Do we have a campus rape crisis?

—Sameena Mulla

Let me begin with my conclusion: there is not only a campus rape crisis in the U.S; rather, there is a rape crisis in the U.S. and college campuses are symptomatic of this broader issue. In the days since the campus rape crisis has been in the news, the discourse around sexual assault has begged the question as to whether sexual assault victims on college campuses are worse off than those who are raped beyond the institutional confines of a college campus. No one is explicitly arguing this, but the innuendo, the outrage, and the concern has attached itself to the university in a way that it eludes rape at large.

The first question worth asking is whether there is more rape on campuses than off campuses. Incidence data on the prevalence of sexual assault has, to date, demonstrated the same rate of sexual assault on campuses and in the general population. The latest survey from the Centers for Disease Control resulted in a victimization rate of 1 in 5 for women and girls, and 1 in 71 for men and boys. In this sense, the prevalence rates of sexual assault on campus are continuous with broader cultural trends.

Second, do on-campus rape victims fair worse in adjudication processes than those who navigate the criminal justice system? The preponderance of evidence standard that must be met during campus student conduct hearings is technically a lower standard than the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” that defines criminal adjudication, as it should be. This means that in theory, universities are in a position to hold anyone adjudicated guilty responsible for their actions; in practice, however, the consensus seems to be that there are few consequences for students who engage in sexual misconduct.

Victims participating in criminal adjudication are also challenged by the criminal justice system, and are unlikely to see the verdict that they desire. The criminal justice system privileges student defendants in that their class position is likely to align with “prosocial” elements weighed by the court during adjudication. Thus, it is reasonable to suppose that the court of law is no more likely to hold a college student responsible for a sexual assault than a college student conduct proceeding.

Universities have an institutional mission that invites more public scrutiny because of their different regulatory environment. The Title IX legislation holds campuses responsible for addressing sexual assault as a matter of women’s civil rights and creates a structure of accountability that does not exist in other institutional settings. Thus, we do not hear the same outrage when rape occurs in prisons, by military contractors, or even in the military itself. In some ways, universities also represent our cultural elite, and it is possible that our collective outrage over the campus rape crisis should be read as a barometer for our sense of impunity when non-students are victimized and violated.

What solutions lie ahead? First, behavior interventions on sexual health and consent at the college level are too late, too little. Universities that focus on these measures are likely to see success with increased reports, but will not necessarily see a reduced number of assaults. Cultivation of respect for bodily autonomy, integrity, and a culture of consent and affirmative sexual practices must begin long before students reach college. If Title IX implies that we are responsible for reducing rates of sexual assault on campus, then policy directives that urge early childhood education are key and will have a broader impact on sexual assault across all sectors.

Finally, university officials should commit to applying the preponderance of evidence standard properly. This means, as in the criminal justice system, student conduct boards should rely on testimony as credible evidence, and understand that forensic evidence is rare and often inconclusive. The absence of physical evidence is not the absence of rape. In many jurisdictions, experienced prosecutors and public defenders have learned this lesson well, and it is not uncommon for criminal prosecutions to rely solely on testimony. Student conduct boards need not apply a standard that is even higher than “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Proper training and ethical orientations are a necessary intervention.

The campus rape crisis is a symptom of the U.S.’s rape crisis. If we are serious about finding solutions to the problem of campus rape, we will implement changes that address the problem of sexual violence writ large.

Sameena Mulla is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Marquette University (WI). She is the author of The Violence of Care: Rape Victims, Forensic Nurses, and Sexual Assault Intervention (NYU Press, 2014).

Asian men on TV: Waiting for the (onscreen) kiss

—Stanley I. Thangaraj

© ABC/Eric McCandlessPopular culture is one important realm where Asian Americans, along with other communities of color, negotiate and manage the representations of their communities. In particular, visibility in the mainstream media is one important way to assert an American identity that is inclusive of a variety of Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. It also allows for complex representations of Asian America through desires and pleasure that go beyond the stereotypical renditions.

