I grew up in a working class household with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who started working on the family farm when he was a small boy. My late father spent much of his working life in construction work, operating heavy machinery. He also supervised several county landfills. Well into his seventies, he could still work rings around men decades younger. He used to say that he didn’t trust a man who claimed to work, but wasn’t dirty by the end of the day. Like a little boy, he loved getting dirty, and the dirtier, the better. Dirty work was honest work.
Like my late father, Zimring, an associate professor of Sustainability Studies in the Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute, has a keen interest in dirt and trash. He has written another book on trash and recycling, and is the general editor of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage. Clearly dirt, trash and waste are important to Zimring. In Clean and White shows us that a lot can be said about the social impact of trash and waste.
Zimring reminds us early in the book that waste–like race–is a social construct. Essential questions concern who handles waste and how. He takes the reader back to the age of Thomas Jefferson who was presiding over an increasingly industrial and urban country in which decisions had to be made about how to handle waste and garbage. Clean and White details how the Revolution and Enlightenment movements faded as the revolutionary generation died; there was less emphasis on equality at all levels, and waste was impacted by that.
In the first two decades of the nineteenth century, immigration exploded, and land became more scarce and expensive. President Jefferson authorized an expedition by Merriweather Lewis and William Clark, and charged them with mapping out newly acquired land, studying the cultural and physical natures of the northwest, and staking a claim to the area before Britain, France or Spain could do so. Their discoveries helped him decide to make the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the new nation. The expansion had two dire consequences, though; it allowed the institution of slavery to expand westward, and it began the urbanization process in America. Urbanization brought even more waste and trash.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, a defeated south had nothing but its whiteness left. White supremacy became codified, and dirt and waste were increasingly racialized. The color white signified not only purity, but high moral standards. Miscegenation, a long standing problem in the south, especially during slavery, begin to be seen as not only diluting the white race, but as a kind of pollution and a perversion of the public health. It became of paramount importance to whites that sharing public spaces with blacks and participating in intimate activities such as eating, swimming, and bathing, be rigidly separated. Thus everything good was associated with white skin, and everything bad, with black skin. This also included waste and garbage.
The later part of the nineteenth century was another era during which immigration to the U. S. exploded. Even though native born whites shared with these immigrants white skin, they were not necessarily considered to be or accepted as white. Immigrants, along with the poor of both colors, were relegated to marginal neighborhoods with substandard housing, and existed cheek by jowl with human and animal waste and the garbage generated in large cities. It was not until about 1870 that sewer and water treatments were developed to begin to take care of the massive problem of waste in America’s cities. Also at this time, European and Asian immigrants and African Americans became almost solely responsible for handling dirt and waste. White ethnics saw opportunity in doing so. It allowed them to make the collection of waste and garbage profitable–by the late nineteenth century Jews had monopolized the junk business–and ascend the social-economic ladder and ultimately claim whiteness.
Zimring takes the reader through populism, urban decay, and the formation of ghettoes. The role of so called scientific movements such as eugenics, the consumer economy, and the 1930s emphasis on cleanliness in everything from laundry to breath, are given a fine treatment in explaining how race and poverty are connected to the environment and racism.
Zimring also discusses something that many people have forgotten. Martin Luther King, Jr. was in Memphis, Tennessee in support of striking black garbage workers. Relegated to the dirtiest job in city government, sanitation workers were in a pitched battle with Mayor Henry Loeb III over issues concerning workers’ safety, substandard and dangerous equipment, abominable sanitary conditions, and low pay. The death of two sanitation employees at the hands of faulty equipment, was seemingly the last straw. They went on strike. Their cause captured the attention of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., head of the Southern Christian Leadership Council. The plight in which the sanitation workers found themselves was a fine fit for the organizations’s next project: the Poor Peoples Campaign. But Loeb, a descendant of German Jews who made their money in the laundry business, was implacable. As far as he was concerned, the sanitation workers were ungrateful and duped by an organization of outsiders who knew nothing about Memphis or waste management.
In Clean and White, Zimring does a fine job of constructing the history of environmental racism. His most important contributions, however, are that he has enlarged the very definition of environmentalism, and showed that not even dirt and waste escape being tainted by racism.