Just an Environment or a Just Environment?
Racial Segregation and Its Impacts

Developed by Hyung Kyu Nam

Grade Levels: High school or lower division college level
Subject Matter: Housing, Government, Environmental Racism, Institutional Racism, White Advantage
Time Allotment: 5-6 class sessions (1 for screening and discussion; 1-2 to prepare for tribunal; 1-2 for the tribunal; 1 for debriefing)
Description: This lesson explores the multiple causes of racial segregation and environmental racism, and helps students understand the perpetuation of institutional racism in the post-Civil Rights era. Students will perform a mock tribunal in which they will research, interpret, analyze and apply historical data as evidence of factors contributing to continued racial segregation and disparity in the United States.

Hyung Nam teaches U.S. history and social studies at Wilson High School in Portland, Oregon.


This lesson helps students understand how de facto geographic segregation (in the form of impoverished inner cities and white, middle-class suburbs made possible by multiple factors, including government money and policies) perpetuates different forms of institutional racism in post-Civil Rights era U.S. History. It also explores the complex causes of environmental racism, which has developed alongside residential segregation.

Students will watch Episode 3 of RACE - The Power of an Illusion and discuss institutional racism and racial segregation in the United States. In a culminating activity, students will perform a mock tribunal, drawing from historical readings and related data to hypothesize about the causes of residential segregation and environmental racism in the U.S. Students will be required not only to watch the video and read the supplemental texts but also to apply the information actively as evidence in the tribunal performance. The lesson challenges students to understand the interplay of structural constraints, individual agency and multiple factors that combine to perpetuate racial inequity.

Notes about the Tribunal

In this tribunal simulation both the procedure and the defendants are organized conceptually rather than realistically. Students are organized into small groups, and they must accumulate evidence and prosecute other groups in the defense of their own group. It is being assumed that multiple causal factors need to be understood in order to explain the phenomenon of racial segregation and environmental racism in the United States. Many groups and even an abstract socio-economic system serve as generic defendants (e.g. capitalism is a political-economic system that would never stand a real trial). The tribunal is generalized rather than based on a specific case in order to focus on evidenced national patterns of segregation and environmental racism.

The point of the tribunal is to analyze and synthesize a complex causal explanation of historical phenomena, not to learn about the U.S. legal system as in a mock trial. The goal of the activity is not to place blame on a group. It is to understand how racial segregation and environmental racism are created and perpetuated in order to identify possible social and political remedies.


  1. Students will understand the concepts of environmental racism, institutional racism and white advantage.
  2. Students will hypothesize the causes of environmental injustice utilizing evidence to defend their interpretations.
  3. Students will develop an understanding of the principles of social justice, equity and anti-racism.
  4. By empathizing with those who have been denied opportunities unfairly and who suffer the greatest consequences of racial inequality, students will also appreciate the need for change in order to achieve social justice.

Content Generalizations:

  1. The government and social institutions have created advantages that disproportionately channel wealth, power, and resources to white people.
  2. In post-Civil Rights America, outlawed de jure social segregation has evolved into de facto geographic segregation and ghettoization through a combination of private and government housing and lending policies and practices.
  3. Racist outcomes can occur through "neutral" institutions such as the real estate market without overtly racist ideas or agents.
  4. White advantage resulting from historical discrimination is passed down from one generation to the next. As a result, unequal outcomes continue even after discriminatory policies have been prohibited.
  5. People with social, economic, and political power avoid their share of environmental hazards, thereby imposing them on others.
  6. Capitalist economies privatize gain while shifting many of their social costs on the rest of society. Those with less power and resources to resist (i.e., the poor and people of color) often bear the biggest burden.


