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Environmental Injustice: Is Race or Income a Better Predictor?

December 1998

Liam Downey


In this journal article, University of Arizona Professor Liam Downey attempts to decipher whether race or class is a better indicator of living in an unjust environment (i.e. one with a disproportionately high share of toxic emissions). Focusing on Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) emissions in the state of Michigan, Downey asserts that the conclusions one comes to regarding the potency of race or class in determining environmental conditions depends upon whether one does a statewide analysis or focuses on urban areas, as well as if one views race and class as mutually exclusive factors or not. For his part, Downey performs a statewide analysis and views the two identities as interdependent rather than separate. He concludes that one must take an institutional approach, not an intentional one, and see the inextricable link between race and class - specifically how they together determine where marginalized communities live and what concentration of pollutants they are exposed to.

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Policy Implications

Appreciating the link between race and class and the conjugated privilege or oppression they create leads one to think differently about policy than one would when performing a single-faceted analysis of only race or class. The author endorses the completion of more qualitative case studies of both identities, suggesting that although quantitative assessments are valuable, both forms of research need to play a role in our policy prescriptions. With regard to specific policies, though, Downey’s conclusions seem to suggest that he would support sweeping, structural change that can help people of both marginalized races and classes. These identity-blind policies, like healthcare for all or free/affordable college for all, universalize prosperity for people whose oppression is not limited to one identity, thus ensuring that fundamentally-linked markers like race and class are treated as a unit rather than in a vacuum.

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