Sociologist Links Environmentalism and Race in Talk
Issue   |   Wed, 02/15/2017 - 00:31
Photo courtesy of Faith Wen '20
In a talk titled “Race, Space and Social Justice” on Feb. 9, Dr. Dorceta Taylor spoke on environmentalism’s historical bases in racism. Her talk was part of a two-day event on race and environmental inequalities.

Dr. Dorceta Taylor gave a talk at Amherst on Feb. 9 titled “Race, Space and Social Justice.” The talk, which was over an hour long and held in the Greenway A Event Space, was followed by half an hour of questions at the end.

The talk was part of Taylor’s two-day event, “Race, Space and Environmental Inequalities,” which also included a student workshop on campus social justice on Feb. 9, a breakfast Q&A session on careers in activism on Feb. 10 and a lunch Q&A session for students of color on Feb. 10. The two Q&A events were available with advance sign-up only.

Born and raised in Jamaica, Taylor graduated from the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies at Yale. She is currently a professor of environmental sociology at the University of Michigan.

Her research includes food access, analysis of the composition of the environmental workforce, environmental justice, ethnic relations and poverty, race and gender.

Taylor said that as a young student, she felt constrained by the specialization required by the Jamaican education system.
“I decided to be very defiant and get out of that box and start connecting, and it wasn’t long until I started to read sociology and history … and I was able to start to ask really weird and strange questions,” she said.

Taylor began the talk by focusing on the lack of racial diversity in the American environmental movement. She said that for decades, environmental agencies have not broken a 12 to 16 percent racial composition of people of color, despite the increase of racial diversity in the United States.

The problem, Taylor said, is due to “unconscious bias, discrimination and insular recruiting, [which] hamper the recruitment and retention of talented people of color.”

This is a problem, she said, because environmentalism is and has always been closely connected with racism, naming Europeans’ buffalo-hunting practices endangering Native American tribes as an example.

“It was definitely a political movement to kill off the buffalo,” she said, because by controlling the Native American food source, Europeans could round up and corral the Native American tribes in the West.

Even today, she added, the control of food sources still happens, and it pits the environmental movement against minorities, such as a Wisconsin ban on salmon fisheries that restricts tribes’ access to fish.

Taylor said that activists who fight this ban “sometimes run up against environmentalists who are saying, ‘This is not sustainable, how can you be fishing?’” Taylor said. “But the tribes are saying, ‘This is all we have left. You took all our land, so we have rights to the fish.’”

Taylor also pointed out the contributions of people of color to American society and environment.

“Not only does slavery dehumanize African Americans, it puts them in a condition of thinking that they were simply all ignorant,” she said. “No — they had skills, they were targeted for those skills and they were brought to the plantations here … Those plantations that got those slaves were the ones that were most prosperous because they have the skilled labor.”

People of color also made central contributions to national parks. Buffalo soldiers, an all-African-American regiment in the U.S. Army, helped build early trails and guarded parks, while Chinese laborers helped build the railroad and road systems running through the continental United States. Environmental history, however, does not include their roles, Taylor said.

Taylor also spoke about the environmental injustices that African Americans faced in recent decades, such as the burial of toxic waste in a predominantly African American community in 1982.

She said the resulting protests against dumping of toxic waste launched the environmental justice movement.
David Green ’18 said that the connections Taylor made resonated with him.

“It was interesting to look at the interactions between environmentalism and social justice because if you’re thinking about environmentalism, you’re thinking, ‘How do you save a bird?’ as opposed to ‘How do you save a human?’” he said.

“It all comes down to how we use the environment to impact each other,” said Sade Green ’20.

“We look at Flint and we see how the city affected communities of color by switching the water supply,” Green added. “If we see what’s happening at Standing Rock today, people don’t realize that water is a human right. So you have the government going ahead and building the pipeline and the tribe there will be affected.”

During the workshop on social justice, Taylor focused on aspects of campus life that block the growth of activism.
Students split into groups to brainstorm factors that are obstacles in mounting campus-wide movements. Later, Taylor asked groups to share their top concerns.

Some students expressed concern about busy schedules and conflicting priorities, which felt isolating, said Tacia Diaz ’19.
“We’re here to prioritize school ... That’s a struggle I do deal with a lot. How much should I prioritize activism over school?” Esperanza Chairez ’19 said.

In response, Taylor encouraged students to see activism as an integral part of their learning experience in and of itself.
“Ninety percent of what you learn, you’re not learning in the classroom,” she said.

Students also addressed the challenges presented by the environmentalist movement itself. The conversation centered around the intangible nature of many environmentalist concerns.

During a discussion of the trayless movement at Valentine Hall, Carlos Rivero ’18 said that “a lot of environmental issues are very hard to physically or visually realize” because the trayless initiative aimed to reduce water usage while there was not a visible lack of water on campus.

“There’s a general apathy [on campus],” said Annabelle Gary ’20. Other students echoed this observation and pointed to the generally short lifespan of campuswide movements to support the claim.

Chairez also said that she thought there was apathy on campus. “It’s a one-time thing,” Chairez said, “[Students are] not really looking to reach out to their peers.”

To avoid running into this apathy, Taylor said that students should not “underestimate the resources you have” and should take advantage of social media as a way to spread awareness.

“Don’t despair,” Taylor said at the conclusion of the workshop. “You are not the first group of folks to run into this, and you won’t be the last. You’ll be amazed what you can do.”