Facts on Environmental Racism Handout

I. Excerpts from Bullard, Robert, "Environmental Justice for All," Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice & Communities of Color, Sierra Club Books 1994

  1. The Commission for Racial Justice's landmark study, Toxic Waste and Race in the United States, found race to be the single most important factor (i.e. more important that income, home ownership rate, and property values) in the location of abandoned toxic waste sites. The study also found that:

    1. three out of five African Americans live in communities with abandoned toxic waste sites;
    2. 60% (15 million) African Americans live in communities with one or more abandoned toxic waste site;
    3. three of the five largest commercial hazardous waste landfills are located in predominantly African American or Latino American communities and account for 40% of the nation's total estimated landfill capacity; and
    4. African Americans are heavily over-represented in the populations of cities with the largest number of abandoned toxic waste sites.
      (pp. 17-18)

  1. Millions of Americans live in housing and physical environments that are overburdened with environmental problems including older housing with lead-based paint, congested freeways that crisscross neighborhoods, industries that emit dangerous pollutants into the area, and abandoned toxic waste sites.

    Virtually all of the studies of exposure to outdoor air pollution have found significant differences in exposure by income and race. African Americans and Latino Americans are more likely than whites to live in areas with reduced air quality.
    (p. 12)

  2. A 1992 study by staff writers from the National Law Journal uncovered glaring inequities in the way the federal EPA enforces its laws. The authors write:

There is a racial divide in the way the U.S. government cleans up toxic waste sites and punishes polluters. White communities see faster action, better results and stiffer penalties than communities where blacks, Hispanics and other minorities live. This unequal protection often occurs whether the community is wealthy or poor.
(p. 9)

  1. After examining census data, civil court dockets, and the EPA's own record of performance at 1,177 Superfund toxic waste sites, the National Law Journal report revealed the following:

    1. Penalties under hazardous waste laws at sites having the greatest white population were 500% higher than penalties with the greatest minority population, averaging $335,566 for white areas, compared to $55,318 for minority areas.
    2. The disparity under the toxic waste law occurs by race alone, not income. The average penalty in areas with lowest income is $113,491; 3% more than the average penalty in areas with the highest median incomes.
    3. For all the federal environmental laws aimed at protecting citizens from air, water, and wasted pollution, penalties in white communities were 46% higher than in minority communities.
    4. Under the giant Superfund cleanup program, abandoned hazardous waste sites in minority areas take 20% longer to be placed on the national priority list than those in white areas.

II. Vital Statistics from the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation:

  • African American children are five times more likely to suffer from lead poisoning than white children, and 22% of African American children living in older housing are lead poisoned.
  • An estimated 50% of African Americans and 60% of Hispanics live in a county in which levels of two or more air pollutants exceed governmental standards.
  • Communities with the greatest number of commercial hazardous-waste facilities have some of the highest proportions of minority residents.
  • Half of all Asian/Pacific Islanders and American Indians live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites.
  • Communities with existing incinerators have 89% more minorities than the national average.
  • African Americans are heavily overrepresented in cities with the largest number of abandoned toxic waste sites, such as Memphis, St. Louis, Houston, Cleveland, Chicago, and Atlanta.


Other materials that are optional for the lesson or recommended for further exploration:

From the RACE companion Web site:

Whites Swim in Racial Preference by Tim Wise

Achieving Racial Justice: What's Sprawl Got to Do With It? by john a. powell

Bullard, Robert (ed.). "Environmental Justice for All," from Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice & Communities of Color. Sierra Club Books, 1994.

Bullard, Robert (ed.). Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. South End Press, 1993.

Bullard, Robert; Grisby III, J.E., and Lee, Charles (eds.). Residential Apartheid: The American Legacy. CAAS Publications, UCLA, 1994.

Environmental Justice: At Issue, An Opposing Viewpoints Series. Greenhaven Press, 1995.


Jim Crow
de jure segregation
de facto segregation
white flight
structural racism
1968 Fair Housing Act
predatory lending
Federal Housing Administration


ACTIVITY 1 - Characterizing the Inner City

Quickwrite: Draw, list or write everything that comes to mind when you think of the "inner city" or "inner-city schools." Share with your neighbor. Share with the class and discuss what the common ideas were. Why is it that the inner city is characterized this way? What is a contrasting term or place to the inner city? How is it characterized?

