The Observer: Lecture Explores Environmental Injustice

Author: Kathryn Muchnick

The Liu Institute for Asia and Asian studies hosted Nadia Kim, a professor of sociology and Asian & Asian American studies at Loyola Marymount University, this Monday to discuss the issues of environmental injustice confronting immigrant women in Los Angeles.

Kim is the author of the multi-award-winning book “Imperial Citizens: Koreans and Race from Seoul to LA” and “Refusing Death: Immigrant Women and the Fight for Environmental Justice in LA,” which she discussed at Monday’s lecture.

Kim said environmental justice is central to the overall issue of justice.

“There is no racism without environmental racism. There is no classism without environmental classism,” Kim said.

As an example of environmental injustice, Kim described freeways or ports that are built next to communities of color.

“We talk about Robert E. Lee and the Confederate statues as among our most racist monuments, but some people would argue that freeways and highways are because … they often destroy communities of color by virtue of being built.”

Kim also argued that understanding problems of environmental justice is essential to understanding the pandemic.

“The reason that Black, Brown, Pacific Islander and Indigenous communities are hospitalized and dying at the highest rates from COVID-19 has to do with the ways that their bodies are already compromised by environmental pollution.”

Through this lens of environmental justice, Kim’s research “chronicles the embodied, emotive and citizenship politics of Asian and Latinx immigrant women’s fight for cleaner air in LA.”

Specifically, “Refusing Death” explores how environmental justice activists in Los Angeles, mostly women, view racism and classism in regards to the boundaries between their hyper-polluted communities and others’ less polluted communities. 

“Immigrants, including unauthorized immigrants, increasingly rely on grassroots community activism as a way to affect political change,” Kim said.

This reality inspired her to focus on how local activists perceive issues of racism and classism in her recent book.

Through a series of 49 interviews, an analysis of thousands of documents, and ethnographic participant-observation where Kim helped community organizations organize protests, Kim found that the two primary groups of activists — the Filipino and the Latinx community — have different views on this topic.

While many lower-class, Latinx activists reported classism as the reason they face environmental injustice, many Filipino activists attributed the hyper-pollution of their communities to environmental racism against the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders community. This result surprised Kim and led her to question her original assumption that activists would attribute the environmental injustice entirely to racism. 

“Sometimes our theoretical and our intellectual orientations in language might be too disengaged from, or divorced from … the people who live [through] these kinds of injustices,” Kim noted.

Kim also argued that her findings demonstrate a need for more multidisciplinary environmental justice scholarship.

Finally, Kim emphasized the “ethics of care” that many environmental justice activist groups in Los Angeles use.

Many activists view their resistance as a “form of moral citizenship, the kind of citizenship that … has been abdicated by those at the top, which is to care for your community,” Kim said.

She argued that polluting corporations attempt to co-opt this language from activists, but it must remain a part of environmental activism going forward.

“Middle and upper class people hold this [environmental injustice] up mostly by virtue of only caring about your own condition,” Kim said.

The only way they can stop upholding environmental injustice is by instead caring for the material situations of lower-class, communities of color, she added.

The lecture, titled “Our Community Has Boundaries,” was a part of the Liu Institute’s series “Asian (Re)Visions of Nation, State and Citizenship.” The series invites speakers that challenge political models while demonstrating the need for analyses of global issues from people across Asia.

Original piece published in The Observer at