Redlining in Cities and Environmentalism
Redlining was a deliberate policy in the 1930s that prevented Black and other People of Color (POC) from becoming homeowners and excluded these groups from living in suburbs. The term describes how banks would systematically avoid giving loans to areas based on demographics. Additionally, “Federal Housing Administration, which was established in 1934, furthered the segregation efforts by refusing to insure mortgages in and near African-American neighborhoods” (Gross, 2017). Through these discriminatory practices, Black people and POC were effectively barred from building intergenerational wealth through homeownership (Pfeffer and Killewald, 2019). Because of this state sanctioned discrimination, these communities were deprived of investments and thereby have suffered from devaluation and denied credit. Emily Badger of the New York Times investigated the continued issues of home devaluation and level of discrimination and discovered that they occured in the same areas that were previously redlined.
This brings me to consider the many other ways, beyond financially, previously redlined communities are disadvantaged. This inquiry reminded me of a lab done in ENVS 220 in which we used ArcGIS to investigate hotspots of air pollution in the Portland area. Through this lab investigation we discovered that air pollutant dense areas coincided with communities of color, correlating higher levels of certain air pollutants with neighborhoods with POC. I value these types of investigation because roots of "Environment" is a word so embedded in environmental discourse and scholarship that it has effectively disappeared. We all know what the environment is—or do we? And what do our unexamined assumptions about environment mean for how we approach environmental issues? A careful examination of the word might lead us to... More activism have often focused on saving “nature” and wild spaces from industrialization. This focus on conservation removes industrialized spaces from concern and further ignores long standing issues of environmental degradation within cities such as pollutant dense areas, lack of greenspaces, temperature hot spots, proximity to polluting sources, and many more. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) have always been left behind by white dominated activism. An example of this is John Muir, someone who is considered the father of national parks and is the founder of the Sierra Club, a very well known self described environmentalist organization, held incredibly racist views.
I would leave Muir’s name on things but explain that, as hard as it may be to accept, it is not just Muir who was racist. The way we created the wilderness areas we now rightly prize was racistFox, 2020
As a person of color I have personally experienced this sense of exclusion in outdoor spaces, such as backpacking communities. As someone who has always been passionate about outdoor spaces it was incredibly discouraging to find that the environmental movement has always ignored BIPOC issues. The examples are endless, but I do not wish to focus on the past but rather work towards an inclusive future that acknowledges the exploitation of BIPOC and how these communities feel impacts caused by pollutants or climate change at a disproportionate rate and work towards an intersectional form of environmental studies. This is why I have personal investment in my area of interest, I am passionate about including BIPOC narratives and deconstructing the idea that issues of the environment are white issues as well as the separation of urban spaces and the “environment”. Thereby shifting the focus from what we consider to be wilderness or nature towards understanding that urban settings should be integral to environmental studies.
Exploring Redlining and its Effects
My area of interest is built on the acknowledgement that the legacy of redlining very much affects communities to this day. I focus my attention on the nuances of how this impactful legacy shows itself in environmental racism especially exploring in what ways has policy and or disinvestment exacerbated issues of environmental racism within communities that have previously been labelled “red areas” in the 30’s. To do this one has to question levels of political power and who has access to it. Laura Pulido explores this political privilege held by white communities with her case study of Los Angeles in which she explains the ways in which White privilege has knowingly and unknowingly shaped the city. A significant aspect of this is the ways in which White occupied communities have historically been invested in by local policies than BIPOC communities as well as the greater political power White people hold which can influence policies to this day. The results of this privilege or lack thereof has created a situation where Hispanic communities are more exposed to uncontrolled toxic waste sites whereas White communities are significantly less exposed. With little surprise, these areas with high numbers of uncontrolled toxic waste sites align with previously redlined areas.
While I have made the connection between redlined areas of LA and the density of toxic waste sites, it is also important to consider why policies have continued to uphold redlining legacy. This brings back Pulido’s discussion of privilege and political power which connects with issues of economic decisions and who has a voice in them. This brings me to a key question;
Which actors, whether governmental or individual, significantly contribute to upholding and continuing marginalization of BIPOC communities?