Briefly discuss: what are some possible consequences of these differences for people?

Pass out the Facts on Environmental Racism Handout for students to read as homework.

ACTIVITY 2 - Video and Discussion

Show all or part of RACE - The Power of an Illusion Episode 3 in class. Note: if you don't have time to show the entire episode, begin showing at approximately 24 minutes in (where Frank Sinatra comes on screen). This will take you through all the material relevant to this lesson plan (approximately 30 minutes total). If you skip the first part of the episode, some of the questions below may not apply.

After watching the film, discuss the following questions as a class (Note: you can also use the transcribed interview with john powell for additional help - see under RESOURCES above):

  • Historically, how have white Americans created racist explanations for the living conditions of people of color and immigrants?
  • How has whiteness been a requirement for citizenship in the U.S.? What consequences has this had for whites? What about for African Americans, Asians, Latinos, Native American, etc.? What rights or advantages does a citizen enjoy compared with a non-citizen?
  • Why might owners of developments like Levittown decide not to sell to African Americans?
  • What consequences might such decisions have?
  • Explain the practice of "redlining." What is its origin?
  • What are possible motivations for real-estate agents to practice "blockbusting?" Who gains and loses in this situation? Make a graphic organizer of how the multiple chain of consequences leads to segregation and wealth disparities. (see Where Race Lives: Downward Spiral for textual supplement)

For further thinking, discussion and writing, select from these quotes taken from the film:

Film Quotes for Further Discussion (optional)

NARRATOR: "European immigrants were learning that whiteness was more than skin color. It was the privilege of opportunity."

JOHN A. POWELL, Legal Scholar: "Now it's sort of hard to believe that the federal government nationalized and introduced redlining. In a funny way, it wasn't just giving something to whites, it was constructing whiteness. Whiteness meant - as in the past white has meant being a citizen and being a Christian - it now meant living in the suburbs."

NARRATOR: "Only 50 years before, European ethnics were believed to be distinct races. Now in these new segregated neighborhoods they blended together as white Americans."

BEVERLY TATUM, Psychologist: "So if you can get a government loan with your GI Bill, your newly earned college degree and buy a house in an all-white area, that then appreciates in value, that then you can pass on to your children, then you're passing on wealth. That has all been made more available to you as a consequence of racist policies and practices. To the child of that parent, it looks like my father worked hard, bought a house, passed his wealth on to me, made it possible for me to go to school, mortgaged that house so I could have, you know, a relatively debt-free college experience, and finance my college education. How come your father didn't do that? Well, there are some good reasons why maybe your father had a harder time doing it if you're African American, or Latino, or Native American."

ACTIVITY 3: The Tribunal

Assign students to one of six groups that are being charged with causing and perpetuating racial segregation and environmental racism. You will serve as the prosecutor and charge each of the defendant groups with perpetuating racial segregation and environmental racism. (You can simply read the general indictment and the indictments against each group out loud.)

Each group must try to defend itself and in turn explain who or what is really responsible. Students will read all the indictments and selected supplemental readings to draw supporting evidence for a defense and counter argument representing the perspective of their assigned group.

During the tribunal, each defendant will have to make a case against at least one other defendant as part of their own defense. This process encourages students to consider multiple causal factors, including both structural and individual ones, in their arguments. Students should not approach the problem cynically by saying it was merely human nature to be greedy or racist, etc. Instead, they should recognize how historical conditions and social systems influence human behavior. By the same token, students should not adopt a narrow view of capitalism and other social systems as determining human behavior to a degree that denies human agency to create and change history.

In large classes, some students can be asked to step out of their roles to make up a tribunal panel that will act as both jury and judge.

NOTE: Students may struggle with cognitive dissonance in understanding that biological race is an illusion and a social construction yet racism continues to be a problem in our society that needs to be confronted. Students may draw a premature conclusion that racism should no longer be analyzed. It may be helpful to bring to their awareness explicitly that although race is an illusion, racism is real. Reviewing excerpts from RACE - The Power of an Illusion may be useful to establish this understanding.

