Among the harshest allegations hurled at the business community by green activists and civil-rights leaders are those of "environmental racism," corporate America's supposedly conscious placement of toxic waste facilities in low-income, African-American neighborhoods. The evidence supporting these charges is spotty at best: For instance, a 1994 study by University of Massachusetts researchers found that the people who tend to live in polluted areas are those who work in the neighborhood, including employees of the polluting businesses.
Divining the intentions of business owners is a difficult chore. But it is possible to compare population patterns and land use. And a new study by researchers at the University of Chicago suggests that an entirely unexpected class of individuals in the City of Big Shoulders may be the "victims" of environmental injustice: white yuppies.
Economist Don Coursey, dean of the university's Harris Graduate School of Public Policy Studies, and graduate student Brett Baden examined Chicago's residential and industrial patterns in 1960 and 1990. After spending four years studying the population patterns around 205 locations regulated by the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, 113 federal Superfund sites, and 105 solid-waste disposal areas, Coursey and Baden found the racial breakdown of the nearby residents mirrors that of the entire city.
In 1960 most of the industrial sites were located near commercial waterways or adjacent to Lake Michigan, where many of the residents were working-class white ethnics. (Indeed, Coursey and Baden found that, during those segregated times, few African-American neighborhoods were located in the city's industrial areas.) By 1990, however, many of the industrial sites had been abandoned and the area started attracting more upscale residents. Figuratively speaking, Coursey says, "the rivers in Chicago were sewers until recently. Now it's cool to live along the river."
Coursey says he "was pretty shocked" to discover that they could find little evidence of actual pollution at many of the locations listed as hazardous waste sites. And that, as these areas started to gentrify, working-class white residents were replaced by prosperous whites. He predicts studies of other large cities located along major waterways might yield similar results. "In the 1960s, neighborhoods were traditionally segregated, with white ethnics living near industrial sites," he says. "By 1990, segregation rules had changed," and less-polluted waterfront property could attract more-affluent residents.