The “father of environmental justice” on the politics of protection and vulnerability.
In 1978, Robert Bullard was fresh out of graduate school and living in Houston, Texas, when he was “recruited” into his current career. His wife at the time, attorney Linda McKeever Bullard, was suing the city of Houston for planning a waste landfill near a black community. A sociologist by training, Bullard was asked to collect data for the case, which was the first to allege “environmental discrimination” on the grounds of civil rights law. In the course of conducting his study, Bullard confronted the stunning fact that even though African-Americans comprised only a quarter of Houston’s population, 82 percent of the city’s waste wound up in their communities.
Bullard expanded his study to other points in the South and found this pattern dismally repeated throughout: toxic and industrial facilities were overwhelmingly concentrated in African-American and low-income neighborhoods. This wide body of fieldwork became the basis for his 1990 book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality, which is broadly considered the first text on environmental justice and a classic work of public health.
At the time of its publication, not a single state had environmental justice protections on the books, but today an executive order mandates that all states do. “The environmental justice movement redefined what was environmental—to include where we live, work, play, learn, worship, as well as how we relate to the natural world,” says Bullard in the interview that follows. And yet, this race and class bias persists as industry interests undercut public health, property values, and quality of life in lower-income and minority communities throughout the country. As Bullard’s lifework demonstrates, it is those who live closest to polluting sites who tend to be the most vulnerable and least resourced.
The author of eighteen books on issues spanning environmental racism, sustainable development, industrial facility siting, and grassroots movements, Bullard is currently the dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University. Grist has dubbed him the “father of environmental justice,” Newsweek named him one of thirteen environmental leaders of the century, and most recently the Sierra Club granted him their highest honor, the John Muir Award, making him the first African-American to receive this distinction since the organization launched the prize in 1962. Whether this award signals hope for a movement long pushed to the sidelines of mainstream environmentalism or merely underscores the entrenched disregard for the communities Bullard represents remains to be seen. As he makes clear, “Many of our issues—equity issues—still get left off the table.”
—Katherine Rowland for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve said before that you were drafted into the environmental movement.
Robert Bullard: My wife and I moved to Houston in 1978. Two years out of graduate school, I was an untenured sociology professor at Texas Southern University—which is where I am now. My wife had sued the state of Texas, and the city of Houston and Harris County and this waste disposal company—the second-largest in the country. It was the first lawsuit to allege “environmental discrimination” and I was asked to collect data to determine where all the solid waste disposal facilities were located in Houston.
And so I say I was drafted, because this was not something I was trained to do. My specialty area was housing and residential segregation, and so I had to use my basic skills in demography to overlay where the landfills and incinerators and solid waste facilities were located. I had ten graduate students in my research methods class and we designed a study that visually mapped where facilities were located based on income and race, and what we were able to show was that there was a pattern that followed the concentration of African-American neighborhoods in the city. Even though blacks only made up 25 percent of the population, we found that 100 percent of city-owned landfills were located in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Guernica: When you set out to do your research, had you expected to find this level of concentrated risk?
Robert Bullard: No! I was surprised. It was amazing to me. Houston is a very segregated city, so we were able to show exactly that race was the most important factor in determining where these landfills and incinerators were located. It was not until 1972 that the city got its first black city council member. So from the 1920s until 1972, the Houston city council members were all white, and these were decisions made by white men who decided that the best place to put landfills and incinerators was in black neighborhoods.
When I saw all the case studies together I made the connection between the environment and civil rights, and saw that there is a clear race and class bias in determining which communities are protected.
When I started looking at this pattern, it was incredible, and I wanted to know if this was something unique to Houston. I expanded the study to include Dallas, and industrial facilities in Louisiana, and along the Mississippi River corridor—what they call “Cancer Alley”—and I found the same patterns. All of the lead smelters in Dallas were located in black neighborhoods. I went to Emelle, Alabama, to the nation’s largest hazardous waste landfill and it was located in a county that was 90 percent black. In West Virginia, the Union Carbide company came in the 1950s and put this chemical plant in the middle of Institute, which has always been a mostly black town. It is the only place in the country that manufactures methyl isocyanate, the same chemical that killed all those people in Bhopal, India. When I saw all the case studies together I made the connection between the environment and civil rights, and saw that there is a clear race and class bias in determining which communities are protected.
Guernica: Did you find when you were doing your fieldwork that people were aware of the problems in their own backyards?