The premature cancellation of “Selfie,” unfortunately, takes another Asian American main character out of primetime television.  However, the melancholy of losing a staunchly heterosexual character fails to address how racism in the U.S. and Asian American exclusion is not solely governed through emasculation. By bemoaning the loss of John Cho, who could offer a primetime kiss to a white heterosexual heroine (a display of sexuality not often seen in Asian males on television), we underscore masculine contours of an Asian American hero whose acts of masculinity do not liberate all Asian Americans. Rather, as I witnessed in my study of Asian American sporting cultures, trying to live up to standards of masculinity that are recognizable and appreciated in our larger U.S. society does not guarantee membership and full citizenship.

Responding to emasculation alone as a major concern means that one is also taking part in devaluing femininity and gay masculinities. Desiring a traditional masculine hero only further affirms what is seen as “normal,” while remaining silent on the exclusions and violence against women, LGBTQI communities, and communities of color. Let us think and desire otherwise. Why must we shortchange our communities by emphasizing a recognizable masculinity? Is it not this recognizable masculinity also the culprit of sexual assault on college campuses, domestic violence in celebrity households, and everyday acts of sexism and homophobia?

Instead of pushing for an Asian American version of a mainstream masculine hero, there are other possibilities. Emphasizing LGBTQI heroes and celebrating dynamic working-class Asian American characters can create a version of America where the boundaries of inclusion within U.S. society is opened up to all. In the process, there is an affirmation of all the various sexual orientations, identifications, and class politics that constitutes Asian America. Once we forget our LGBTQI and working-class heroes, we will unfortunately long for a kiss that has little impact on creating an inclusive society.

Stanley I. Thangaraj is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at City College of New York and the author of Desi Hoop Dreams: Pickup Basketball and the Making of Asian American Masculinity (NYU Press, June 2015).

Q&A with Heather Laine Talley, author of Saving Face

Heather Laine Talley is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Western Carolina University. Her new book, Saving Face: Disfigurement and the Politics of Appearance, examines the cultural meaning of interventions aimed at repairing faces defined as disfigured. In the interview below, Talley discusses her research on appearance, disfigurement, and the role of the human face in society. More about her writing and work can be found at

What sparked your interest in facial disfigurement and reconstructive surgery?

Heather Laine Talley: In 2004, I began a project that was focused on exploring the bioethics of face transplantation (FT), a technology in the making. No transplant had yet been completed, but the surgical and immunological groundwork for FT was largely established. Face transplantation ignited hugely divergent reactions from surgeons, bioethicists, cultural critics, and the public at large. Some saw FT as miraculous, while others perceived FT as a gruesome and unethical procedure. (It’s important to note that in the time since FT has actual been practiced, some critics have radically shifted their position.)

The ways that reconstructive surgery was framed in these debates as both life enhancing and lifesaving fascinated me. Clearly though, this is a different kind of lifesaving procedure than in the way a heart transplant is lifesaving. As I started researching surgery on the face more broadly, I heard surgeons talk about a wide range of surgeries in similar terms.

It’s not new to point out that we are enmeshed in beauty culture or that the consumption of cosmetic intervention is on the rise. But the ways appearance is increasingly thought about in terms of life and death is striking and worthy of investigation.

In many ways, my work is driven by a classic sociological question—how do statuses like race, gender, class, sexual identity, disability, and citizenship status impact our life chances? I thought there was more to say about appearance. Rather than unpacking beauty, I became fascinated by the other end of the appearance spectrum: specifically, the way appearance functions either as a vector of privilege or a basis of social death.

From rhinoplasty and face lifts to Botox injections, cosmetic facial procedures continue to grow in the U.S. Why do you think that is—does cosmetic surgery help raise self-esteem? 