Further instructions for the tribunal are included in the handout below.

Tribunal Handout
Tribunal on Residential Segregation and Environmental Racism

The Indictment (General)

The Civil Rights Movement put an end to Jim Crow - the system of laws and customs that enforced racial segregation and discrimination throughout the United States. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court finally reversed its rationalization of Jim Crow as "separate but equal" when it ruled that segregation is inherently unequal.

Today, in the post-Civil Rights America, you are guilty of transforming the legal segregation of Jim Crow into the geographic segregation of affluent white suburbs and impoverished inner-city ghettos. Furthermore, you are charged with: poisoning people of color, especially the young and elderly who are most vulnerable; neglecting, exploiting, and destroying their environments; and burdening society with the extra costs of health care and environmental clean up resulting from toxic poisoning.

Some of you may be tempted to argue that you didn't intend to be racist and therefore you shouldn't be held responsible for this "crime." Others may suggest that because these problems stem from the past, people in the present should not pay the price. However, evidence of continuing racial disparities demonstrates that inequality is actively perpetuated today.

NOTE: This is a unique tribunal. First, the goal of each group is to defend itself by proving that the other groups are actually responsible for the problems cited. It is important to realize that this is a strange activity and that the goal is not to become skilled in placing blame on others while avoiding responsibility, but to learn about the multiple causes behind these problems in a fun and engaging manner. The tribunal is also unlike the normal U.S. justice system, which focuses on specific cases rather than a broad and generalized (but nevertheless very real) problem.

The teacher is the facilitator and prosecutor of the tribunal. Defendants include:

  1. suburban residents
  2. government and public officials
  3. business leaders
  4. environmentalists
  5. inner-city residents and
  6. the system of capitalism

Each of you will be assigned to a group representing one of the six defendants. You must select two spokespersons to present your case. The rest of your team will be responsible for answering questions posed by the jury and other groups as well as cross-examining (questioning) the other defendant groups. All of you will:

  1. defend your group against the charges and
  2. explain how other parties are actually responsible using specific factual evidence

Your group may plead guilty if you choose, but you cannot claim sole responsibility. You must also attempt to prove the responsibility of least one other defendant.

Some students may be chosen to serve on the jury.


Meet with your groups to gather the facts of the case, outline your argument and write it out. Read the "Go Deeper" article in the Where Race Lives portion of the RACE Web site and the Facts on Environmental Racism handout. Study all the specific indictments and read the supplementary text selected for your group in order to prepare for the activity. Select two spokespersons to present your defense. Everyone else in the group must understand the case and be able to serve as a witness representing your group. Each presenter will be scored for CIM speech requirements during this role play.

The teacher will prosecute one group at a time. First, spokespersons for the group under prosecution will present their group's defense, using evidence from the texts. Then, nonpresenters from other groups will cross-examine the group on the stand to expose contradictions in their argument and bring attention to important facts neglected by their defense. The nonpresenters in the prosecuted group are expected to respond to cross-examination questions and offer counter arguments. Every student must participate actively to receive participation grades. Each person will also be required to write about the tribunal at the end.

After all the groups have had their turn, the jury will direct remaining questions to any of the groups in order to clarify each group's final position. The jury will then retreat to the hall to determine the guilt of each defendant (the jury may assign a percentage of guilt to different defendants), offering clear reasons for their decision. Following the jury's verdict, all students will come out of their roles and write their own verdict and explanation.

NOTE: The ultimate goal of this activity is not to place blame on a particular group. It is to understand how racial segregation and environmental racism are created and sustained by many forces interacting in complex ways. This understanding will help identify the social policies and institutional practices that perpetuate racial inequities.

The Six Indictments

A. Suburban Residents

You chose to move out of the city into all-white suburban neighborhoods, taking your resources, services and jobs with you. Whenever more than one or two African American families managed to overcome obstacles and move out there too, you fled to maintain your segregated suburbs. You claimed that you were not racist but feared the loss of your property values. But it is your "white flight" that causes the devaluation of property and the movement of resources and businesses away from the city and inner-ring suburbs out into white suburbs. You are responsible for reducing inner-city communities to the rock bottom, making them vulnerable to and even desperate for polluting industries.

