REVIEW: Clean and White, A History of Environmental Racism in the United States

In this blog Racial Justice Network member Rakesh Prashara reviews Carl A. Zimring’s book, ‘Clean and White, a History of Environmental Racism m in the United States’.


A thought provoking look at what it means to be clean in the United States from the time of Thomas Jefferson to the present day. After the civil war the US made great strides to eradicate disease with programmes to teach people how to live cleaner lives and the advent of sanitation systems which took human wastes away from homes.

These efforts were only focused on those in the population that were considered to be White, excluding the African American, European immigrant, South Asian and Latino communities; who endured cramped living conditions in areas where sanitation systems were not made available. At the turn of the 20th century those not considered White found it difficult to find work; the only work available was that which was considered beneath the White Americans, immigrants from Europe started business in rubbish and scrap collection, those from China started laundry, but the African Americans could not start their own businesses as White Americans would not deal with them, instead they were confined to working for European and Chinese enterprises.

Within a generation European immigrant families were considered White and became party to the social entitlement that other White Americans had including Government loans to enable them to move from impoverished inner city areas to the suburbs which were exclusively White.

By the 1960’s African Americans made up the majority of the Blue-Collar workforce of waste collection businesses, their work was subject to the whims of their employers and they were not allowed to unionise, while the White-Collar workers were paid for a full day’s work even when there was no work. In 1968 these conditions led to the Memphis sanitation workers strike, where the slogan ‘I AM MAN’ appeared and the issue of workers’ rights became entangled with Civil rights.

Dr Martin Luther King felt that the recognition that sanitation workers were demanding mirrored the injustices the Civil rights movement was fighting against and he famously remarked “the movement lives or dies in Memphis”. Sadly Dr King was killed in Memphis the day after his famous ‘I have been to the Mountaintop speech’, his death ended the strike and the workers were allowed to unionise.

The premise of White being clean has not been washed out of American Society to this day, in 2007 when Joe Biden and Barack Obama stood for the Democratic nomination, Biden was quoted as saying of his rival “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice looking guy”. This comment effectively ended Biden’s race for nomination, but he has never explained what he meant by the word ‘clean’.

The book catalogues the steps that were taken to ensure that the superiority of White Americans at the expense of People of Colour and especially the African American. Our subjugation has been through design and the only way out of it, is by understanding the systems that have lead us here and this book opens the door.

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