In a culture that overvalues appearance, it’s no wonder that our self worth is shaped by what we look like. It’s critical that we begin to think about how frequently appearance is used to attribute value over and above any other dimension of a person. In other words, appearance is often valued more than personality or experience. This is glaringly clear in schools and even workplaces. Psychological research shows that we attribute all sorts of positive qualities to beautiful people, so it isn’t surprising that cosmetic surgery is on the rise.

But what’s interesting is that there is also research that demonstrates that in cases of trauma, the severity of facial injury does not predict individual adjustment, self image, or quality of life. What this suggests is something that many of us know intuitively—we can change or improve elements of our appearance without experiencing a change in our overall happiness.

It’s not safe to assume that cosmetic surgery actually improves self-esteem, so I think we should question what the real and durable effects of cosmetic surgery are. It is true that our attractiveness does impact factors of our lives like salary that can shape our overall wellbeing, and so cosmetic surgery can generate powerful effects, especially in social interactions.

Ultimately, the research on facial difference hints at something that is powerful for us to consider too. What we look like is a very fragile element of who we are, and the quality of our life is not exclusive determined by what we look like, but rather by the quality of our relationships and our investment in resilience.

What can be done to reduce stigma associated with facial disfigurement?

The organization Changing Faces does amazing work to combat lookism or discrimination on the basis of facial appearance. Their Face Equality campaigns highlight the stereotypes associated with facial difference and the assumptions people make when encountering appearance disabilities. Some argue that our reaction to beauty, and by proxy ugliness, is an evolutionary (and thereby “natural”) response. Perhaps.

But what decades of social justice work tell us is that we are capable of transforming our implicit assumptions. Changing Faces offers incredible resources, including a Face Equality survey that provides users with some feedback about their appearance based biases and guides for teaching children about appearance disabilities.

While Saving Face offers a theoretical analysis of facial surgery, I am very invested in the practical implications of this work. For this reason, I include [in the book] a list of eleven concrete strategies that those invested in appearance justice might employ in order to challenge stigma in everyday life and the systematic dimensions of lookism, too.

What has your volunteer work at a burn camp for children and adolescents taught you?

Burn camp has taught me that things could be otherwise. Currently, stigma is intensified in the very spaces designed to treat a condition. For example, in the process of diagnosing a condition and outlining treatment options, stigmatizing language is regularly employed. This isn’t only true in the case of reconstructive facial surgery, but of many, many biomedical interventions, from gender affirming surgeries to labor to Cesarean birth. Oftentimes, stigma drives consumption, so there is a financial incentive at stake in healthcare for-profit contexts like the United States.

But facial surgeons may have something to learn from the kids I spent time with. What I saw over and over again was the capacity to acknowledge an injury, to hold space for grief or pain, and to avoid conflating being burned with being a victim. It’s not that some of the children I met haven’t been victimized. Some injuries are the direct result of violence. Others have been victimized by a health care system that provides disparate services by socio-economic status.

In medical sites, the story is regularly told that life is not possible with a facial injury. At burn camp, there is no conversation that remotely suggests that life is not possible with a facial injury. And it’s important to note that the kids are living, breathing reminders to the contrary. Burn camp reminds me that our ways of seeing injury, disability, and trauma matter. The ways we talk shape how we act. And how we respond can either limit possibilities or expand the likelihood of recovery or human flourishing.

R.J. Palacio’s debut children’s novel, Wonder has sparked attention on school bullying associated with facial deformity. What advice can you give parents and educators in changing attitudes on facial disfigurement? 

Wonder is truly exceptional, particularly because August the main character who is facially atypical speaks for himself. Representations of disability, and facial difference in particular, permeate popular culture, but an appearance disability often functions in the service of a plot. At the same time, stereotypes about atypical appearances abound. A scar is regularly used to signal that a character is evil. A congenital anomaly is used to mark learning difficulty. Wonder stands in sharp contrast to both of these patterns.

Kids often take their cues from adults about how to respond to new information. Children’s perceptions are incredibly malleable, which suggests that as adults, we must do some real self-reflection about our own reactions and biases, to consider the subtle (and overt) ways we play a role in dehumanizing others who are different from ourselves.   

