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


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.


The objectives of these exercises are for students to be able to:

  • Understand the concepts of environmental racism, institutional racism and white privilege
  • Hypothesize the causes of environmental injustice utilizing evidence to defend their interpretations
  • Develop an understanding of the principles of social justice, equity and anti-racism
  • 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.



  • Jim Crow
  • de jure segregation
  • de facto segregation
  • redlining
  • blockbusting
  • 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):

  • 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)

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 this handout.

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 Q&A: Episode 3 question cards 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:

    1. 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."
    2. 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



Episode 3

Housing, Government, Environmental Racism, Institutional Racism, White Advantage
5-6 class sessions (1 for screening and discussion; 1-2 to prepare for tribunal; 1-2 for the tribunal; 1 for debriefing)

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