Broken Ground | Season 2 | Episode 2

Dr. Robert Bullard: Environmental Justice Is Equal Justice

Dr. Robert Bullard, widely considered the father of environmental justice, talks about the inequality of pollution and climate change.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Robert Bullard, widely considered the father of environmental justice, talks about the inequality of pollution and climate change.






HOST: This is Broken Ground, a podcast about environmental stories in the South and the people at the heart of them. I’m Claudine Ebeid McElwain. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we are passing the mic to some of the leading voices of the environmental movement in the South. Over the next few episodes, you’ll hear from authors and scholars speaking about the environmental stories and truths that reveal the specialness and sometimes the tragedies of this region.




HOST: This episode was recorded months before the coronavirus pandemic swept across our nation and the rest of the world. As we all grapple with this crisis, the inequities in our society are now magnified. And every day we are learning how inextricably the quality of our air is tied to our personal health.

In this episode, we’ll hear from Dr. Robert Bullard. He’s often described as the ‘father of environmental justice.’ He talks about how systemic racism thwarts the rights of Black and Brown people to a clean and healthy environment. Dr. Bullard has been working to address these issues for more than 40 years. He is currently a distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and the author of 18 books addressing issues from environmental racism, to sustainable development, to industrial facility citing. His book “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality” is a standard text in the environmental justice field. He joined us from his office at Texas Southern University.


CLAUDINE EBEID MCELWAIN: Dr. Bullard, you’re known as the father of environmental justice. And I’ve heard you say in other interviews and read in articles that you came to first be involved in this work in the late seventies. And it was because of a legal case your wife Linda McKeever Bullard was working on. It kind of sounds like she recruited you. Is that what happened?


ROBERT BULLARD: Well yes, I’m an accidental environmentalist. And my area was looking at residential segregation in housing. And way back in 1978, my wife asked me to collect data for a lawsuit Bean vs Southwestern Waste Management Corporation. That was the first, uh, lawsuit in United States challenging environmental racism using civil rights law. And so I had 10 students in my research methods class, uh, here at Texas Southern University, and, um, we set out to develop the research protocol and the methodology and uh, did the study and I uh, completed it in 1979 and got it published in 1983. This is long before there were laptops and iPads and GIS mapping, no cell phones. I ran the data on an IBM mainframe. And what we found is that from the thirties up until 1978, 100% of all the city owned landfills in Houston were located in predominantly Black communities. Six out of eight of the city owned incinerators were located in Black neighborhoods and three out of four of the privately owned landfills were located in Black neighborhoods, even though Blacks made up only 25% of the population during this period, but received 82% of all the garbage dumped. And as it turns out, uh, it was mostly White males on the city council sending garbage to Black communities. And we saw that as a form of discrimination, a form of racism and something that was, uh, unethical, immoral and we saw it as illegal.


CLAUDINE: Was there a point at which this issue started to kind of unravel for you? What did you find other places as you started to look around the country now with this new found data?


BULLARD: Well, when I, when I looked at Houston and saw that such glaring disparities and understanding that Houston was the fourth largest city in the country, and it’s the largest city in the South. And I wanted to know, is this just a Houston phenomenon, or is this something that’s unique to the South? You know, the southern, uh, United States is called Dixie and they don’t call it Dixie for nothing. And so I wanted to know, is this pattern of African-American communities receiving more than its fair share of things that other people don’t want. And so I expanded the study to look at Dallas, uh, and all of the lead smelters in Dallas just happened to be in Black and Brown communities. And I looked in Louisiana and looked at that 85 mile stretch along the Mississippi river from Baton Rouge to New Orleans and found the same pattern of African-Americans living closest to, or contiguous to, or surrounded by these dangerous chemical plants. And I went all the way to Alabama, my birth state, and found the largest hazardous waste facility in the country located in the Alabama black belt of Sumpter County, 75% Black in a town called Emelle, Alabama that’s 95% Black. Same pattern.

I went all the way to West Virginia. And a lot of people don’t know there are Black people in West Virginia, and this company found them, and uh, and Blacks had been in West Virginia since the 1860s when Blacks went with West Virginia, when West Virginia broke away from slavery. And this chemical company came in there in the 1950s. And so the pattern of, of this dumping in, uh, Black communities in the south. And what I found was basically, you know, 75% of the garbage waste facilities and the incinerators and the chemical plants and refineries were just, you know, just located next door, and, uh, even though African-Americans only make up about 20, 21% of the region. That’s how the book “Dumping in Dixie” came about. Um, and “Dumping in Dixie” was first published in 1990. Uh, it was the first environmental justice book in the country. And, uh, I wrote the book to get in the hands of, of community folks. Uh, it was only 160 pages, but Westview Press in Boulder, Colorado made it a textbook. And the book got adopted as a required text on college campuses and, and, uh, the whole idea of, of, people started reading and start looking at the fact that it’s not just the South, but it’s, it’s, uh, all across the U.S.


CLAUDINE: I found a copy of your book. I have to say, um, it’s the original first edition that was published in 1990. I found it in our office at the Southern Environmental Law Center. And, um, I’ve read a short passage that I wanted to ask you about.


