Tag Archives: waste

Remembering Booker T. Washington 100 Years After His Death

Booker_T_WashingtonA century ago today, Booker T. Washington died of hypertension at the age of 59. Founder of the Tuskegee Institute, author of Up from Slavery, Washington is remembered today as one of two major African-American voices of the turn of the twentieth century advocating different ways of addressing the rising threat of Jim Crow and lynchings. W. E. B. du Bois and his colleagues in what became the NAACP pushed for full recognition of civil rights. Washington has often been remembered as a conciliator, compromising with Southern segregationists in a futile effort for accommodation.

History has not been kind to Washington’s strategies, but history also deserves to give Washington understanding of what he saw and experienced in his life. Born a slave in 1856, he saw the Civil War bring abolition before his tenth birthday. Young Booker T. Washington then saw the upheaval of Reconstruction and, as he became an adult, violent, repressive rollback of civil rights for African Americans, joined by mob violence and lynching.

Lautz Brothers' soap ad. The slogan "beat that if you can" underlines the claim it can wash black skin white.

Lautz Brothers’ soap ad. The slogan “beat that if you can” underlines the claim it can wash black skin white.

A pernicious aspect of the racial subjugation Washington saw was an emerging stereotype of African Americans as somehow dirtier than native-born whites. In the halls of universities, in the rhetoric of politicians, and in the emerging advertising for soap and cleansers between 1880 and 1920, “white” skin was celebrated as fair, and as clean. Darker pigments were equated with dirt, even treated as dirt in some of the crudest soap advertisements of the time.

In this context, much of Washington’s work may be seen as resistance to a growing insult. His “gospel of the toothbrush” admission of African Americans to uphold the highest standards of personal hygiene, establishment of technical institutes with instruction in personal and civic hygiene, and work to create National Negro Health Week reflect an attempt to resist this emerging pseudoscientific claim to white supremacy as an extension of elevated sanitary standards.

C&WcoverSuch an attitude is jarring in 2015, but was commonplace during Washington’s life. How this attitude developed, how it was resisted by many affected people, and what consequences it has had for American society is the subject of my new book Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States. Available now from NYU Press, the book contextualizes Waring’s work in a time when fears about waste and racial purity intertwined, producing new labor markets and spatial arrangements to manage the materials Americans classified as waste. Washington is one of the actors in a long history of Americans’ often troubled relationship with those wastes and with each other.

Washington’s death from hypertension happened as he saw white supremacy grow despite his work. The environmental dimension of American racism at the turn of the century both adds context to his differences with du Bois and rationale for his gospel of the toothbrush. He should be remembered for both his accomplishments and these complexities, and that is one of the goals of the book.

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Clean and White: Available Now For Preorder

My new book is out for preorder. Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States is available as a hardback and as an ebook.

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 available at these outlets:

Recycling Is A Process

recycle-logoRecycling is a process. It exists not because of sentiment, but because the systems of industrial production and disposal that have developed over the past two centuries have found that reclaiming post-industrial and post-consumer materials is a better use of time, energy, and money than harvesting virgin resources. I elaborate on this history in Cash for Your Trash.

Recycling programs have their limits. Municipal recycling systems struggle with the hazards of manufactured goods that were not designed with disassembly in mind. Efforts to restrict problematic materials (such as New York City’s attempted ordinance to ban polystyrene food containers) face well-financed campaigns by industries resistant to taking producer responsibility for their materials. Since the 1950s, such industries have promoted the emergence of recycling collection systems to shift the burdens of waste away from producers. Design decisions (such as the shift from reusable glass bottles to disposable PET bottles) now burden recycling programs rather than Coke or Pepsi.

But recycling endures and grows. It does so because the markets for salvaged material in industrial society endure. The markets rise and fall; lower prices for copper and steel in 2015 due to problems in the Chinese economy follow price declines during the global economic meltdown of late 2008, and previous recessions and depressions dating back to the nineteenth century. Economic history suggests the decline is temporary; recycling is big business because squandering the value of discards in landfills and waterways is inefficient.

The hazards and efficiencies of recycling can always improve. Designing goods for recycling (by reducing the use of toxic or unrecyclable materials, as well as making separating of materials from the finished product easy) will allow recyclers to safely and successfully return materials to production. These measures will improve a resilient practice that has thrived at a large scale since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Human societies have recycled for millennia and the growth of this practice since the advent of mass production and disposal of industrial goods represents a rational response to what would otherwise be the squandering of value in unprecedented mountains of discards. Any analysis of waste management practices that does not recognize this history is a waste of time.

Talking Trash on Science Friday (Second Hour)

UPDATE: They did not call me as scheduled, but the segment has good information with anthropologist Robin Nagle.

I’m scheduled to be on the second hour of this week’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow talking about landfills, recycling, and trash. If your local public radio station carries both hours, you can hear it on the radio. If your local station only carries the first hour, you can find the full episode on the podcast version.

Chicago Recycling Coalition Event July 27: The State of Recycling in Chicago

CRCeventWhen the Chicago Recycling Coalition began, the city had no recycling and put its trash in local incinerators and landfills. Over the years, CRC has fought to provide Chicagoans more sustainable waste management and reclamation solutions. That fight continues, and it can be fueled with beer.

To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Chicago Recycling Coalition is holding an event at Revolution Brewpub (2323 N. Milwaukee Avenue) Monday July 27 6-9pm.  Have a beer and talk with CRC board members and guests about what’s improved in Chicago recycling, what CRC is fighting to improve, and what Chicagoans can do to get better recycling, yard waste, and composting services from the city in apartments, homes, schools, and workplaces.

A lot is going on in Chicago regarding waste, and not all of it is good. Come to discuss Blue Cart, the plastic bag ban, the Burke-Hansen ordinance “requiring” multi-unit dwellings to offer residents recycling services, and much more.

Featured speakers include:
Claire Micklin, who co-developed the eye-opening My Building Doesn’t Recycle! app revealing how many big residential buildings don’t offer recycling pickup)
Chris Bentley, WBEZ Curious City Reporter (who will elaborate on his recent stories investigating Chicago’s Blue Cart program and the Burke-Hansen ordinance)
Meredith C. McDermott, Chicago Public Schools Sustainability Manager (hear what’s going on with recycling in CPS)

Purchase tickets here.
$25 per person includes open bar and light hors d’oeuvres from 6:00 – 8:00 PM
$50 VIP tickets include all of the above PLUS a pre-event brewery tour at 5:30 PM

See the CRC’s website for more information, or follow the CRC on Facebook. (I’m on the CRC’s board of directors and am happy to answer questions about the event.)

Chicago Waste, Recycling, and Sustainability Tour Saturday, July 18.

Putting on my hat as board member of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, I want to alert those in the Chicago area about a terrific, exciting, and educational tour the CRC and Southeast Environmental Task Force have put together for Saturday, July 18.
Recycling and Waste Flyer 6-18-15
To sign up for the tour, visit the Southeast Environmental Task Force website or call (773) 646-0436.