Environmental Racism with Dr. Robert Bullard

Audio by: Wangyuxuan Xu | Writing by: Marie Hogan, Amanda Neslund, Alexandra Jade Garcia  | Socials by: Wangyuxuan Xu, Sofia Del Priore

Environmental Justice Movement 

The environmental justice movement began in the 1980s as a grassroots movement by women of color in Warren County, North Carolina who were protesting against a toxic waste site coming to their town. Today the movement is an intergenerational, multi-rational, international cause that has been championed by African-Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, and Pacific islanders. 

America’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines the term environmental justice  as the “fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.” However, the Environmental Justice Movement has broadened the concept of the environment beyond conserved natural areas to environments “where we live, work, play, learn and pray.” Today, the Environmental Justice Movement promotes environmental, economic, and social justice, and the framework of environmental justice can be used to examine the uneven way pollution and other environmental hazards affect communities. 

Doctor Bullard and Environmental Racism 

The Environmental Justice Movement is also closely tied with the concept of environmental racism. Dr. Robert Bullard first defined environmental racism in his 1990 book Dumping in Dixie, which was the first major study of environmental racism that linked hazardous facilities sites with historical patterns of segregation in the South. Doctor Bullard defines environmental racism as “any policy, practice or directive that differentially affects or disadvantages (were intended or unintended) individuals, groups or communities based on race.” Environmental racism builds on the principles of the Environmental Justice Movement and examines how people of color have systematically been targeted for and burdened by negative environmental impacts and hazards. One example of environmental racism in America is how the race of a community, regardless of income, is the number one predictor of where toxic waste sites are located. Today, Bullard is seen as the father of the Environmental Justice Movement, renowned author and advocate for environmental, racial, and climate justice. 



Environmental Racism with Dr. Bullard

Dr. Bullard: The fight will be over a just transition to a clean energy economy that will not leave behind, economically or geographically populations that are already marginalized

Ethan: That’s Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the father of the environmental justice movement, and currently serving on the White House Environmental Justice Council. I’m Ethan Elkind and you are listening to Climate Break. Dr. Bullard sees promise in a screening tool the Council is developing to determine which communities get priority for new climate investments.        

Dr. Bullard: Communities that are at greatest risk from flooding or urban heat islands, from these dangerous storms, there needs to be solutions for them first because they’re our greatest risks. What that tool would do is direct benefits to those of greatest need and improve the quality of life of those communities that suffer the greatest damage.

Ethan: But Dr. Bullard says that because the screens leave out racial data, they may miss some communities of color that disproportionately suffer the harms of climate change and pollution.

Dr. Bullard: We have to work with that tool and supplement it with race and ethnicity and other factors that disadvantage communities. When we do it right, we would make our country a much healthier, more resilient nation.

Ethan: To learn more about climate justice and hear our full interview with Dr. Bullard, visit climatebreak.org.

What is Environmental Justice? with Dr. Bullard

Dr. Bullard: We don’t have 40 years. I’ve been doing this for 40 plus years. We don’t have 40 years to get this right. The urgency of now will call for us to address this crisis, this emergency.

Ethan: I’m Ethan Elkind and you’re listening to Climate Break. You just heard Dr. Robert Bullard, Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy and the founding Director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University. Often considered the father of the environmental justice movement, Dr. Bullard currently serves on the White House’s Environmental Justice Advisory Council. He sat down with Climate Break to talk about what environmental justice really means, how he got involved in fighting environmental racism through scholarship, and his hopes for the future of the movement. Here’s how it all started for him.

Dr. Bullard: I was asked to collect data for a lawsuit that Linda McKeever Bullard had filed, challenging the location of a landfill that was being cited in a predominantly black community in Houston. And so she said that she needed someone to do a study and put the inflammation on a map, as to who lives near these landfills and the income and the race of the people. And I said, you need a sociologist. That’s how I got involved. It was accidental. It was not something that I planned. Well, you know, this was 1979 and it was very laborious and time-consuming gathering the data, finding the landfills, incinerators, and the dumps and putting that information on a map and then overlaying race. But, I had ten students in my research methods class and we did it. What we found is that five out of five of the city owned landfills, six out of eight of the city owned incinerators, and three out of the four privately owned landfills, were located in predominantly black neighborhoods. 82% of all the garbage that was disposed of in Houston during that period of time was being disposed of in a population that only made up 25% of the population. And later I discovered this was not just a random isolated incident. What we found is that, when you look across the country, you find the same pattern, where people of color are getting more than their fair share of locally unwanted land uses, meaning things that other people don’t want. And there’s a name for that. It’s called environmental racism.