You claim not to be racist, but you like to maintain your white advantage whether you acknowledge it or not. You claim that racism is not a problem anymore because the Civil Rights Act was put into place almost 40 years ago. You blame people of color for their own suffering. This kind of blaming allows you to explain outcome disparities as the result of differences in "natural" ability or motivation. In a 1990 National Opinion Research Report, more than 60 percent of white Americans like you said that Blacks suffer from poor housing and employment opportunities because of their own lack of will power. Some 56.3 percent said that African Americans preferred welfare to employment, while 44.6 percent said that Black people tended toward laziness.

Some of you even accuse people of color of reverse racism now, claiming that nonwhites get unfair advantages through affirmative action. Yet you have benefited from a long history of "affirmative action" for whites, passed down through generations - from discriminatory and racist immigration and citizenship laws, land give-aways and housing programs.

You have unfairly accumulated wealth and protected your interests at the expense of poor people of color. For example, you fought off toxic industries, saying "Not in my backyard," knowing or not caring that these toxic substances would end up in the neighborhoods of poor people of color. How can we blame racism or capitalism? It is individuals who do things, including making and maintaining systems.

Possible Defenses

You only wanted what any family would want: a good investment and safe, clean neighborhoods with good schools and other resources. As individuals, you had no control over unethical government policies or business practices. You broke no laws. There may have been a lot of racism in the past, but you were not responsible for it. You don't have personal prejudices or hostilities towards nonwhites and don't attempt to take advantage of others by being white.

View a print-friendly version of Uncle Sam Lends a Hand.

B. Government and Public Officials

Historically, you have been responsible for enabling and overlooking racist conditions - from de jure segregation to restrictive housing covenants (even long after the Supreme Court ruled restrictive covenants unenforceable in 1948). Beginning in the 1930s, your housing programs were designed to benefit whites only. You subsidized their low-cost loans for home ownership, making it cheaper in some circumstances to buy than to rent. You built freeways and infrastructure, and poured subsidies into suburbs while neglecting or destroying your inner cities. Meanwhile, your policies discouraged banks from lending to people of color, who also desired to buy better housing but ultimately could only afford to rent. People of color became concentrated in inner cities just as those areas were being razed and stripped of resources.

Your home loan policies not only contributed to de facto segregation but also increased the huge wealth gap between whites and nonwhites, resulting in white families today having on average eight times the wealth of nonwhite families. Furthermore, this difference in wealth is passed down from one generation to the next, perpetuating racial inequity.

You have also neglected to develop good low-income housing, leaving poor people of color with no options besides living in concentrated, polluted, inner-city neighborhoods and now older inner suburbs. Your urban renewal programs destroyed more housing than they built, disproportionately displacing and impoverishing African Americans and Latinos. Furthermore, it is your responsibility to protect the environment (through the Environmental Protection Agency), but you turn a blind eye to the living conditions of people of color. Your actions support corporate interests and business developers more than your constituents.

It is a diversion to blame the situation on racism or capitalism. Government officials are ultimately responsible for the general welfare of society and the protection of every individual's right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The government is even accountable for the economic system we have. While you have finally outlawed de jure segregation and overt racism, you continue to overlook de facto segregation and its consequences.

Possible Defenses

This is a democracy. The government is elected by the people and for the people. People have to take responsibility for the kind of government they choose or put up with. If you don't like it, vote the rascals out. Besides, market forces and individual choice led to people living where they do. For the government to intervene would be "social engineering." That's not the American way.

View a print-friendly version of The Downward Spiral.

