Ten Books to Contextualize Environmental Racism

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This post is part of an ongoing series called, “Whose Nature? Race and Canadian Environmental History” This series examines the intersections of race and environment in Canada’s past and asks how human-nature relations are affected by ideas of race and racism.


Recent events, such as the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, and the murder of several Indigenous people have drawn heightened attention in Canada and around the world to issues of anti-Black systemic racism, police brutality, and the environmental inequalities that BIPOC face in the context of the pandemic.

Inspired by similar lists published by Edge Effects, Environmental History Now, the Environment & Society Portal, Active History, and a Twitter thread started by Jayson M. Porter, The Otter Editorial Board has compiled a list of ten books to contextualize environmental racism and environmental justice in North America. We recognize that there are many important titles not included in this list. The list provided below is meant as a starting point for those interested in learning more about environmental racism and environmental justice in North American history. We welcome further suggestions in the comments section!

In compiling this list of books to contextualize the history of environmental racism and environmental justice we were struck by how American authors and American examples dominate this literature – we struggled to find many Canadian examples. Perhaps this suggests something about the state of scholarship on the history of environmental racism and environmental justice in Canada. We hope scholars interested in this intersection take this as a call for further work.


Carolyn Finney, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors (The University of North Carolina Press, 2014).

In Black Faces, White Spaces, Finney works at the intersection of environment and race to demonstrate the ways in which nature has been racialized well into 21st century America. Addressing a gap in the scholarship of outdoor recreation and the environmental movement, this book brings forth an African American perspective and environmental identity. Primarily examining media representations, she questions why African Americans are underrepresented in outdoor recreation and environmentalism. This work brings together environmental history and critical race studies to argue that discourses around Black participation in “the outdoors” are rooted in the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racialized violence.

Connie Y. Chiang, Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of Japanese American Incarceration (Oxford University Press, 2018).

In Nature Behind Barbed Wire, Chiang places environment at the center of the history of Japanese American internment during the Second World War. Interrogating War Relocation Authority records and Japanese American correspondence, Chiang argues that Japanese American internment is an example of environmental displacement. She traces the intimate knowledge and connection that Japanese Americans had with their local environments prior to relocation and detainment, the ways in which environment factored into site selection of internment centers, and the history of internee labour in these camps which included planting victory gardens and sugar beet farms to supply the American war effort. In one particularly fascinating chapter, she also examines the ways in which internees interacted with the environment around these camps through recreation, specifically hiking and recreational fishing.

Dorceta E. Taylor, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection (Duke University Press, 2016).

In The Rise of the American Conservation Movement, Taylor analyzes the influence of race, gender, and class in the conservation movement. Though she primarily focuses on environmental activism of the urban elite, her inclusion of the experiences and perspectives of BIPOC in the movement contributes important and largely overlooked narratives in American conservation history. Throughout the book, Taylor challenges the common narrative that white, urban, elite men held exclusive power over shaping the American Conservation Movement.

Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster, From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement (NYU Press, 2000).

From the Ground Up delves into the history of the environmental justice movement emphasizing the role of grassroots activism in the cause of environmental justice. The authors draw on their own experience with activism to illustrate the past and present causes of environmental racism. Cole and Foster, both legal scholars, aim to demonstrate how the environmental justice movement propelled issues of environmental racism into national awareness and influenced policy by examining what they define as internal and external perspectives. The internal perspectives centre the experience of communities working from the ground up to gain more control over the living environments. The external perspectives includes the political economy of environmental harm. Together, the authors argue, these perspectives help readers understand both the root of the problem and potential solutions.

Robert D. Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (Westview, 1990).

Dumping In Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality, Third ...

Dumping in Dixie was not the first time the terms “environmental racism” and “environmental justice” appeared in print, but it certainly is seen as the first sustained academic study of the ways that the geographies of race and class have had an effect on environmental hazards. Bullard is a social scientist and activist, and he shows through a handful of compelling case studies that the “unique legacy” of “slavery, Jim Crow, and white resistance to equal justice for all” changed the ecology of the American Deep South. (97) Bullard not only isolates empirical data that prove that the places where Black Southerners live, work, and play have been disproportionately affected by environmental threats such as toxic waste siting, but he also traces the history and trajectory of the environmental justice movement.

