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Cancer Alley and Environmental Racism in the US Essay

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Updated: Jul 24th, 2022

Case Description

The case research was the cancer alley and how it serves as an embodiment of environmental racism. The cancer alley has been described by Castellón as ‘petrochemical America’ to insinuate a region along the Mississippi River spanning from Baton Roque to New Orleans, Louisiana (15). Historically, the great sugar plantations bordered both sides of the river from Baton Roque to New Orleans. However, industrialization and the discovery of oil in Louisiana meant that the sugar plantations were replaced by other industrial establishments, specifically wholesale facilities involved in the refinery and processing of oil into several petrochemical products (Keehan 343). According to Castellón, the petrochemical businesses intentionally locate their facilities in the urban areas where the poor communities reside, especially the people of color (16). In other words, toxicity follows the segregated and poor populations. It is important to acknowledge that sugar plantators used slave labor from the African Americans, which means that the fall of the industry resulted in these communities settling in the region. Therefore, establishing industries that pollute the environment around these people is seen as an act of environmental racism.

Environmental racism is not a new phenomenon because it has been studied extensively in the last few decades. Its history is often associated with the emergence of the environmental justice movement around the 1980s when contemporary chemicals, hypermodern hazards, and racialized bodies clashed. A perfect example is a toxic mess witnessed in Warren County in North Carolina where concerns were raised that there was a racialized distribution of petrochemical pollution in Louisiana (Davies 1360). The confrontations that ensued there resulted in the coinage of the term ‘cancer alley’ to insinuate the nature of the health risks involved. Davies reviews a book titled “Clean and White”, which offers a greater insight into the history of America past the antebellum roots of environmental racism (1360). The basic idea is that environmental racism has had a long history where the minorities are always the ones exposed to the dangers of industrial pollution.

The Cancer Alley reflects on the disproportionate manner in which the people of color in America are affected by industrial pollution. According to Bentlyewski and Juhn, air pollution in the country is created by the white Americans and breathed by the poor Americans from the minority groups (74). Regarding the land and water, race is considered to be the most significant determinant of whether an individual resides close to toxic areas. Other socioeconomic factors include income, which means that environmental racism is extreme in the United States. Industrialization in the United States has seemingly benefited only a few people while the rest stand to suffer the consequences. Bentlyewski and Juhn argue that the environmental racism in the country has been the result of aligning the public environmental policy and industrial activity to benefit the white majority and, at the same time, shifting the costs to the color minorities (75). From this perspective, it can be understood why the environmental justice movements have always fought against the establishment of factories and similar establishments in certain areas.

The major concern regarding the case is that it also highlights that industrialization is necessary for the economic growth of any country. The United States developed into one of the largest economies as a result of industrialization, a situation that can be observed across all first world countries and emerging economies. The need for industrialization is acknowledged since the livelihoods of many people depends on it. However, the major criticism among the proponents of environmental justice is the distribution of the externalities of industrial activity.

It is important to notice that the Cancer Alley reflects the broader issues regarding industrialization and the resulting environmental racism across the world. Bentlyewski and Juhn refer to such a situation as a disproportionate misallocation of the externalities (75). For example, both the United States and Mexico have subscribed to The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has allowed the two nations to move heavy industries along the border. However, neither of the two implements NAFTA’s environmental regulations aimed at safeguarding the Latinx population from polluted drinking water. The Latinx populations along the borders are left to suffer the heavy costs of pollution, which often manifest themselves in terms of health risks.

Therefore, the cancer alley is an embodiment of environmental racism in the United States. It represents a situation where the more powerful in society influence both industrial policy and activity. The white neighborhoods are more successful in mounting opposition campaigns against the location of petrochemicals in their communities (Castellón 17). As a result, the businesses are left with fewer choices to make, one of which is to relocate to the poorer communities. Toxic wastes in the air and water and on land become a key feature of the residences occupied by the minority Americans. Poor waste management practices are the result of the companies’ deliberate ignorance of the hazards to which the people are exposed.

Theoretical Orientation

From a theoretical perspective, environmental racism is part of a broader problem with the governance of economic activities, especially environmental injustice. According to Braverman, settler colonialism an example of environmental justice (3). According to Braverman, the West Bank is an embodiment of environmental justice as it applies to the context of Palestine/Israel (3). Such authors as Benz refer to the situation as comprising colorblind policies regarding environmental justice. Toxic cities are seen as a problem of neoliberalism in the country. According to Benz, the role of the state under neoliberalism is to protect private property through disciplined forces to facilitate the proper functioning of the free market (51). Neoliberalism and free market mean that the government may be required to withdraw from the traditional function involving social provisions, which include social welfare, environmental regulation, and protection against employment discrimination. The two key theoretical constructs revealed in the case are the environmental racism and racial capitalism manifested race-based economic and political activity (Pulido 2). Therefore, the policies developed by a country seek to protect the economic interests of the capitalist establishments and, in the process, disregarding the social problems created.

The concept of capitalism has been briefly mentioned above as one key aspect of the problem of environmental racism. Pulido argues that environmental racism emanates from racial capitalism (526-527). In other words, environmental racism can be viewed from the processes that shaped modern society, including slavery, colonization, and imperialism. A similar concern is raised by Hesketh who expressed that in Oaxaca, Southern Mexico, development has taken the form of dispossession of indigenous communities (1). Additionally, such issues tend to reflect the relationship between human beings and nature as explored by Moore, including the newfound Green Thought (597). In essence, people are increasingly becoming aware of the influence on the environment and are finding alternative solutions.