What do you hope readers will learn from Saving Face

Saving Face presents some interesting case studies about contemporary aesthetic surgery and about the redefinition of some interventions as “lifesaving.” But more than anything, I’d like readers to think about the taken for granted ways differences—from appearance to family configuration—are informally talked about and how these everyday ways of thinking about difference translate into systematic devaluation.

Diamonds and death

—Susan Falls

Engagement ring sales drive the diamond market in the United States. But people purchase diamonds to celebrate all kinds of occasions, many of which are rites of passage: births, graduations, and weddings. As people experience these events, their social status changes, or is reaffirmed. They may get a new name, a new title or different responsibilities. In the case of an engagement, a woman moves from single to (almost) married and often, into adulthood (at least in the eyes of some people). In a wedding, one becomes a husband or wife. And diamonds are sometimes given to new mothers or babies as a way to celebrate birth. But what about the ultimate rite of passage: death?

When I was working on my recently published book Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press 2014), death was a theme that loomed large, even within stories of happy unions and new relationships. Many people told me about diamonds they keep hidden away in small velvet boxes because of the emotional power these glittering objects can exert upon us.

My friend Mabel described a diamond her grandfather gave her when she turned sixteen. Her grandmother had died when she was a young child but had asked that the diamond be given to Mabel when she came of age. Mabel treasures this diamond because it belonged to her beloved grandmother, and because it shows how she was already thinking of her granddaughter as the woman she would miss knowing.  But, Mabel told me, “I rarely wear it, and when I do, it makes me kind of sad.”

As it turns out, her grandmother had purchased it for herself. Her grandfather was “not romantic like that,” never giving her fancy jewelry. In what Mabel describes as a brave and difficult move, her grandfather came out following the loss of his wife, and so for Mabel, as much as she adores her grandfather, the ring not only represents her grandmother’s love for her, but also makes her think about “all of the things that she should have had, deserved to have—like romantic love and passion—that she did not get to experience.” The gem contains a story of generosity, family and attachment, but also of longing, even sacrifice. Perhaps Mabel would have the stone reset, or she could pass it on to another family member in the future, but it is hard to image gifting a stone with such a story to a new bride or fresh graduate.

On the other hand, in another story, a woman named Chandra keeps a small, but well cut diamond that belonged to her mother tucked away in the bottom of her closet. She explained that the stone was too much to wear (bear), bringing up memories of her mother’s early demise. But she knew it was part of a fulfilling marriage, passed on to her with the idea of having an heirloom for future children. And indeed, she is excited about passing it on to her nephews when they get engaged.

One thing I learned is that stories definitely stick to diamonds. But what about a stone that is not only associated with a story about someone, but is someone? The company Life Gem can transform cremation remains into diamonds, as a “memorial to their unique life,” which can then be set into a ring or pendant. The company website states that over 100 Life Gems can be made for the family in about six to nine months, and—in following the 4 C’s grading criteria used by the natural diamond industry—provides information on the color, carat size, cut and clarity of their product. The gems can be ordered in a variety of colors (from clear to varying shades of blue, yellow, red or green), and they come in several shapes, or cuts, such as round, princess and radiant, although all are expected to have flaws (just as most natural diamonds have). The diamonds are sized from 0.1 to 1.5 carats, but the company expects to develop an ability to make much larger stones in the future.

I know I was pretty surprised when I first learned of people making synthetic diamonds from cremation ashes or even hair, but, then again, a diamond is just carbon that has been submitted to tremendous heat and pressure. Here we have a man-made stone whose value comes not only from one’s memories, but from enjoying an actual material connection to a loved one. Barring a catastrophe, these diamonds really will be around ‘forever.’

Susan Falls teaches anthropology at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Savannah, Georgia. She is the author of Clarity, Cut and Culture: The Many Meanings of Diamonds (NYU Press 2014).