BULLARD: Mm-hmm.


CLAUDINE: Um, and in that first edition, you wrote that it was unlikely that the grassroots environmental movement will ever become a mass movement in the Black community. And that chances were slim for having a mass movement of Blacks flooding the ranks of mainstream environmental and conservation organizations. Do you still all these years later, believe that to be true? And if so, what needs to happen to change that?


BULLARD: Well, when I was writing it was saying an environmental movement and we have not, uh, there is no environmental, mass environmental movement among African-Americans with people of color. However, there is an environmental justice movement. We had to create a parallel movement that put justice and equity and fairness at the center, at the core, and somehow convince these other movements, mainstream environmental movement and mainstream conservation movement that they have left out a big piece of their movement. And as we started to recognize that the communities that have contributed least to the problem, but receive the greatest negative impact, if these mainstream groups, or these white groups, green groups, are not addressing, uh, the justice part, then they are inadequate and they have failed to, uh, live up to the whole idea that every community has a right to equal protection of our laws and have the right to be sustainable, et cetera. And so that’s, that’s what I meant, you know, way back in 1990. That’s what I say even to this day. And we made progress in getting some of these green groups to color coordinate their agendas and to push away some of their elitism, and their classism, uh, and even some of their racism. But again, we still have a long way to go.


CLAUDINE: I recently interviewed several people in Charleston, South Carolina, and I asked everyone to give me their definition of the term environmental justice. And the answers were all over the place. How do you define what environmental justice means?


BULLARD: Well, environmental justice embraces the principle that all communities, all people, are entitled to equal protection of our environmental laws, housing laws, transportation laws, uh, civil rights laws, human rights laws, and health laws and regulations. Environmental justice basically is the treatment of all communities and all peoples, uh, equal and not somehow given less weight because the community happens to be poor or happens to be, uh, physically located on the wrong side of the tracks, or the wrong complexion for protection. Now that’s all encompassing.


CLAUDINE: I know that there are cities across the South from Norfolk and Hampton Roads area to Charleston, to cities in Louisiana that are really struggling with flooding issues. And, you know, I have heard people say that climate change will affect us all equally. It doesn’t care if you’re Black or White, rich, or poor. Can you tell me about how the effects of climate change are playing out through the lens of environmental justice?


BULLARD: Well, when we talk about environmental justice and climate justice, we have to understand that those who have contributed, uh, least to the problem of environmental pollution and degradation, and this whole issue of, uh, ecological destruction, uh, will feel the pain first, worst and longest. This is true when we talk about pollution from, from refineries and coal plants. People who don’t own cars, for example, are most likely to live in places that have, um, non-attainment when it comes to air quality, uh, like a Houston or Atlanta or other cities. Uh, but at the same time, uh, they breathe dirty air that’s created by other people, disproportionately. Their kids are sent to the hospital at the rates of four to five times other populations and African-American children, for example, uh, die from asthma, 10 times the rate for Whites. And so when we talk about the disproportionality of responsibility and the disproportionality of impacts, that’s where we talk about the vulnerability. And when it comes to climate change and climate impacts, it runs the same pattern of disproportionality as we talk about the pollution from industrial plants. And the Southern United States is the most climate vulnerable region of the United States.

As a matter of fact, the South, then other regions of the country combined about four to one ratio. If you look at those areas that are low lying and climate vulnerable, you can see in coastal areas, you can see from, from the visual depiction that happened in 2005 with Katrina in New Orleans and the Gulf coast to 12 years later in Houston in 2017, uh, what happened in hurricane Harvey? You can see the same kind of populations that were disproportionately impacted by the flooding. Even though the entire city was impacted in Houston, African-American and Latino communities were hit the hardest. And so if you talk about the response to these disasters and you talk about when money, recovery dollars come down to the regions for trying to correct these disasters and rebuild and recover and talk about redevelop, the same discriminatory pattern that happens, uh, when it comes to pollution and hazard mitigation happens when it comes to climate. And there are a number of studies that show if we do nothing to respond to climate change, the whole country will use, will lose 6% GDP. But at the same time, that number is much higher if we talk about the South. The South will lose, you know, at least 20% GDP. So, so the South, if you map it out, it’s already one of the poorest regions of the country economically. We have the highest poverty rate, we have the lowest median income rate of any region, and we can’t afford to lose 20% of a region that’s already poor. That’s why the climate justice movement in the South must deal with the inequity that exists economically and racially so that we don’t further disenfranchise and further marginalize those populations that’s on the bottom.


CLAUDINE: You know, in 2017, um, as you said, hurricane Harvey devastated the city where you live Houston. And that’s in Harris county, where there was the highest number of flood-prone properties bought out by FEMA in the last 30 years. What have you seen happening in terms of recovery and government buyouts in that area that we can learn from?