This question brings me to explore the incredibly complicated web of concepts and actors that are involved in the housing decisions, such as redlining, made in the 30’s, the way decisions and interactions have been influenced by redlining beyond the 30’s, and how all of those actors and decisions affect housing quality of BIPOC today as well as how contemporary actors are upholding and expanding issues of environmental racism within BIPOC neighborhoods.
What Led Me Here and How to Continue
Looking back on my initial concentration proposal all the way back in ENVS 220, which pertained to international ocean politics, I realized that over the subsequent semester that my area of interest has substantially transformed since my sophomore year. This realization had me feeling quite lost in what to focus my area of interest on which will eventually bloom into my capstone. To orient myself I considered the courses that have drawn my attention and I found myself most engaged with, this led me to identifying my new concentration.
Environmental economics, ECON 260, emphasized the political and financial economy of environmental racism. Through this class I had gained an understanding of the levels of political power and estimations of value that can influence policy decisions. These considerations of political power and valuation of people, property, and physical environments were undoubtedly significant when redlining policies were instituted. Using the framework I gathered from ECON 260 I can not only investigate the social factors that went into redlining policy but also the significance of economics and how that influenced decisions.
Taken in the same semester as environmental econ was SOAN 249, or political economy of food. While all of the content within this class was incredibly engaging, I found myself particularly interested in the dynamics of food deserts and how many areas are secluded from food supply chains that would provide nutrient dense options. Intrigued by this particular disparity I used the opportunity to dedicate my research paper on the subject. Through this investigation I had come to understand that the root of these food deserts are a result of infrastructure divestment that made supply chains of nutrient dense or what some consider healthy food. Tying this with what I now know, I am very much interested to see the level correlation of food deserts and “red zones”. With those two classes, that particular semester expanded my understanding of systemic inequalities and the ways in which they occur teaching me that many forms of inequality are incredibly subversive.
With this new perspective, I found myself gravitating towards this subject of the effects of subversive inequalities. From this point I understood that my area of interest or concentration was in the realm of environmental injustice and racism, however that is an incredibly broad topic and needed to be focused. In congruence with ENVS 350, environmental theory, this semester I have widened my usual perspective and took SOAN335, the political economy of housing. Within this class, so far, I have a greater understanding of and also horrified by the many ways inequality has always and continues to shape the American housing market. This class provides me the focus in which I can utilize my experiences from other relevant courses and apply them to the context of inequity within housing and how that contributes to issues of environmental injustice. Despite narrowing this focus, the subject of exposure to unhealthy or toxic environments due to housing inequity is still expansive and requires further situating. Looking forward towards my perspective capstone, I am still indecisive about where to pinpoint. However, next steps will situate my area of interest to a specific location, Portland being an option, as well possibly discussing a singular aspect of how BIPOC communities are affected, for example exposure to toxic waste as Pulido discussed.
Beyond my capstone, which admittedly feels like the most important thing in my life at the moment, I look forward to furthering my understanding of the ways BIPOC are impacted by environmental racism and using this knowledge to advocate and create solutions for affected communities.
Badger, Emily. 2017. “How Redlining’s Racist Effects Lasted for Decades.” August 24. https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/24/upshot/how-redlinings-racist-effects-lasted-for-decades.html.
“A Fierce Green Fire.” 2020. PBS. Public Broadcasting Service. February 11. https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/a-fierce-green-fire-timeline-of-environmental-movement/2988/.
Fox, Alex. 2020. “Sierra Club Grapples With Founder John Muir’s Racism.” July 24. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/sierra-club-grapples-founder-john-muirs-racism-180975404/.
Gross, Terry. 2017. “A ‘Forgotten History’ Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America.” NPR. NPR. May 3. https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america.
Pfeffer, Fabian T., and Alexandra Killewald. 2019. “Intergenerational Wealth Mobility and Racial Inequality.” Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World 5 (March): 237802311983179. doi:10.1177/2378023119831799.
Pulido, Laura. 2010. “Rethinking Environmental Racism: White Privilege and Urban Development in Southern California.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 90 (1): 12–40. doi:10.1111/0004-5608.00182.