Illustration by Kay Wolfersperger.

Fat Gay Pride

—Jason Whitesel

I recently finished my first book, Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigmawhich offers an inside look at “Girth & Mirth,” a gay social club where members nurture each other’s joy in being fat and happy. As a gay man who participated in Girth & Mirth—therefore as a partial insider, yet admittedly with thin privilege, white privilege, and a professor’s privilege, among others—I want to share my critique of the wider gay community’s sizism.

As Marcia Millman observed almost 35 years ago, in Such a Pretty Face: Being Fat in America, “when a homosexual man is fat, he is often viewed in the gay community as not having sufficient ‘self-pride.’” Indeed, fat gay pride is a difficult subject position to sell; and when the Girth & Mirthers I studied invited other big gay men to join their cause, they opened themselves up to public rejection, as if it weren’t already difficult to be personally rejected because of their size and sexual orientation. I have witnessed these men being chastised for wanting to participate in annual Pride parades and being told they are embarrassments to the gay community.

Girth & Mirthers are often left out of Gay Pride media coverage; yet they persist despite their invisibility, seeking group recognition. As Lory Britt and David Heise put it so aptly, while “shame may lead to hiding, . . . pride may lead to expansive behaviors in public space.” The growing sense of pride Girth & Mirthers feel parallels their ample body size, which is even reflected in our language when we say: “He swelled with pride.” Indeed, pride makes one feel bigger and stronger and stand taller.

With the protection and backing of their fellow sufferers in Girth & Mirth, members move toward reconfiguring their shame. For some, being in the Pride parade means they come out twice: for being gay and for being fat. In a 2006 San Francisco Bay Times article, Sister Dana Van Iquity quips tongue-in-cheek on the homogenization of Pride: “The Girth & Mirth club will be asked to either not be fat or at least not show a sense of humor about their stout state. After all, we would not want the public to think that a bunch of happy, chubby gays represented our community, now would we?!” Thus, this author affectionately acknowledges the existence of big men in the gay community. Sister Dana’s remarks point out the contradiction that if gays are open to making fun of themselves in campy-queer drag, they need not be so threatened by Girth & Mirthers’ presence in the gay community.

When Girth & Mirthers participate in Pride celebrations, they not only gain visibility, but also communicate an alternate message: not all gay men are pretty-perfect and chiseled. As queer theorist J. Jack Halberstam puts it, taking pride in one’s shame is like going to “a place where shame can be transformed into something that is not pride, but not simply damage, either.” Girth & Mirthers take pride in their shame, sometimes going to the extreme to present a fun, larger-than-life persona. Despite acutely feeling the sting of rejection from those who are sizist, big gay men march in Pride parades and put themselves out there something fierce.

Therefore, with Pride Month upon us, it’s my belief that the road to accepting those groups that continue to be marginalized within the gay community—people of size as well as transgender folks, people with disabilities, and/or racial-ethnic minorities—must involve more than simply tolerating these groups. It requires all of us to embrace a wider range of diversity unremarkably, and without fuss. Fat activists put it best when they say, “We’re here, we’re sphere, get used to it!”

Jason Whitesel is Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Pace University in New York. He is the author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma (forthcoming in July from NYU Press).

Grandmothers on Mother’s Day: Q&A with Madonna Harrington Meyer

We know that a lot of mothers juggle work and family, but millions of U.S. grandmothers do as well. 

In Grandmothers at Work: Juggling Family and Jobs, sociologist Madonna Harrington Meyer chronicles the lives of 48 working grandmothers. We see the joy, and the challenges, these women and their families face in a country where supportive family policies are few. In their own words, grandmothers talk about the strength of family bonds, their hectic schedules, and the extent to which they are diverting their nest eggs, adding new debt, delaying retirement, and foregoing travel and other retirement plans.

In time for Mother’s Day (this Sunday!), we asked Madonna Harrington Meyer, author of Grandmothers at Work, to discuss her research and share stories from her book. 