Robert Bullard: When I was working on the cases people would tell me they knew exactly where the landfills and chemical plants were located and when they came in. People made the connection between the racism and classism that existed in terms of infrastructure and basic services. But they did not put it in the context of environment—it was just plain, in your face, old-fashioned, slam-dunk racism. They said, “Our civil rights are being violated.” But it just happens that in this case, we’re talking about pollution. In the case of the lawsuit in Houston, this landfill was located 1,300 feet from a school—that’s just across the road. The fact that a company would place a landfill so close to a school and that governmental entities would say it’s OK that black children deal with the smells and the trucks running up and down a street where there’s no sidewalk was an insult, and people were tired and started to really get angry.
Over those years people started to say, “We have a right to a clean environment and to equal protection under the law. We may not be members of the traditional environmental groups, but we have the right to have our children protected and not play in a playground that’s across the street from a polluting facility.”
There is a difference between a job and the promise of jobs, there is a difference between economic development and the promise of economic development.
Guernica: You’ve mentioned companies and white politicians as being responsible for some of these problems. How has the movement dealt with these parties over the years?
Robert Bullard: We’ve had a lot of progress and the environmental justice movement has matured to the point of being able to document the issues through research and policy work and videos that really bring the facts to the forefront. Twenty-five years ago it was really difficult to even get records of the smoking gun and the back-room deals being cut. In many cases there were no black elected officials in predominantly black counties. These were decisions made by people who had no interest in representing black people. Because of the interrelationship between the exploitation of the land and the exploitation of people, there were all kinds of rules and regulations to suppress the black vote, which makes it possible to get an all-white county commissioner in a mostly black county. Today, it’s more difficult for that to happen because our movement is more sophisticated and there are more documentation tools that can be used.
But it still happens, often where people are given false choices and told that a facility will bring jobs. There is a difference between a job and the promise of jobs, there is a difference between economic development and the promise of economic development. What we saw in our research over the past thirty years is that when people are given information, most will decide based on the facts and not promises. We have also had many cases where crooked politicians and individuals in collusion with these polluting entities have been outed and exposed for having been paid off under the table or given campaign contributions to their political action committees. Now, it’s much easier for us to gather that information and get it into the hands of voters and community leaders so they can make informed decisions, rather than hold faith that the industry and elected officials will do the right thing.
Many of our issues—equity issues—still get left off the table.
Guernica: In the past you’ve called your work “our own brand of environmentalism” in reference to how some of the early green campaigns didn’t really attend to low-income and minority issues. What about the relationship today between environmental justice and the broader environmental movement?
Robert Bullard: We’ve made progress in diversifying the environmental and conservation movement, but we’re not there yet. Many of our issues—equity issues—still get left off the table. The first principle of environmental justice is that people must speak for themselves and the communities most impacted must be in the room when the decisions are being made. The mainstream environmental and conservation movement is still predominantly white and well-resourced to the point where the bulk of the funding coming from private foundations goes to those same organizations that have been getting it for the last thirty years or more.
So there is still an imbalance in terms of power-sharing and in terms of resource-sharing between the mainstream organizations and the environmental justice organizations. What we have been saying is that as the country becomes more diverse and moves toward becoming a majority of people of color in the next thirty years, there needs to be a transition in terms of how resources are distributed.
The environmental justice movement redefined what was environmental—to include where we live, work, play, learn, worship, as well as how we relate to the natural world. We got a lot of pushback from some of the environmental groups early on. They’d say, “What’s schools and housing got to do with the environment?” We’d say, “It’s all connected.” Sometimes the environmental justice movement is out front, ahead of the curve, and it has taken a while for the framing to get inculcated into mainstream thinking. The climate justice movement is still trying to make sure that the framing also includes justice, equity, and human rights issues.
If you look at the climate bill that they attempted to pass in 2009 [the American Clean Energy and Security Act], it was framed in the context of straight environmental issues, namely reducing greenhouse gases. What we tried to insert and make sure that the mainstream groups understood is that when we’re talking about vulnerable communities on the frontlines of climate change, it’s about much more than CO2, it’s also about health. It’s taken a while but that message has begun to sink in, even all the way up to the White House. If you look at the rollout of the president’s plan to deal with carbon pollution [the EPA-proposed rule to cut coal power plant emissions by 30 percent by 2030], one piece of that is reducing the co-pollutants from coal power plants—sulfur dioxide, arsenic, mercury—that are killing people. It’s poor people and people of color that bear the impact of the assault of these coal power plants. Therefore, when we talk about climate and greenhouse gas emissions and pollutants, it’s also about addressing vulnerability and the negatives that have been accruing disproportionately to vulnerable communities in terms of their health and property values and quality of life.
You can call it institutionalized racism or institutionalized inequality, but what we say is that any system that operates to maintain inequality is a corrupt system and must be addressed.
Guernica: You just mentioned getting pushback from the environmental movement. I can only imagine that you must say a lot of things that people don’t want to hear. Do you encounter any significant resistance to your research from the private sector or government?
