Sick Building Syndrome as a Problem of Race: Part III with author Michelle Murphy

Part 1 | 2 | 3 | 4

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Part 3 with Jody Roberts and Michelle Murphy--discussing her book Sick Building Syndrome and the Problem of Uncertainty--follows below. All entries in the author-meets-blogger series can be found here.

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WF: Racism is a word that generally makes us feel uncomfortable, especially when it's linked to politics or science. When I've introduced the term in courses I've taught (using your writings) my students get visibly uncomfortable. It's not the case or the injustices that sets them off - they tend to agree with much of what's said - but they have a very difficult time understanding why this is racism. Why do you think they react this way?

MM: The response you describe is one I've encountered many times, both in terms of my work, but also my teaching on race and science. I think the fields of the history of science and STS have been painfully slow to take up the rich body of scholarship on race, and tends to associate race with racism, that is, with psychic prejudice. Critical race studies track race not as residing in bodies or in racist mental dispositions, but as an effect of historically sedimented structures that then give concrete form to people's lives, laws, built environments, distributions of exposure, and so on. It often takes a change of head space to rethink race in this way, to critically see that racialized structures are constituting race all around us. That is why I use the term "racialized" and not racist in the book. Moreover, I think that many students tend to expect that race is only relevant to science when the concern is an instance of discrimination or racialized disadvantage. I want to insist that race is at work in configurations of privilege as well -- that in the twentieth century racialization shaped knowledge production in general, not in particular. This goes against expectation, and concretely implicates many readers, as well as myself.

WF: For those of us coming at this work from a different background, can you clarify this distinction between racism and racialization? That seems important.

MM: In the mid-century, as anti-racist politics was emerging as a norm, and biological notions of race were discredited amongst most scientists, racism became understood as something that existed as a pathology of the mind - as a harmful attitude. Forms of anti-racism can be situated in terms of the general rise of psychology, and what the historian Ellen Herman calls the psychologization of politics, in which questions of mind and attitude are seen as both the domain of a problem, but also of political solutions. Racialization, in contrast, is a way of naming "race" as having material and structural form--it is produced in structures like law, housing, economies, access to health care, school systems such that we might say that a particular workplace is "raced." So, with the notion of racialization, the questions turn from psychology to those of structures, political economy, and culture that produce ways of thinking or inhabiting the world, as well as the conditions that link together harmful exposures and disenfranchisement in ways that are "raced."

WF: So race is an important factor in the story of SBS. You make the claim that the policies of the EPA while investigating SBS were racialized politics, right? Can you explain this for us?

MM: I argue that the EPA was shaped by racialization and "racialized geographies." This is not peculiar to the EPA. On the contrary, the EPA is an example of how race shaped just about all aspects of life, work, built environment, and knowledge production in twentieth century America. As an urban space, Washington D.C., where the EPA is housed, is profoundly shaped by racialized geographies and histories. This is where your question about the difference between racism and racialization helps out: it is important to differentiate between accusations of "racism" (and attention to the work of race) and racialization (as a structural phenomenon that shapes all aspects of life). My argument is that race, in the form of white privilege, shaped the EPA. I made this argument because I attended to the material culture of the EPA headquarters that exists in a city still wrestling with histories of segregation, in which race still actively shapes where one works and lives. I wanted to show that race mattered to science in the United States even in instances when the scientists themselves were not directly dealing with questions of race, even when they were progressive, liberal and dedicated to environmentalism.

WF: So, Washington DC has a racialized geography, but how does this translate to office buildings more generally?

MM: Well, Washington DC is a city still marked by histories of segregated housing, as well as white flight to the suburbs. Thus, the neighborhood of the EPA headquarters was a racialized geography in that the buildings, jobs, and residents were shaped by histories of segregation. Poor blacks living there in alleys in the 19th century, the burgeoning poor neighborhood coming up in the 1960s, riots in the aftermath of Martin Luther King's assassination just blocks away. The headquarters itself was not in a grand building, but instead was housed in a space leased from a private owner, who was then charged with its maintenance and upkeep. The building, moreover, was not really an office building, but an apartment building with a struggling mall below. As you walked through the space in the early 1990s, you passed through a mall with service workers drawn from the neighborhood that was majority non-white. Within the EPA itself, like all federal bureaucracies, the makeup of the staff shifted up the ranks, becoming progressively more white as jobs paid more. When I interviewed scientists, I traveled to their suburban ranch houses. In other words, race worked to create certain special distributions of work, housing, and so on, which the EPA was both shaped by and reshaped.

WF: What does it say about the EPA that it's no longer headquartered in those buildings and instead finds itself in a very posh office building ironically situated next door to the Ronald Reagan building?

MM: It is extremely ironic, since the Reagan administration did all it could to declaw the EPA! I think it says something about the changed status of the EPA under the Clinton Administration, as well as the hard work and perseverance of the union who lobbied for the new building. I wouldn't want to overstate the case, but there has been a change of the guard, generationally speaking, from scientists who came to the EPA out the environmental movement of the 1960s and 70s, to a professionalization of environmental science. But I also think it is worth keeping track of what happened to the EPA's old neighborhood. The impact of its departure was compared to a military base closing, taking local jobs as well as leading to a long-standing empty building.

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