What first prompted you to think about and study working grandmothers?

When my own children were in high school and I was looking forward to an empty nest, I attended a conference at Russell Sage and overheard all of these sociologists who were a few years older than me talking about how much pressure they were under to care for their grandchildren. I knew all about younger mothers juggling work and children; I had not really considered the lives of middle-aged women juggling work and grandchildren. This was a stage I had not seen coming.

What surprised you most in your research?

The joy. To talk to 48 working grandmothers is to talk to 48 women who know joy. No matter how hard it might be to juggle work and grandchild care, no matter how tired, or sick, or impoverished they were feeling, they were also feeling tremendous joy.

Also, I was so pleased by how eloquent the women were. They are a very diverse group with respect to age, race, marital status, and education, and their ways of speaking are very diverse as well. But they are able to express their thoughts with such elegance of words. One woman, describing the rules at her daughter’s house, including no computers and no TVs and complete freedom of self-expression, told me, “These are free range children.”

Is there a particular story or memory during your interviews with these women that stands out for you?

Several stories really touched me. Deanne’s story about her disabled husband, her newly divorced daughter, three mortgages, full time work, and caring for three grandkids most evenings, and visiting her mom in the nursing home, was really powerful. She is devoted to helping her children raise their children even though the financial impact on her and her husband is enormous and leads to a lot of strain in their marriage. They disagree about how much to help.  Meanwhile she has to delay retirement and pay off these three mortgages.

Estelle’s story was also very powerful. She was a no-nonsense grandma, telling her children that they needed to raise their own children. But then her daughter became a single mom and Estelle would work all day and come home to care for her grandson evenings and weekends. She loves him, but she says it has put her in the poor house.  She told me now she will have to work till the end. She told me she will have to die at her desk.

What do you hope readers will learn from your book?

Working grandmothers are very diverse, and their experiences are equally as diverse.  They describe a great deal of joy, and a mix of challenges. This is daily life for millions of U.S. women. The work itself is mainly invisible, and the consequences are mainly invisible. While some have enough resources to take it all in stride, for others working and caring for grandchildren leaves them physically and financially depleted. If the U.S. would offer social programs for families as they do in the EU, federally guaranteed paid sick time, paid vacation time, paid parental leave, universal pre-K, etc., U.S. grandmother could focus more on grand-mothering and less on mothering.

Black History—or Histories—Month?

—Andrea C. Abrams

A few months ago, a student penned an article for my college’s newspaper on the proper appellation for people of African descent in the United States. He pointed out that there are persons born in the U.S., those recently immigrated from other countries, as well as those who identify strongly with their African, Caribbean, or Latin American heritages—consequently, it was inaccurate to call all of these people African American as Americanness may not be especially significant to their identities. In any case, he found it far too confusing as a young white man to keep track of whether someone was an African recently immigrated to the United States, or a second generation Haitian American, or a person whose African ancestors arrived in the 16th century. He therefore concluded that the proper thing was to just call all of us Black. A straightforward, one-size-fits-all label.

During a recent speech at a diversity event, I referred to myself as both African American and Black. This time, a different young white male student approached me and asked why I had used both terms. “Did they mean different things to me,” he wondered, “or were they simply interchangeable?” I responded that for me, African American spoke to my cultural heritage or ethnicity, and Black referenced my skin color as well as my sociopolitical status within U.S. society. I admitted that while I tried to employ this distinction between the terms, at times, I did use them interchangeably.

The first student’s perspective elicited mixed reactions from me. On one hand, I appreciated his attempt to privilege the ways in which national origin and heritage make a difference to the construction of identity for people of African descent. In his own way, he was arguing that all Black people are not alike. On the other hand, I was somewhat peeved by his sense of entitlement to declare what another racial and ethnic group should call themselves.

