Environmental Inequalities


For the employees of U.S. Steel and other businesses in Gary, Indiana, the likelihood of exposure to unhealthy workplace conditions has always been closely related to race and class. Nevertheless, Andrew Hurley argues, in the relatively compact pre-World War II Gary, these factors mattered little in exposure to pollution at home. After the war, however, as those whites who could afford to do so began to pursue the suburban dream, wealth became an important predictor of exposure to pollutants at home as well as at work. As middle- and upper-income whites moved to communities distant from the sources of industrial pollution, they developed an environmental movement that, with increasing effectiveness, protected their health, the beauty of their neighborhoods, and the values of their homes.Environmental Inequalities

All but the poorest working-class whites moved out of the most polluted parts of Gary but, facing daily contact with toxins on the job, they focused environmental activism through their unions on workplace conditions. Black workers joined that struggle; but, trapped by lower incomes and housing discrimination in the oldest and dirtiest neighborhoods and by employment discrimination in the most toxic industrial environments, they also fought exposure to pollution through the civil rights movement.

For a brief period in the late 1960s and early 1970s the three groups coalesced into a powerful multifaceted environmental movement that forced U.S. Steel and other business interests to begin to limit industrial pollutants both inside and outside the factory gates. This coalition developed because a strong economy insulated workers from economic blackmail; a vigorous civil rights movement gave blacks political leverage, including Gary's first black mayor, Richard Hatcher; and white middle- and upper-income environmentalists saw a chance to win important gains through collective action.Environmental Inequalities

But the coalition was short-lived. Racial tensions and a weakening industrial economy allowed U.S. Steel to undermine effectively black and working-class environmental activism with threats of plant closures and job losses. Nevertheless, middle- and upper-income white environmental activists remained influential, a situation that resulted in the shift of pollution to poor and black neighborhoods.Environmental Inequalities The shift occurred because air and water pollution controls won by Gary environmentalists accelerated the demand during the 1970s for dump sites for the solid wastes removed from smokestacks and sewers. Middle- and upper-income neighborhoods remained relatively free of such dumps as their residents effectively exercised their economic and political power. Poor whites and African Americans also opposed such dumps in their neighborhoods, but they lacked the clout to force the authorities to police the dumpers effectively. By 1980 many poor and black Gary communities were urban wastelands decimated by toxic dumps and by rising unemployment.Environmental Inequalities