C. Business Leaders (real estate agents, developers, bankers)

You can do business, provide good safe jobs, and still make a decent profit without discriminating against people of color or damaging their environment. Instead, in your greed you have exploited everyone and everything for maximum profit. Real estate agents profited from "block-busting" when they pressured white residents to sell their homes for less than market value by (1) fabricating fears of nonwhites moving into the neighborhood and driving down housing values and then (2) selling those homes at above market prices to people of color. In banking, you have discriminated against qualified people of color either by denying them home loans or charging them higher rates and fees. Today, Black people and Latinos are still 60% more likely to be turned down for loans than whites with the same income. You have also put communities of color in a desperate condition by not investing in them or supporting local businesses as you do in white suburbs, leaving residents no choice but to travel great distances to do their shopping or pay higher prices at neighborhood convenience stores. Corporations are even guilty of environmental blackmail; you threaten to move elsewhere and take jobs away if people don't accept polluting industries or insist on costly pollution controls. You'll take people's labor but don't give anything back to the community.

How can we blame racism or capitalism? It is individual business lenders who make the decisions they do.

Possible Defenses

You were pressured to maximize profits and minimize risk, as your stockholders require. If your company didn't do it, another would. You followed government guidelines and broke no laws. You aren't a racist, you're just doing your job. It's not your fault that some groups are more vulnerable than others. You're running a business, not a charity. You helped create jobs and put your money back into the economy, which is good for the whole nation. Moreover, it's a systemic issue: if one or even a few banks or businesses engaged in such practices, you could say they were guilty of a crime, but when all the banks and businesses engaged in such practices, it's just the way things work. The economic system and government are responsible, not you.

Interview with john a. powell, legal scholar (beginning with "How does geography do the work of Jim Crow laws?" and ending with "Aren't whites the most segregated group?")

D. Environmental Groups

While you claim to care about the environment and peoples' health, you have neglected poor people of color in favor of whales and wildernesses. You use this kind of campaign to avoid controversial issues of justice and to win the sympathy and financial support of your well-to-do middle class constituents. Even with your success at establishing greenbelts and regional preserves, you are diverting valuable resources from the inner city and catering to the interests of a white middle class with the means to enjoy leisure time in nature. You have done little to enable those who would benefit most from fresh air and a clean environment to partake of them.

You care more about saving trees and whales than the health of people of color and the less privileged members of our society. Your own segregated lives have blinded you to how people of color and their environments have suffered disproportionately. You fight against toxic substances and waste in your own communities without raising an eyebrow when those substances are eventually placed in the environments of people of color next door or even halfway across the world.

Although you may mean well, your actions and omissions have had consequences that are borne disproportionately by vulnerable communities of color.

Possible Defenses

You didn't know what was happening to people of color. In fact, you helped put into place many laws that can protect everyone's health and environments. You may not be advocating enough on the behalf of poor communities, but you're not directly responsible for what's happening to them either. You broke no laws. Also, the environment does need to be protected, and there's only so much you can do with limited resources. It's hard enough to get money to support the campaigns you already run - although you might not like it, your work is driven by the needs and wants of people who have resources. You can't do everything. Other people, including residents in those poor communities, have to take responsibility as well.

View a print-friendly version of A Tale of Two Families.

E. Inner-city Residents

We live in a meritocracy, a society in which people are rewarded according to their talent and effort. Look at immigrants - whether it's Europeans in the past or more recently, Asians - they come here with nothing, but they work hard and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. They are proof that America is the land of opportunity. None of them got any handouts, so why should you?

You can't blame others for your failures and misfortunes. You are responsible for your own lifestyle and values, which affect your opportunities and the condition of your neighborhoods. Affirmative action programs already make it so much easier for people of color to get jobs than whites, so stop trying to blame others for your problems and do something to improve yourselves.

You also can't expect businesses or the government to pour money into your neighborhood when you don't take pride in keeping things clean or in good working order. Crime and vandalism are committed by individuals, not society.

This is a free country. You can live anywhere you choose. If you don't like where you live, you should move elsewhere or help improve conditions, instead of complaining and expecting others to bail you out. If you don't want "toxic businesses" in your neighborhood, you should work together to keep them out, like people in the suburbs do. It's your own fault for trading your health and environment for jobs. You should take more pride in yourselves and your community and work harder. Then maybe prosperity will come.