The other student delighted me with his thoughtful follow-up questions. He asked me to describe situations in which I felt particularly Black or especially African American. These were similar questions that I put to the people interviewed in my forthcoming ethnography, God and Blackness: Race, Gender and Identity in a Middle Class Afrocentric Church. In the book, I examine the multiplicity of blackness in the United States. What is the significance of those moments when cultural heritage rather than sociopolitical status make a difference in how one understands the self? How do middle class African Americans navigate the tensions between Africanness and Americanness as well as between blackness and middle classness? How do individuals themselves label these varied experiences of racial and ethnic identity? Is Black a sufficiently potent signifier that it can encompass each of these constructions and intersections of identity as the first student suggests? Or should we follow the lead of the second student by unpacking the nuances and related experiences of the different categories employed by people of African descent?

In this month of Black History, people celebrate both the culture of African Americans and the triumphs of Black people despite the disadvantages of our sociopolitical status. The assertions and questions of the two students cause me to wonder if the proper label for this month should be Black Histories Month. Are we telling one history or a multiplicity of narratives? How does my southern Black history compare to a third generation Ghanaian American’s Black history? Should we pay more attention to the ways in which national origin, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, and religion make a difference to how history is interpreted and given meaning by an individual?

Or despite our diversity, are all those of African descent in this together—bound tightly and irrevocably by our shared African heritage and sociopolitical status as Black? Does the symbolic power of blackness within American culture mean that we all drink from the same well of Black history and culture albeit in various ways and with different consequences? Do our similarities as people of African descent, as Black people, trump our differences? Was the first student correct that we can use a one-size-fits-all label and just celebrate Black History month? I wonder.

Andrea C. Abrams is Assistant Professor of Anthropology, Gender Studies, and African American Studies at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky. She is the author of God and Blackness: Race, Gender and Identity in a Middle Class Afrocentric Church (NYU Press, 2014).

Black History Month: “Toxic Communities” are still prevalent

—Dorceta E. Taylor

It is Black History Month and I am reflecting on the significant strides we have made on issues of racial justice, social equity, and human rights. However, I have also been thinking of the long and difficult road ahead before we can say everyone has true equality in this country. Nowhere is this more evident than in the environmental arena. While some are content to see environment as untarnished hills and glens and others work hard to protect it, what is often missing from such discourses are the social class and racial inequities that arise in environmental practices and decision making.

In The Environment and the People in American Cities, 1600s-1900s: Disorder, Inequality, and Social Change (Duke University Press, 2009), I chronicled the rise of American cities and the environmental problems they confronted in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As part of the narrative, I documented how environmental racism resulted in the placement of African American communities in the most hazard-prone areas of cities. I also chronicled industrial incursion into and the pollution of Black neighborhoods, the destruction of Black communities and displacement of African Americans to make way for the construction of parks, water systems, and other public works.

Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (NYU Press, 2014) examines similar themes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These same patterns are evident—some to a greater extent than existed in earlier times. In Toxic Communities, I examine African American and other communities of color that are inundated with pollutants emanating from hulking industrial facilities. The air, ground, and water are tainted and residents live in fear of explosions or toxic releases from these facilities.

The challenges do not stop there. Black communities have been systematically been destroyed in the name of urban renewal and that highways could be built to connect the cities and suburbs.  While segregated White communities were built in the suburbs and financed by federal funds, Black communities were redlined and denied such funding. Rampant housing discrimination continues today in the form of discriminatory financing methods, racial steering, and other obstacles Blacks face when they seek housing. Consequently, African Americans still live in some of the most toxic and hazard prone communities in the country.

The book challenges us to develop a better understanding how these inequalities arise. We have to make connections with seemingly unrelated events, policies, and processes. We need more effective research as well as community organizing to hold responsible parties accountable.

Dorceta E. Taylor is the Field of Studies Coordinator for Environmental Justice at the University of Michigan’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. She is the author of Toxic Communities: Environmental Racism, Industrial Pollution, and Residential Mobility (NYU Press, 2014).