whites. The book is really a detailed tr This is an important contribution to the field of environmental literature. It clearly establishes - using data and case studies - the clear link between non-white people being considered dirty, the creation of whiteness as clean and pure, and the the environmental movement largely being led by whites. It definitively showcases how racism was behind so many of the supposedly environmental changes in our history, and how advances were structured to benefit whites. The book is really a detailed treatment of racism in America, viewed through an environmental lens. Also, it can be very repetitive. The main premise (blackness was equated with uncleanliness/whiteness was considered clean and pure) is well taken, but is repeated endlessly throughout various chapters ad nauseam. I found some of the anecdotes and tidbits about history to be the most interesting. There was a fascinating section on scrap labor and another with illustrations of old racist soap ads. I actually wanted more about the start of the modern environmental movement and how it was so whitewashed. He does an excellent job talking about the origins of the Memphis Sanitation Workers strike and how MLK came to be involved. I loved that section. But I wanted a little more about climate change work. It's a comprehensive book, starting with Thomas Jefferson and his initial correlation of rural life with cleanliness and urban cities with being dirty. It moves through issues of sanitation and hygiene in the age of slavery and after the Civil War. It covers the progressive era and how sanitation and hygiene began to evolve as immigrant populations grew. It even covers red lining and how zoning was used to create clean suburbs for white folks. The epilogue takes us through Obama. All in all, it has some great content. I think I would have preferred to read a long article about it rather than a book length treatment.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Serge

    Fascinating book that weaves insights from anthropology such as Purity and a Danger by Mary Douglas with in depth historical analysis of antebellum sentiment and its modern counterpart in the sanitarian movement. The book is not about environmental justice in the terms typically bandied by progressives. It is an intellectual and social history that links the Greek notion of miasma to racial prejudices tied to fear of miscegenation and the pollution of the race. I discussed the first two sections Fascinating book that weaves insights from anthropology such as Purity and a Danger by Mary Douglas with in depth historical analysis of antebellum sentiment and its modern counterpart in the sanitarian movement. The book is not about environmental justice in the terms typically bandied by progressives. It is an intellectual and social history that links the Greek notion of miasma to racial prejudices tied to fear of miscegenation and the pollution of the race. I discussed the first two sections of the book with one of our student clubs and there is interest in pairing a reading of this book to a class outing to see Parasite. Pollution as the stench of the poor captures our contemporary prejudices. The best parts of the book are the nuanced examination of the writings of Thomas Jefferson and the analysis of the sanitation strike in Memphis that precipitated Dr. King’s fateful visit to the city.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Grace

    A lot of insightful (and troubling) content, but I felt like the title was broader than the scope of the book, some of the analysis was reaching, and the conclusion was shallower than I would have hoped for.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Amy Block

    The topic of this book is incredibly important, but I was a bit underwhelmed by the book itself. For what should be such an enraging and shocking topic (that environmental injustice is real and rampant), I didn’t find myself feeling much fire in my belly while reading this. It’s possible that I’m jaded on the topic because I’m an earth scientist who is passionate about DEI issues, and I already realized a lot of these environmental injustices are going on? I guess I just expected this book to be The topic of this book is incredibly important, but I was a bit underwhelmed by the book itself. For what should be such an enraging and shocking topic (that environmental injustice is real and rampant), I didn’t find myself feeling much fire in my belly while reading this. It’s possible that I’m jaded on the topic because I’m an earth scientist who is passionate about DEI issues, and I already realized a lot of these environmental injustices are going on? I guess I just expected this book to be a bit less of a historical investigation of racism (though that’s an important topic) and waste removal (though that was fascinating, and I learned a lot about the creation of the waste industry in America), and instead more of an in-depth analysis of modern-day and historical examples/case-studies of injustice that would make your skin crawl. The book started to pick up steam the last few chapters, I thought, as we moved toward the modern day. All that said, the book taught me a lot about the history of association between race and cleanliness. And when I really think about it, I hadn’t previously made the connection that “most toxic waste dumps are in black neighborhoods because we have a CENTURIES-long history of associating BIPOC individuals with dirt and waste.” I knew we put dumps in marginalized neighborhoods because we as a society don’t value BIPOC lives as much (and BIPOC neighborhoods don’t take in the taxes like white neighborhoods do), but I never went so far as to examine that America has historically actually correlated race and uncleanliness. For that perspective, this book was worth the read.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Louisa

    The first part of the book, dealing with Jefferson to the Civil War, reads more like an overview of general American history with a few notes on dirt thrown in than an environmental history. By the time we hit Part Two, though, Zimring is on a roll. I was fascinated by sewage and sanitation -not my usual topics of interest. A great introduction to environmental racism, as well.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Sam

    Definitely not what I’d call a “fun read” - had to mentally push through it and felt like I was back in school - but SO full of knowledge and insight. Definitely worth it, just be prepared for a textbook feel

  11. 5 out of 5

    Danielle

    Reads like a textbook. After 50 pages, the author hadn’t gotten into any topics of environmental issues of the modern era, since the book starts 3 centuries ago.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Edward Gray

    A great book that add color to environmental racism . There is racism that exists in America that is based on beliefs of inferiority of people of color.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Betsy Peterson

    Great insights on the intersection of history of race and waste in the country. A little repetitive but would highly recommend for those unfamiliar with this topic/issue.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Maggie Moore

    Meh. Spoke in circles. Idolized Thomas Jefferson, a racist rapist. Good information but not much I hadn’t heard before. I would recommend something else to someone interested in this topic.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Beetle The Bard

    I don't rate non-fiction, simply because I do not know how. It was informative and well written. I don't rate non-fiction, simply because I do not know how. It was informative and well written.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Pamela

    This book reads like a history textbook, but that kind of thing doesn't bother me. I know that doesn't jive with many people. While some of the thoughts seemed scattered, overall, I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it. This book reads like a history textbook, but that kind of thing doesn't bother me. I know that doesn't jive with many people. While some of the thoughts seemed scattered, overall, I enjoyed this book and learned a lot from it.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Julie

    This is an accessible work of non-fiction about the history of modern sanitation and waste management in the US. At the same time it talks about how ideas cleanliness and white identity overlapped and how minorities have historically performed the dirty jobs that make modern levels of hygiene possible. Bottom line: This is an interesting book about how race, economics and sanitation are intertwined in America.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Chris

  19. 4 out of 5

    Ross Hoffman

  20. 5 out of 5

    Maggie Thompson

  21. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy Falletta

  22. 4 out of 5

    Cheriecrosby

  23. 4 out of 5

    Tj

  24. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer Butler

  25. 4 out of 5

    Amanda Johnson

  26. 5 out of 5

    Hannah

  27. 4 out of 5

    Rigby Philips

  28. 4 out of 5

    Victoria J

  29. 4 out of 5

    Auroni

  30. 5 out of 5

    Brook

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