Possible Defenses

Whites have benefited from a long history of affirmative action. Many of the problems that we face today are the result of discrimination that occurred in the past and existing structures that perpetuate inequality. Racism is not just about interpersonal relationships, but about opportunities and access to resources. Neither government officials or environmental groups listen to us because we can't afford to contribute financially to their campaigns. Inner-city neighborhoods aren't deteriorating because of who is moving in, but because of who is moving out and taking resources with them. No neighborhood can be stable or secure without resources.

It's easier for the other defendants to blame the victim rather than take responsibility for their actions and figure out how to help solve these problems. Turning this into a race or lifestyle issue is just an excuse that lets them "off the hook."

View a print-friendly version of The Downward Spiral.

A Long History of Racial Preference - for Whites

F. Capitalism

In the course of a normal football game, it's not unusual for players to become injured. When they do, it's not anyone's fault; it's just one of the risks of playing the game. Football is antagonistic and violent by nature, regardless of who the players are.

In the same way, capitalism by nature is self-serving. This system of competition forces business leaders, bankers, and even homeowners to work towards their own individual betterment at the expense of others or society as a whole. In capitalism, maximizing profit is valued above all else, including people and social justice. This encourages exploitation and promotes inequality. As long as there are winners, there will be losers. Capitalism actively discourages other forms of social relationships, like consensus building, fair distribution of resources, or businesses taking any action that hurts their bottom line.

Racial prejudice may have helped create segregated communities, but most people are not bigots and they only want to live in good, clean, safe neighborhoods, which happen to be mostly in the suburbs. People who live in suburbs do not intend to make people of color suffer; it's just one consequence of the normal workings of the economic system.

Segregation and environmental racism are natural by-products of capitalism. Individuals can't be blamed, because it's the entire system that's at fault. Anyone who acts selfishly for profit or gain is just seizing an opportunity; if they didn't do it, someone else would. Those are the rules of the game. Just like in football, it's all about winning. As a result, the system thrives on inequity and exploits weakness and vulnerability. As long as people are locked into a capitalist system, the benefits and costs of the economy will be unfairly distributed. It's the system that's at fault.

Possible Defenses

You can't blame the system; it's individuals who are at fault. Besides, people are racist, not the system. Racism is profitable because people make choices based upon their fears and beliefs, not because the system encourages them to be racist. There's just a lot of ongoing racism in our society.

Capitalism also lifts people out of poverty. Investment increases worth in a community, and economic growth benefits everyone. The more money people make, the more they spend, and the more jobs are created as a result. It's not the fault of the system that some people are less qualified than others for jobs or are not as good at playing the game. Besides, without earnings, there would be no tax dollars or private donations to pay for social services and charitable contributions for the poor. Profit doesn't mean inequality - people who make money give a lot back to society.

View a print-friendly version of Uncle Sam Lends a Hand.

ACTIVITY 4: Debriefing

It is important to remind students to step back from the role-play now and put together an understanding of the big picture from listening to all the arguments in the tribunal. For homework, students should write their own verdicts, including an explanation of which they think is responsible for what and why. The following day, invite students to share their verdicts or summarize them. In light of their verdicts, guide the students to discuss the following issues:

  • What are the biggest obstacles to remedying racial and environmental disparities?

  • Given that we are already living in segregated communities, what can we do to remedy the inequalities that result (in terms of schools, jobs, safety, housing values, and environmental hazards)? If we don't do anything to change this situation, will things become more equal over time or less? (See Ask the Experts - Society discussion for more information)

  • What role can each defendant group play in helping to create a fairer distribution of resources and opportunities? Historically, groups have sometimes allowed themselves to be divided and have fought with each other instead of working together for solutions. How can different groups work together for racial and environmental justice? Discuss how two groups in particular might work together.

  • Should we ban environmentally harmful industries altogether? Some argue that bureaucratic legislation to prevent environmental injustice will hurt poor communities by denying economic opportunities. What are other ways that these areas can be developed?

