Category Archives: publications

On Dove and the History of Racist Soap Ads

Dove_2017_soap_adThis week, Dove Soap unveiled a new internet ad. It didn’t go well.

Dove has apologised over an advert which has been labelled racist.

The cosmetic brand faced backlash over a Facebook advert that appeared to show a black woman turning white after washing herself with its product.

Bosses at Dove said they ‘deeply regretted’ the use of the images after they sparked an online race row.

The advert shows a smiling black woman pulling her t-shirt off to reveal a white woman underneath. A third image then shows an Asian woman.

The imagery used in the ad has a long and ugly history. I discuss it at length in chapter four of Clean and White (now available in paperback and audio formats), and I also wrote a brief post about the history of racist soap ads for NYU Press’s From the Square blog in 2015.

Such a message was consistent with the trope that skin darker than white was somehow impure and dirty. Products boasting of absolute purity claimed to be so powerful that they could literally wash away the stain of race.

Why do these images matter as anything beyond century-old relics of America’s racist past? These images proliferated at a time when the rhetoric and imagery of hygiene became conflated with a racial order that made white people pure, and anyone who was not considered white was somehow dirty. The order extended from caricatures to labor markets. Analysis of census data indicates the work of handling waste (be it garbage, scrap metal, laundry, or domestic cleaning) was disproportionately done by people who were not native-born white Americans.

Through World War II, this involved work by African Americans and first- and second-generation immigrants from Asia, Latin America, and Southern and Eastern Europe. In the second half of the twentieth century, the burdens of this dirty and dangerous work fell heavier on Hispanic and African-American workers, creating environmental inequalities that endure to this day. They are evident in the conditions that led to the Memphis’s sanitation workers strike in 1968, as well as the residents of Warren County, North Carolina laying down in the street to block bulldozers from developing a hazardous waste landfill in 1982. Environmental inequalities are evident still in environmental justice movements active across the United States in 2015.

Since the end of the Civil War, American sanitation systems, zoning boards, real estate practices, federal, state, and municipal governments, and makers and marketers of cleaning products have all worked with an understanding of hygiene that assumes “white people” are clean, and “nonwhite people” are less than clean. This assumption is fundamental to racist claims of white supremacy, a rhetoric that involves “race pollution,” white purity, and the dangers of nonwhite sexuality as miscegenation. It is also fundamental to broad social and environmental inequalities that emerged after the Civil War and that remain in place in the early twenty-first century. Learning the history of racist attitudes towards hygiene allows us to better understand the roots of present-day inequalities, for the attitudes that shaped those racist soap advertisements remain embedded in our culture.

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Clean and White Available As Hardback, Paperback, E-Book, and Audio Book.

Clean and White is now available in the following formats:

Hardback
Paperback
E-Book
Audio Book

CleanandWhite_Full

From NYU Press:

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.
Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene. 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.

“[A] valuable history of environmental racism in the United States…Essential reading for those interested in social justice and environmental issues.”-Library Journal

“Zimring shows that American notions of clean environments and healthy landscapes are the products of a racist past.”-Journal of American History

“Offers a significant and startling new perspective on United States history, revealing the many ways in which ideals of cleanliness, notions of environmental propriety, and definitions of whiteness have been interwoven for centuries, to devastating effect. With deft prose and thoroughly researched arguments, Zimring unravels some of the previously overlooked origins of deeply rooted American racism, and in the process shows how these have come to justify economic, social, and political discrimination against people of color. It is an important original analysis, and it brings much needed insight to our ongoing national debate about race and justice.”-Robin Nagle, author of Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York

“[E]nlightening.”-Publishers Weekly

“Zimring offers a clearly written overview of environmental racism in the US.”-Choice Connect

“What an innovative study! In Clean and White, Carl Zimring addresses an age-old critique of racism that posits white as clean and good and black as dirty and bad. In so doing, he elevates the discussion by demonstrating the cultural roots of this nefarious comparison within the context of environmental racism. Those interested in both questions of race and modern environmentalism will benefit from reading this book.”-Martin V. Melosi, author of The Sanitary City

“Traces the always shifting, always intertwined definitions of whiteness and cleanliness from the Civil War to the present day.”-Pacific Standard

“Zimring’s provocative book will compel future historians to take the role of garbage and waste seriously when seeking to explain some of the most pernicious social injustices of our time.”-Indiana Magazine of History

“[A] valuable history of environmental racism in the United States…Essential reading for those interested in social justice and environmental issues.”-Library Journal

“Zimring shows that American notions of clean environments and healthy landscapes are the products of a racist past.”-Journal of American History

Clean and White: Now Available in Paperback

IMG_1395NYU Press has released Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States in paperback. Previously, it has been available as a hardback and as an ebook.

From NYU Press:

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.
Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene. 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.

A Quick Reading List on American White Supremacy.

With the start of a new school year, a reminder that history provides important context for the present day. Here is a brief, by no means comprehensive, list of books that provide context for our times.

Suitable for General US History Survey Courses:
Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People.

Kalil Gibran Muhammed, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America.

Kenneth T. Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States.

Grace Elizabeth Hale, Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South, 1890-1940.

C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow.

Thomas J. Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.

Suitable for Environmental History and Environmental Studies Courses:
Carolyn Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors.

Sylvia Hood Washington, Packing Them In: An Archaeology of Environmental Racism in Chicago, 1865-1954.

…and I will mention that I organized my book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States (out in paperback on September 1) so that it could be used in either surveys of general US history or American environmental history.

Clean and White available in paperback September 1.

NYU Press is releasing the paperback edition of my book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States. Copies should be available on September 1, 2017 at a list price of $24.

From NYU Press:

C&Wcover

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.
Clean and White offers a history of environmental racism in the United States focusing on constructions of race and hygiene. 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.
The book is also available as a hardback and eBook. Instructors interested in an exam or desk copy may get one here.

OAH Blog Post on History of Recycling

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Organization of American Historians asked me to write a brief post on the Process blog about the history of recycling. Here’s the lede:

In the popular imagination, recycling arose out of the modern environmental movement. Some associate recycling with efforts to to divert discards from landfills or with World War II scrap drives when the government mobilized resources for the war effort. But recycling’s history is both older and more complicated than either of those depictions.

Paul Revere recycled, though he did not use that word…

Read the rest, including discussion of curbside programs, wartime scrap drives, and the turn towards upcycling as a sustainable design strategy.

This Week: Aluminum Upcycled at ASEH in Chicago

chicago.green.river

The Chicago River may not be green by the start of the conference, but we will discuss green design strategies March 30.

The American Society for Environmental History meeting is in Chicago (the Drake Hotel, to be precise) this week, and I will discuss my new book Aluminum Upcycled in two sessions on Thursday. (The book will be available at the book exhibit and can also be purchased from Johns Hopkins University Press’s website.)

At 8:30am, Thursday March 30, I will be part of a panel on “Histories of Design and the Environment” with Kjetil Fallan, Rachel S. Gross, and Eun-Joo Ahn. We will all present individual papers, and then Steven Corey will comment and moderate.

Immediately thereafter at 10:30am, I will be part of a Critical Discard Studies and Environmental History roundtable organized by Martin Melosi. I will discuss aspects of the book in both sessions, with a focus on Herman Miller’s furniture design in the first and a broader discussion of where the book fits in the literature in the second.