Racial/Ethnic Group Attitudes toward Environmental Protection in California: Is "Environmentalism" Still a White Phenomenon?

By Whittaker, Matthew; Segura, Gary M. et al. | Political Research Quarterly, September 2005 | Go to article overview
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Racial/Ethnic Group Attitudes toward Environmental Protection in California: Is "Environmentalism" Still a White Phenomenon?


Whittaker, Matthew, Segura, Gary M., Bowler, Shaun, Political Research Quarterly


One view of minority opinion on environmental issues suggests that minority voters are focused on less esoteric concerns such as education, jobs, and crime. An alternative argument is that minorities, many of whom live proximate to the sources of pollution and environmental degradation, are actually more concerned. Focusing here on Latinos, we argue that minority concern about environmental issues is endogenous to the nature of the issue and has changed over time. Specifically, we suggest that increasing environmental awareness among minorities has led Latinos to become more sensitive to environmental issues than their white counterparts over time, but that this difference is manifest only on issues of proximate concern to Latinos and not on more abstract environmental principles. Pooling Field Polls in California across a 21-year span, we model support for various pro-environment positions among Latino, African-American, and non-Hispanic white respondents. We find considerable empirical support for the dynamics of growing minority environmental concern among Latinos, but only weak evidence for a similar trend among African-Americans.

In 1991, with the help of grassroots organizations and national environmental organizations, the tiny, predominantly Latino town of Kettleman City, California, successfully challenged the placement of another hazardous waste incinerator in their community. The judge in the case found the townspeople had been unfairly excluded from participating in the decision-making process in the absence of a Spanish translation of the proceedings. Critics charged environmental racism; the low-income community's language and cultural barrier made them an easy target for a big chemical company that made a habit of locating their plants in poor, minority neighborhoods (Kay, 1992).

Environmental protection became a top priority in the second half of the 1980s for social justice grassroots groups like those that helped in the Kettleman City fight, such as the Mothers of East Los Angeles and Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles. Only a decade earlier, representatives of various African-American organizations were calling on their constituents to ignore calls for environmental protection, fearing environmental protection was a diversion that interfered with their civil rights agenda. This began to change with the growing realization that some of the worst pollution problems in the country, and many of the most polluting industries, were disproportionately located in poor or minority neighborhoods (United Church of Christ 1987; Labor/Community Strategy Center 1991). From these roots, the current environmental justice movement was born, and these civil rights groups saw that social and environmental protection could co-exist. What is less clear is how well the current message of environmental awareness, that pollution is no longer merely a 'White issue,' has reached non-white citizens.

Two theories have been used to explain racial and ethnic differences in attitudes towards environmental protection. Drawing on Maslow (1970), the hierarchy of needs theory suggested that poor or minority populations had more pressing day to day needs, and that concerns over extras like environmental protection were secondary. White or wealthy citizens were predicted to be more likely to take up the environmental cause. By contrast, environmental deprivation theory posited that concern is related primarily to exposure, that the more polluted the neighborhood, the more concerned the residents of that neighborhood (Lowe and Pinhey 1982; Tremblay and Dunlap 1978; Van Liere and Dunlap 1980). White or wealthy citizens, living in less polluted surroundings, would instead be concerned with distant or larger scale issues that could impact their lives down the road. Given that primarily poor and minority populations occupy many of the most environmentally impacted neighborhoods, these two theories have some contradictory predictions.

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