Ingrid R.G. Waldron, There’s Something In The Water: Environmental Racism in Indigenous and Black Communities (Fernwood Publishers, 2018).

Nova Scotia is crowded with examples of Mi’kmaw and African-Nova Scotian communities sited with environmental hazards, from industrial pollution to waste dumps: Boat Harbour and Northern Pulp; Alton Gas and the Sipekne’katik Nation; Lincolnville and, of course, Africville. Accordingly, Waldron argues, any consideration of environmental action and environmental justice must have at its centre a recognition of and discussion about racism. The book is framed by the story of attempts to introduce legislation explicitly targeting environmental racism, and introduces a series of theoretical frameworks that intersect with and propagate forms of environmental racism. Although focused on Nova Scotia, each chapter includes a series of community profiles from across the country. There’s Something in the Water is the product of ENRICH [the Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities, and Community Health Project], and was made into a film (helmed by Nova Scotian Ellen Page) in 2019.

Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (University of Minnesota Press, 2018).

According to the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) we are living in the ‘Age of Man’ wherein humans have become the dominant geological force on this planet. Indeed, since Paul Crutzen coined the term in 2000, the Anthropocene has become an influential concept in explaining humanity’s relationship to the non-human world. However, as Kathryn Yusoff argues, “No geology is neutral.” Yusoff highlights the extractive and racialized nature of geologic grammars and practices that have and continue to propel colonialism, slavery, and dispossession, and which have ordered relationships between the subjective categories of ‘human’ and ‘inhuman’. Drawing attention to the “billion Black Anthropocenes” that have made this new geologic age possible, Yusoff lays the foundations for new geologic grammars that acknowledge the integral place of race in humanity’s relations, including with the environment, and which in turn transforms our understanding of agency in the past, present, and future.

Pete Daniel, Dispossession : Discrimination Against African American Farmers in the Age of Civil Rights (University of North Carolina Press, 2013).

The third quarter of the twentieth century is best remembered as the Civil Rights era in the United States. But at the same time as a host of new laws aimed at ending racial discrimination, over half a million Black farmers lost their farms. The adoption of new technologies and scientific approaches to farming, which characterized the postwar period and the Green Revolution, caused large numbers of whites to lose their farms as well. But, as Daniel reveals, state and federal government agencies (particularly the USDA) discriminated against Black farmers by deliberately restricting their access to agricultural programs and denying them loans. The result was a highly disproportionate impact on Black farmers despite their efforts to expose and protest the systemic and institutionalized racism.

Brian McCammack, Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago (Harvard University Press, 2018).

Standard narratives of the Great Migration describe the movement of Black Americans from the rural South to the urban North during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Rather than focus on how the migration to large cities, such as Chicago, resulted in environmental racism and injustice, McCammack explores the efforts that Black residents made to reshape and reimagine the urban places where they lived, worked, and played. By building spaces for themselves within urban and semiurban environments, African-American migrants and their descendants managed to maintain and reproduce a Black identity through the landscape. In this way, Landscapes of Hope considers environmental justice from the vantage point of agency, rather than just discrimination.

Adele Perry, Aqueduct: Colonialism, Resources, and the Histories We Remember (ARP Books, 2017).

For a century since it was built, the aqueduct that brought fresh water to Winnipeg has been framed as a story of progress. Technological expertise enhanced quality of life in the city by improving public health and providing the foundations of modernity. But as Adele Perry demonstrates, the same history can be told as a story of injustice, dispossession, and colonialism. The municipal, provincial, and federal governments drew on long-standing arguments that Indigenous peoples underutilized land and resources to justify stealing reserve lands from Shoal Lake 40 First Nation to build the infrastructure. The contrast between access to clean drinking water in Winnipeg and an on-going, decades-long boil water advisory at Shoal Lake 40 makes clear that water remains a hallmark of the environmental racism and injustice that defines the Canadian colonial state during the early twenty-first century.

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