BULLARD: Well, when you’re looking at managed retreat from climate and sea level rise, uh, you look at nationally, the populations that have benefited most from those, uh, voluntary buyouts, uh, by counties are mostly, uh, affluent populations, uh, affluent homeowners. And what we have to say, uh, is that, uh, we have to start to build equity into those managed retreat buyouts and other recovery type of initiatives. If we don’t, you’ll end up with money following money, money following power and money following Whites. It took a biblical flood of Harvey to get many of the environmental groups and environmental justice groups and groups dealing with health and housing and transportation, uh, together. You know, right now we have, um, a coalition of more than three dozen groups, the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience, that basically are working on making sure that all of our policies and planning, uh, will build equity into it. Uh, our group also went in front of the Harris county commission to look at, uh, how the, the county itself can deal with equity. And in 2018, we had an election and we had a blue wave and we had, uh, many of the old guard swept out and we have new folks in, uh, at the county level that are amenable to building equity into the way that flood dollars go and flood mitigation and flood bond money that, to make sure that we don’t follow that old pattern, uh, where the buyouts and, and the greatest protection somehow is given to one side of the city or one side of the county and allowing the other side to sink or swim. And what we say is that if we are to build a healthy, sustainable, climate-friendly and resilient communities, then we have to talk about redressing some of those built-in disparities that were built up over the last, uh, you know, 50 years.


CLAUDINE: You said that you were an accidental environmentalist. And so I imagine you didn’t see yourself as an environmentalist when you first started this work. Do you now?


BULLARD: I see myself as an environmentalist and as one that places justice at the core. Yeah. So environmental justice is my core. And climate justice is my core. Health equity is my core. Transportation justice. It’s uh, that intersectionality that, that really brings it all together. So that, so that we don’t just, you know, isolate these issues in terms of, well, I don’t work on housing, affordable housing is not my area. Affordable housing has to be part of the climate justice issue because disasters make housing a scarcity. So yeah, I do see myself as an environmentalist, but, but not in a more traditional sense.


CLAUDINE: One last question. Saying that you don’t see yourself as an environmentalist in the traditional sense, it kind of makes me wonder about the environmental and conservation movement in our country. Was it too White when it was born, and is there a way for it to evolve now?


BULLARD: Well, the conservation movement was White and racist, and the fact that the indigenous people’s lands and the whole idea of how natives were perceived and how the land was perceived. And I think to a large extent that kind of, of paternalism and classism permeated in the environmental movement and, you know, during Earth Day, it was very White. And the issues that we’re talking about today when it comes to justice, issues related to people of color, issues related to our cities, and issues related to inequality. It took decades for these very smart people to, to get it. You know, when I wrote “Dumping in Dixie” – when I did my study in 1979, I went to a number of the environmental groups and showed them the data. I said 82% of all the garbage dumped in Houston, uh, from the thirties and up until 1978 in Black neighborhoods, even though Blacks make up only 25% of the population, and the response that I would get was, ‘Well, isn’t that where the garbage is supposed to be?’


CLAUDINE: Hmm, wow.


BULLARD: And I went to the civil rights organization, you know, and we wanted them to help us on this, uh, on this case. And I gave them the same statistics and they, uh, got, we got back, ‘Well, we don’t work on environment. Uh, we work on housing discrimination, uh, education, voting.’ You know, it took two decades for the environmental movement and the civil rights movement to converge in this whole idea of environmental justice. Uh, and we’re still educating, uh, the different movements about what environmental justice is. You know, there’s some people who think environmental justice is only dealing with environmental racism. Uh, and some, some people think the environmental justice is a social – is social issues. And we tell them, you know, breathing is not social. Breathing is something that you have to do every day if you’re alive. And so there’s still, you know, there’s some people who don’t believe that environmental racism really exists. And, and so the, the, the educating part of our movement continues and we are growing, building, and the fact that we have young people and, uh, at least three generations that, uh, removed from when I started you know back in 79, working on these issues and owning these issues and, uh, many of the young people have fewer wedge issues to keep them apart. And, and are not, uh, somehow intimidated by a lot of these divisive issues that somehow keep, uh, a lot of folks in my generation, uh, from working together. But I’m an optimist, I’m an optimist. I’ve been working on this for many years and I say, uh, this is, uh, this is a race to the finish line and it’s not a sprint it’s a, it’s a marathon. And as a matter of fact, it’s a race that doesn’t exist. It’s a marathon relay. You’re running 26 miles and you pass the baton to the next generation to run the 26. And, uh, um, I’m running my 26. And so I, as I said, I have students who have students who have students who are working on this today. And so that’s, that’s what keeps me optimistic and, and what gives, what gives me hope.


CLAUDINE: Dr. Bullard, thank you so much for your time today.


BULLARD: My pleasure.


HOST: Dr. Bullard is the author of “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality,” as well as more than a dozen other books. He is currently a distinguished professor at Texas Southern University.




HOST: If you missed the last episode with Drew Lanham about his book, “The Homeplace: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” I hope you can go back and take a listen.


DREW LANHAM: A lot of what I think conservation comes down to now is love and how we care for this earth, how we care for one another, how we care for other beings not like us.


CREDITS: Broken Ground is a podcast by the Southern Environmental Law Center. It’s produced by Emily Richardson-Lorente, Jennie Daley, Paige Polk and Kelley Libby, and hosted by Claudina Ebeid McElwain. The theme music is by Eric Knutson.