Brown as Dirt

How the language of racism is related to the language of cleanliness—even to this day.
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Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States. (Photo: New York University Press)

Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States. (Photo: New York University Press)

Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States
Carl A. Zimring
New York University Press

Our national vocabulary of race is inseparable from our national vocabulary of filth. They emerged together, and both make distinctions between clean and dirty, safe and unsafe, pure and polluted. So argues the environmental historian Carl A. Zimring in Clean and White, which traces the always shifting, always intertwined definitions of whiteness and cleanliness from the Civil War to the present day.

The rapid growth of cities early in the 20th century gave concerns about sanitation and waste management a new prominence. Zimring shows how the discourse of urban hygiene dovetailed perfectly with old-fashioned American racism. Whiteness and cleanliness—now a major civic virtue— were construed as one and the same.

Advertisements for soap claimed it would turn brown skin white, and make “savage” Native Americans civilized. In the South, the assumption that non-whites were unclean and contagious reinforced (and was, in turn, reinforced by) Jim Crow laws. In the North, it sent whites fleeing the “dirty” city for the suburbs. Everywhere, it meant jobs that involved contact with filth were held disproportionately by non-whites. To this day, the strongest predictor of whether a neighborhood contains toxic waste disposal sites is the proportion of its citizens who belong to a racial minority.

After reading Zimring’s account, it becomes hard to avoid spotting the resonances of that racist assumption everywhere in contemporary America. Think of it next time you hear talk of “white trash” or “dirt poor.” Or this election season, when, inevitably, CNN gets around to reminding us of Joe Biden’s 2007 observation that his opponent Barack Obama was, unlike other mainstream blacks, “bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Some stains never wash out.

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