Linking History to Contemporary State-Sanctioned Slow Violence through Cultural and Structural Racism

Ann Am Acad Pol Soc Sci. 2021 Mar;694(1):48-58. doi: 10.1177/00027162211005690. Epub 2021 Jul 6.


Environmental scientists started documenting the racial inequities of environmental exposures (e.g., proximity to waste facilities or to industrial pollution) in the 1970s and 1980s. Since then, research has documented inequities in exposures to nearly every studied environmental hazard, showing that American society delivers racial violence toward non-White families. Through cultural racism, a resilient social hierarchy is set where the lives of some groups of people are considered more valuable than others; then, through structural racism, institutions unequally mete and dole environmental benefits and burdens to these groups. We argue that the "slow violence" of environmental racism is linked to other forms of racial violence that have been enacted throughout history. We discuss the meaning of cultural racism as it pertains to the hierarchy of groups of people whose lives are valued unequally and its link to structural racism. To remedy this environmental racial violence, we propose shifts in the empirical research on environmental inequities that are built upon, either implicitly or explicitly, the interconnected concepts of cultural and structural racism that link historical to contemporary forms of racial violence.

Keywords: environmental justice; hazardous waste; racial disparities; structural racism.