Robert Bullard: The long and the short answer to that is yes. When you start peeling the onion and uncovering layers and layers of inequity that have been subsidized by industry and government, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. You can call it institutionalized racism or institutionalized inequality, but what we say is that any system that operates to maintain inequality is a corrupt system and must be addressed. Look at the way funds get distributed, whether it’s from government or the National Institutes of Health, or the way grants are being awarded and how committee and review panels are selected, and certain groups or geographic regions are excluded based on race and gender and class. When you lay that on the table with empirical evidence, it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. We say to get away from taking it personally: we’re trying to root out institutionalized systems that maintain or create inequality.
Guernica: The question of where and how America is going to source its energy is such a fraught topic right now. How is that playing out in your movement?
Robert Bullard: There’s a lot of information out there and what we’ve tried to do is to really get the facts in front of individuals so they can make their own decisions. Twenty-five years ago, when energy industries would come to communities and say, “We’re going to give you jobs,” there may have been five hundred jobs during the construction phase of a facility, but when the facility starts operating there are maybe fifty jobs, and only five go to the local residents. We try to really get the official facts in front of communities so they can make decisions.
In the fracking controversy that has taken hold across the country, what has happened is that a lot of communities and leaders that may have never seen themselves in relation to environmental issues are looking at environmental, health, and community issues from a different vantage point. In many cases, these communities have never had to confront an industrial facility as a neighbor. But because of the way shale gas is located, fracking has brought health and environmental issues to the forefront. People are taking the position that their rights have been infringed upon and the equity argument is now entering the fracking controversy. Communities want to understand the long-term impacts and they’re not buying the argument that jobs trump environment and health. People have the right to be in the room and decide without some deal being cut between a local government and an industry, without the input from those impacted the most. People are saying, “When I bought my house I didn’t buy it with the understanding that you could go underneath and drill and create problems and that when the water comes out of the faucet you can light it on fire.” People are saying, “I didn’t vote for that.”
These are not all people of color or poor people: this is affecting people from all income levels and ethnicities, so that’s creating a whole new level of movement-building. The other big environmental justice issue is mountaintop removal. And in this case, these are white people, in many cases poor and working class, and they are saying they have a right to not have their water contaminated and their community destroyed by what is basically strip mining on steroids.
Guernica: As a corollary to marginalized communities shouldering a disproportionate toxic load, do you see the equity issue playing out in access to green energy? Because to date that appears largely clustered in communities of privilege.
Robert Bullard: Oh yes. We have a term for that: energy apartheid. At the same time that all this emphasis is being placed on going green and clean and renewable, if you look at the equity impact, there is a class bias, and a racial bias embedded in class. People with resources can have better access to clean energy and renewables, and better access to green transportation, while at the same time a lot of the dirty energy industry facilities are still getting placed in working-class, lower-income communities of color. We’re talking clean and acting dirty.
Look at the fact that the nuclear power industry is trying to redefine itself. There had not been a nuclear power plant built in decades, and it is not by accident that the first two plants to get permitted are being placed in Waynesboro, Georgia, which is overwhelmingly African-American and that already has two nuclear power plants. So you’re talking about a community of lower-income African-Americans that is going to be used as a guinea pig for restarting nuclear power, a very risky operation. We have to point out the inconsistency of these things—who is going to benefit from this green economy, who’s getting the jobs and the contracts and the benefits? There is a disconnect. If we are going to have a green economy and move toward a green future, we have to make sure that future is equitable and not an opportunity for some communities to just get more dirty industry.
Guernica: Even though issues related to environmental justice have gathered more attention, as you’ve been pointing out many of these problems persist. As you try to nurture the next generation of leaders, where do you think people should throw their weight?
Robert Bullard: We have been trying to train a whole cadre of new leaders to do this work—academics, community leaders, policy experts—to do rigorous equity analysis and show if you follow the money you can really understand who is important and who’s not, and how tax dollars are used to create and maintain inequality.
We need to focus on the issues around climate change and global warming, because they touch so much when it comes to health, race, class, transportation, energy. When we disaggregate the issues and the solutions we’re trying to put in place around mitigation and adaptation, we need leaders and scholars and activists in an array of areas from food security to water to green space. We need to train people across disciplines, to see all the connections and come up with common concepts and speak the same language. When we do our research and writing, we have to make sure it’s cross-cutting and not so narrow that it can only be understood by the discipline that authored it.
Guernica: Last year, you were the first African-American to be awarded the John Muir Award. What was your take on that?
Robert Bullard: I was surprised. I graciously accepted the reward—I wasn’t sure I was the first African-American, I certainly hoped not! But I was proud to accept the award because it was time for something like that to happen.