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(Un-) Officially Zoned for Industrial Pollution: Environmental Racism and Environmental Justice on the East Side of Houston, Texas, since the 1970s

The field of environmental racism and (in)justice unveils rather surprising circumstances. That is, although per its conception, it deals with issues of racism and racial and social injustice and existing studies do look at this, the vast environmental justice literature does not consider theories of race and racism. Institutional racism or the history of racial inequality have widely been ignored. Only recently did scholars, who are mostly sociologists and anthropologists, start to include concepts such as whiteness or white supremacy to reason developments that led and still lead to the uneven distribution of environmental burdens and the unequal access to environmental policy and decision making.

This project uses this strange fact about the research field as an impetus to take a historical perspective and include theories of race by looking at the Texan city of Houston, home to the nation’s largest consolidation of petrochemical industry and considered one of the most diverse cities in the US. The project focuses on how environmental harms and risks are distributed among the population, how cases of environmental racism and injustice come to be, and more importantly, the theories and historical origins that explain the emergence of such environmental racism and injustice cases. Houston, often praised for the diversity of its population, still shows a continuing legacy of discrimination and segregation that manifests itself in segregated living spaces, discriminating housing practices, or unequal levels of public service and infrastructure investments. Although forms of environmental pollution are ubiquitous, the Houstonians who suffer most are predominantly poor people and people of color. The project draws on the history of African Americans and Hispanic Americans, the history of segregation, and includes critical race perspectives. Shedding light on how space, race, and class intersect on Houston’s East Side to produce environmental racism and injustice as well as the reactions, impacts, and consequences by and for the different involved and affected stakeholders will explain important relevant and contributing factors within the environmental context. The creation of a historical process profile of Houston investigating all relevant roots, dynamics, and forces that affect unequal distribution and protection, as well as the evaluation of involved stakeholders provides the guiding framework. Cases of environmental racism and injustice do not emerge all of a sudden but develop over a longer period of time impacted by certain processes. Theories of race and historical perspectives have too long been ignored and this project aims at changing this.