Brown: What is environmental racism?


by Aaron Brown

Columnist Aaron Brown discourages calling everything racism just because you dislike it.

Aaron Brown

Editor’s note: This piece is in response to “What is environmental racism?” 

Sometimes people get confused and post opinion pieces in the News section. Sometimes people get confused and think that things are racist when they are not. To clear up this confusion, I’m writing an opinion article, and I’ll make sure it actually gets published in the proper section. Contrary to the implications of Zane Charter’s opinion article, there is no such thing as environmental racism.

What is racism? It might be difficult for young college students to imagine, but racism used to be really prevalent. In the United States of America, we have done such a good job at teaching our children to not be racist over the years that racism has almost disappeared. People still want to call things racist to prop up their agendas, so they have to misuse the word. But people own dictionaries.

My 1934 Webster’s and earlier dictionaries don’t actually contain the word “racism,” but opt for the forms “racialism” and “racialist” — which they define as “…promoting or animated by racialism; [especially], one who maintains that some races are inherently superior to others.” By the 1960s and 70s, “racism” and “racist” were well-established words, and Webster’s Third includes them. The unabridged says racism is “the assumption that psychocultural traits and capacities are determined by biological race and that races differ decisively from one another which is [usually] coupled with a belief in the inherent superiority of a particular race and its right to domination over others.” My abridged dictionary (basically the TL:DR summaries of each entry) has a similar definition for racism: “a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.”

Let’s take a little trip back in time. (Back at my previous college, all the U.S. history class taught was which presidents were secretly engaged in homosexual activity, so I don’t assume any standard level of history knowledge here at Iowa State.) Let’s go back to around 1850. There are 31 states in the union, and Iowa has more people than California and Florida combined. Spanish coinage is legal tender in the United States. A gallon of milk costs about 20 cents, but folks usually just buy a quart or two at a time. A gallon of gas? Gasoline distillation is not even invented yet. Agricultural laborers get paid a dollar a day. All across Iowa, pioneers are building log cabins across prairie land. This land is recently abandoned by various tribes such as the Sauk and Fox Indians or Keokuk’s tribe. Every day around noon, women cook dinner over an open fire. Off in the distance, a horse-drawn stagecoach carries passengers at a brisk rate of three or four miles per hour. There are no roads, after all. Way over in Maine, a Mrs. Stowe is writing a novel: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

In this world with neither automobiles nor telephones, the word “racism” was still a century away from existing, and even the old “racialism” did not exist yet. Though they lacked the words to name it, the thing itself did exist. The idea of race, “descendants of the same ancestor,” had been around for three centuries and people are good at making up excuses to hate each other. In this antebellum world, people had to come up with all sorts of justifications for things like slavery. Sure, slavery had been around for thousands of years. But the kinds in which Americans participated were often more barbaric than Roman or Arab slavery.

Down in the southern United States, society was a bit different from up here in Iowa. In mid-19th-century Iowa, families would transform 160 acres of tall grass into fields of feed for hogs and wheat to bake the daily bread. They had nobody to hire or enslave. They were all by themselves, isolated by the terrain and weather. But down in the South, things were more established. They had a head start of a whole generation, which had established better roads for travel and better means of communication. There were already large farming establishments that required much labor. There were also already markets erected to buy and sell human beings.

Down south, many societies had embraced the philosophy that there were certain races that were inferior and designed to serve the others. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sheds light on these types of ideas, shaming them. But just as easily as the ideas were shamed, they were supported. Racism, or rather “racialism,” took hold in the late 1800s. People promoted the idea that “the Negro” (an unoffensive term until the 1960s) had certain hereditary traits which made him less intelligent than “the White.”

In 1859, Darwin published a book effectively establishing the theory of evolution. People were rejecting the Bible’s description of the origin of man. What followed were many theories about how mankind has such great diversity. Racialism was actually approached as a science. All sorts of “scientific” categories were created to divide people up: mulatto, mestizo, cuarteron, zambo-chino, etc. If you had a White father and a Negro mother, you were Mulatto. If you had a Mulatta mother, you were Cuarteron. “Half-breed” children of a Cuarterona were “Quinteros.” The scientists drew a line in the sand and ceased the ridiculous divisions past less than an eighth of your ancestry being “mixed.”

This is the origin of modern racism. Racism is the theory that all persons in the world can and should be classified into groups based upon physical characteristics. Once you accept the arbitrary divisions of races, it is just as easy as thinking one flavor of ice cream is better than another to think one race is better than another. Combine this “scientific” theory with the unscientific mind of the average person and you get the racism of the 20th century. The sudden changes in civic interaction after the Civil War and the great migrations of people in the early 1900s brought much conflict. People found it easier to adopt racist ideas than to embrace the anti-racist theology of Acts 17:26. They chose segregation over reconciliation.

Amongst all the conflict in the late 19th century and the early 1900s, grudges, biases and stereotypes became entrenched across the United States. The cultural revolutions during the mid-20th century had many negative effects. One of the good effects, however, was to erode away at racism and promote the unity of mankind. The “scientific racists” of the 1800s were dying out. People had to adjust to the various social consequences of the Civil Rights Acts, and people began abandoning their biases, especially relating to the great Black-White division. Universities stopped promoting eugenics and teaching the glorious benefits of forced sterilization. The rise of the television allowed people to watch shows like “Good Times,” “Family Matters,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons,” and “The Cosby Show.” People saw that even though people looked different and talked different, they went through the same struggles. People saw similar aspirations and achievements embodied in people that their parents perhaps hated. When the TV shows came out, they were “the black people shows.” By the time I was a kid, they were just “classic TV” re-runs.

Does racism still exist? Yes, some people still want to divide up humanity based on physical characteristics and put themselves in the “superior” category. But we here in America have done a good job at eliminating it.

What is “environmental racism”? It’s a sham. The ADL can’t make up their minds what racism is, but I own a dictionary and a history book (actually a couple hundred, but yeah). It’s a cool little trick to attach the word “racism” to something you don’t like so everyone will oppose it too. We can pretend words mean all kinds of random things. What is environmental racism? It’s not racism. Call it something else.