Fine-Tuning Theories and Data Gathering on Environmental Racism
Throughout Sociology In Our Times, we have examined social theories that help us understand the combined effect of factors such as race, class, and gender on the everyday lives of millions of people. In the ·Sociology Works'· feature, we have focused on specific theories and how applications of those theories can help us understand the word and sometimes make It a better place in which to live. In this chapter, we have looked at the work of new social movement theorists who have demonstrated the intersection of environmental justice with race and class: the belief that hazardous-waste treatment, storage, and disposal facilities are mare likely to be located near low income, nonwhite neighborhoods than to higher-Income, predominantly white neighborhoods. This is an important issue because of the potential health risks that such sites may pose for people who live nearby. However, critics have scoffed at the suggestion that race- or class-based discrimination is involved in decisions about where hazardous waste- materials facilities are located. Can mare accurate data be gathered to help determine the nature and extent to which environmental racism exists 7 During the 1980s and 1990s, the most frequently used method employed In national-level studies documenting the location of waste sites and other polluting Industrial carefullest referred to as "unlt-hazard coincidence" methodology. Based on this approach, researchers selected a predefined geographic unit (such as certain ZiP code areas
or census tracts). Then they identified subsets of the units (areas located within a specific ZiP code or census tract) that had, or did not have, the hazard present. The researchers then compared the demographic characteristics of people living within each of the subsets to see ifa larger minority population was present near the hazardous facility (see Mohair and saha, 2007). Unit-hazard coincidence methodology assumes that the people who live within the predefin d geographic units included in a study are located closer to the hazard than those Individuals who do not live In those geographic units (Mohai and Saha, 2007). The problem with this approach is that the hazardous site is usually not located at the center of the ZIP code or census tract and that the geographic area being examined
may be marge or small, making It difficult to know for sure the racial and class characteristics of the people who live the closest to the waste facility .
In recent years, sociologists and other social scientists have begun to use other methods such as GIS (a computers capturing, storing, checking, Integrating, manipulating, analyzing, and display data related to positions on the Earth's surface) to more adequately determine the distance between environmentally hazardous sites and nearby populations. By using distance-based
methods to control for proximity around environmentally hazardous sites, those researchers have demonstrated that nonwhites, who made up about 25 percent of the nation's population in 1990, constituted over 40 percent of the population living within one mile of hazardous waste facilities, meaning that racial disparities in the distribution of hazardous sites are much greater than what had been previously reported. According to social scientists Paul Mohai and 'Robin Saha (2007: 343), ·We [find that] these disparities persist even when controlling for economic and sociopolitical variables, suggesting that factors uniquely associated with race, such as racial targeting, housing discrimination, or other race-related factors, are associated with the location of the nation's hazardous waste facilities.· Sociological theories and research pertaining to environmental racism have raised public awareness about the fact that the location of hazardous facilities Is not purely coincidental in communities throughout our nation. Clearly, proximity to hazardous sites Is related to the cost of the land on which the facilities are located, but the issue of proximity based on the racial composition of residents raises an even more challenging social and ethical dilemma. However, It Is Also clear that the vast quantity of data available today-and the methods for obtaining that data-make it possible for us to fine-tune previous theories and obtain a better understanding of the social world in which we live.