Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Earth & Environmental Sciences


Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Committee Members

Rupal Oza

Tom Angotti

Subject Categories

American Studies | Environmental Policy | Ethnic Studies | Human Geography | Nature and Society Relations


Environmental Impact Assessment, Racial Capitalism, Racial Environmental State, California, New York, Hawaii


In this dissertation, I examine ways that the US National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA) and its primary enforcement mechanism, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) process, have reshaped the state as a site for racial and environmental conflict by institutionalizing a particular form of environmental justice within governmental decision making processes. Combining archival methods and legal analysis, I develop three case studies involving community struggles over the social production of space that each engage the EIA process to different effect. The case studies were selected based on what they reveal about the ways that the environmental justice framework intersects with and gets institutionalized within the EIA process. The first case study follows the conflict over a public housing project in New York City where race and class figured as environmental categories deployed in relation to desegregation efforts and fair housing policy. The second case study looks at a campaign to stop the construction of a prison in Delano, California, where the EIA process provided a legal platform for bridging environmental justice and prison abolition struggles. The final case study looks at an ongoing campaign against live-fire military training on land used for Native Hawaiian cultural and subsistence practices on the island of Oʻahu in Hawaiʻi, where ecological concerns embedded within Native Hawaiian land use epistemologies provide a critical framework for resisting ongoing US militarization.

I develop the concept of the racial environmental state in order to explain how the EIA process functions to simultaneously and interdependently maintain both racial capitalism and uneven productions of nature, while also providing institutionalized pathways for challenging and reshaping the state as a site of racial and environmental conflict. My case studies highlight the capacities and limitations of this particular state formation for social and environmental justice organizing. I detail ways that the NEPA legislation and the EIA process have institutionalized a specific type of environmental justice that renders racialized space and difference legible and governable within the purview of the contemporary capitalist state vis-à-vis environmental knowledge. My analyses reveal complex ways in which people rework racial and environmental meanings through their engagement with environmental policy, and in so doing, counterpose race and environment as articulated modes of resistance to the racist capitalist state.

Each of my case studies tells the story of a geographically specific conflict over the production of racialized space that is waged through a combination of legal actions and mass mobilizations around the EIA process. The concepts of race and environment operate in different ways within each case study, but in all three, the legal battle over the EIA process is tied up in struggles that deploy race and environment to articulate differing visions of place, as well as in conflicts over the state’s understandings of race and difference. While the specific stakes of each case differ in their spatial, scalar, temporal, and political particularities, they share a common struggle over placemaking waged through and against the state’s use of race and environment as linked concepts informing land use and infrastructure decisions. I conclude that through these struggles, the EIA process has institutionalized a particular form of environmental justice logics that maintain the legitimacy the racial environmental state through the incorporation of liberal forms of official antiracism, distributive justice, and neoliberal capitalist environmental relations. Ultimately, my research reveals that the development and institutionalization of the EIA process in the US provides institutional, legal, and political structures for governing racialized space and populations, and as a result, opens new possibilities and limitations for social and environmental justice activism and community organizing.