  • Is gentrification good or bad for poor communities?

  • Currently the costly burden of proof for environmental injustice is on citizens and not on the industry. Is this fair? Why/why not? What might be the best way to address allegations of environmental racism?

  • If science proves that biological race is an illusion and that race has been only created and perpetuated through societal laws and practices, what should we do about race and racism in U.S. society today? Is colorblindness the answer? Affirmative action?

  • Discuss the difference between equality of opportunity vs. equality of condition. Can you really have equality of opportunity without equality of condition? Consider the following two quotes from the film:

    EDUARDO BONILLA-SILVA: "The notion of colorblindness came to us from that famous 'I Have A Dream' speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, where he said that the people should be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin. And what has happened in the post civil rights era is that whites have assumed that we are already there, that we're in a society where color does not matter."

    DALTON CONLEY: On the one hand, the civil rights era officially ended inequality of opportunity.... At the same time, those civil rights triumphs did nothing to address the underlying economic and social inequalities that had already been in place. It doesn't recognize the fact that the rewards, the house, the Lexus, you know, the big bank account, those are not only the pot of gold at the end of the game, they're also the starting point for the next generation....So until we recognize that there is no way to talk about equality of opportunity without talking about equality of condition, then we're stuck with this paradoxical idea of a colorblind society that is totally unequal by color.


  1. Research other consequences of white advantage and racial disparity- e.g., employment, schools, criminal justice, etc. Read A Tale of Two Families and this online article "The Wealth Factor" by Dalton Conley and write about the consequences of racial segregation and the wealth gap in the United States.
  2. Research the concept of regional equity and discuss what new possibilities or solutions it might provide for remedying racial segregation and environmental injustice. Read these two articles by john powell to begin: "What We Need to Do about the 'Burbs" and Achieving Racial Justice: What's Sprawl Got to Do With It?
  3. Is there a community near you that is in danger? Have students investigate and discuss different ways communities can get involved. Find out about pollution problems in your area by using the Scorecard Web site: Search by geographic area or company name, or learn more about environmental issues such as air quality, land contamination, toxic waste from industry and animals and water quality.
  4. Ask students to look into the history of different residential communities in your area. Are there examples of different ways certain communities have fought to maintain stable, integrated neighborhoods? Compare success stories with those of nearby neighborhoods that experienced rapid decline. (If there are no applicable examples in your area, well-documented studies include: Shaker Heights v. East Cleveland, Ohio; Maywood v. Oak Park, Illinois; the neighborhoods of West Mount Airy v. East Mount Airy/Germantown in Philadelphia, PA.)


In the tribunal, the students (in each group) will demonstrate understanding in their construction of a coherent defense and counter-argument with detailed supporting evidence from Episode 3 of RACE - The Power of an Illusion and the supplemental readings.

At the end of the tribunal, each student will also write out his/her own verdict for homework and provide a rationale for it. The students selected as the tribunal panel will demonstrate their understanding in constructing a verdict and providing reasons for it.

A good performance will demonstrate that students argue from careful consideration of all the evidence to explain the complexity of multiple causes. An inadequate performance ignores complexity of multiple factors or does not address arguments or evidence that contradict the student's simplistic explanation. Students should understand that individual choices and actions may be structured and constrained by the system of capitalism, but they also shape and influence the particular historical consequences.


From National Center for History in the Schools:

STANDARD 2: Economic, social, and cultural developments in contemporary United States

  1. Understands new immigration and demographic shifts
  2. Understands how a democratic polity debates social issues and mediates between individual or group rights and the common good.

From Mid-Continent Research For Learning and Education:

U.S. History Eras 9 and 10, Level IV (Grades 9-12):

  1. Understands the economic boom and social transformation of post-World War II United States
  2. Understands domestic policies in the post-World War II period
  3. Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties
  4. Understands economic, social, and cultural developments in the contemporary United States

Historical Understanding, Level IV (Grades 9-12):

  1. Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns
  2. Understands the historical perspective



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