Such issues as environmental racism can be communicated through various media objects. In the modern era, digital advancement has offered an alternative object that is more effective than the traditional ones. Zines are one of the most effective media objects for communicating such serious and critical topics as environmental injustice and racism. The rationale is that zines tend to offer safe and independent platforms for underrepresented topics. According to Hart-Mann and Canalos, zines can be a means of creating social change, including where art is used as a tool to convey the message (305). The emergence of the internet has revolutionized conditions and approaches to activism. In the past three decades, online activism has been used predominantly to share information, to connect people, and to mobilize the masses to express their views and discontent regarding given issues. Environmental racism has been fought in the past through the environmental injustice movements. Zines, however, are still preferred because they can incorporate art and diversity of forms and styles.

Several examples can be found where zines have been proposed as the best media object for environmental campaigns. Measures of empowerment have been proposed by Nolan et al. have included zines along other such tools as videos and workshops (1). The theme “Freedom to Breathe” is an effort to engage the youth in handling environmental issues. Nolan et al. use participatory action research to address inequitable distribution of air pollution in Richmond, CA (2). Zines and other media objects are used to fight the persistent inequalities in air pollution. The most important aspect is that the zines and other tools are developed using vernacular to help disseminate the results of the research more effectively. Therefore, even though zines are are the most effective mechanisms, it is suggested that integrating them with other platforms can help improve the effectiveness of the communication.

There are many platforms for disseminating messages for purrposes of environmental activism. For example, digital media forms have grown rapidly over the past few decades. However, it is social media that has taken the center stage in online environmental activism. It is normally understood that social media is becoming increasingly persuasive.

The justification of social media as a medium for spreading the digital zines can be presented in terms of evidence of past successes. According to Murthy, activists have used social networking sites to recruit members, conduct public engagement, and organize their campaigns (2). Such movements as Black Lives matter have become global rapidly despite beginning as a simple tweet debate. From the Twitter posts, the movement transitioned into street action that has been labelled as a ‘national discourse about race’ (Murthy 2). Such scholars feel that zines might be out of date but not out of time. The post-digital period means that integrating new media with the art of developing zines can work perfectly in the dissemination of environmental racism messages. Similarly, it can be argued that online environmental activist can follow the same trend where voices in the media can become actions on the streets and, most importantly, political and legal initiatives. The minority groups have often found strength in solidarity in the past. The need for a better distribution of the costs and benefits of industrialization can be effectively articulated through digital zines.

Works Cited

Bentlyewski, Robert, and Mina Juhn. “Race, Place, and Pollution: The Deep Roots of Environmental Racism.” Fordham Law Review Online, vol. 89, no. 17, 2020, pp. 74-85.

Benz, Terressa. “Toxic Cities: Neoliberalism and Environmental Racism in Flint and Detroit Michigan.” Critical Sociology, vol. 45, no. 1, 2019, pp. 49-62.

Braverman, Irus. “Environmental justice, settler colonialism, and more-than-humans in the occupied West Bank: An introduction.” Nature and Space, vol. 4, no. 1, 2021, pp. 3-27.

Castellón, Idna. “Cancer Alley and the Fight Against Environmental Racism.” Villanova Environmental Law Journal, vol. 32, no.1, 2021, pp. 15-43.

Davies, Thom. “Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States.” Ethnic and Racial Studies, vol. 40, no. 8, 2017, pp. 1360-1362.

Hart-Mann, Jeanette and Asha Canalos. “Creating Social Change Through Art: The Greater Chaco Art Zines.” Natural Resource Journal, vol. 60, no. 2, 2020, pp. 305-332.

Hesketh, Chris. “Clean development or the development of dispossession? The political economy of wind parks in Southern Mexico.” Nature and Space, vol. 0, no. 0, 2021, pp. 1-23.

Keehan, Courtney. “Lessons from Cancer Alley: How the Clean Air Act Has Failed to Protect Public Health in Southern Louisiana.” Colorado Natural Resources, Energy, & Environmental Law Review, vol. 29, no. 2, 2018, pp. 341-371.

Moore, Jason. “The capitalocene, Part I: on the nature and origins of our ecological crisis.” The Journal of Peasant Studies, vol. 44, no. 3, 2017, pp. 594-630.

Nolan, James, et al. ““Freedom to Breathe”: Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR) to Investigate Air Pollution Inequities in Richmond, CA.” International Journal of Environmental research and Public Health, vol. 18, no. 2, 2021, pp. 1-18.

Murthy, Dhiraj. “Introduction to Social Media, Activism, and Organizations.” Social Media + Society, vol. 4, no. 1, 2018, pp. 1-4.

Pulido, Laura. “Geographies of Race and Ethnicity II: Environmental Racism, Racial Capitalism and state-Sanctioned Violence.” Progress in Human Geography, vol. 41, no. 4, 2017, pp. 524-533.

“Geographies of Race and Ethnicity II: Environmental Racism, Racial Capitalism and state-Sanctioned Violence.” Progress in Human Geography vol. 41, no. 4, 2017, pp. 524-533.

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