Ethan: But for many people, the concept of environmental racism was a hard pill to swallow.

Dr. Bullard: Environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a  right to equal protection on our environmental laws. It’s no different than equal protection on fair housing or the right to vote or employment education. A lot of people say, I don’t understand what environmental justice is. There’s no such thing. The environment is neutral. That’s what I was told in 1989, when I tried to get Dumping in Dixie published. I showed them the data, showed them the findings, showed them the information that said, well, the environment is neutral, everybody is equally impacted and that’s it? No, here’s the data. There’s this misunderstanding that environmental justice is just about race. It’s not, it’s more than that. A big part of it is. But environmental justice also includes the disproportionate impact of pollution and lack of enforcement of laws and regulations on poor white people in Appalachia. There’s lots of environmental injustice going on in West Virginia. Environmental justice is basically a basic right to breathe clean air, drink clean water, and have our kids go outside and play on playgrounds that are not built on top of dumps. 

Ethan: As Dr. Ballard looks ahead, he stresses the importance of making environmental justice principles front and center in climate change mitigation and adaptation policy.

Dr. Bullard: Climate change is right now. It’s not, we’re not talking futuristic. And so I think the fight will be over resources and the fight will be over a just transition to a clean energy economy that will not leave behind economically or geographically populations that are already marginalized and climate change will further marginalize them. What we have to do as we transition is to include at the inception all the way to the end. Cradle to grave in terms of infusing this equity and justice lens throughout this whole process, and in terms of where benefits get distributed and where externalities or costs get distributed. Right now, it’s very predictable which communities are most likely to benefit, which communities are most likely to be paying a greater cost. We have to make sure that the justice and equity lens will drive this just transition and not just look the other way and say, let market forces drive it. If market forces will drive it, we’ll end up having, you know,  a green or cleaner economy. But the populations that are left with that dirty side of it and not getting those benefits will look more like what we have right now. 

Ethan: According to Dr. Bullard, this will require stronger national laws than those that are currently in place.

Dr. Bullard: I think the major barrier today is that we do not have environmental justice legislation. There is no law right now, national, federal. We have some states that have environmental justice laws, but we have 50 states and all states are not created equal, you know. I live in the south, I live in a red state called Texas, and we got some issues. We’re not California. So there are some major challenges. That means that we have to vote. We have to overcome the hurdles to voting. And again, these issues are connected. If our vote is suppressed, that means we may not be able to get the kinds of people elected, which means we may not get the kinds of laws enacted. And so I tell people that environmental justice is also about addressing voting. And it’s also about addressing health inequities. It’s also about addressing issues around transportation and clean energy. And so when we look at, you know, advancing environmental justice from that standpoint, it means we need a lot of people who see environmental justice touching on all of those areas and not just say, oh, I just work on water issues. No, we have to work on all of these issues. It doesn’t mean that we have to be experts on all of them, but we have to know how each one of those areas touch each other, how they intersect, how they connect, so that we can be more powerful as a collective, as a movement. 

Ethan: Despite the challenges posed by climate change and systemic racism, the activism of the last few years brings Dr. Bullard hope.

Dr. Bullard: I do think, you know, as Dr. King said, years ago, the arc of the universe bends toward justice. I do think there we see today, the last couple of years, we see that bending toward justice, and not just environmental climate justice, but criminal justice. And after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and the uprising that took place a couple of years ago, we can see more and more people seeing justice as coming together around all of these issues. Such as I Can’t Breathe. I Can’t Breathe is just as important, in terms of the knee on the neck that’s choking George Floyd as the chemical companies and the pollution that’s causing so many of our young people with asthma and other people having breathing problems in those fence line, frontline communities. The same underlying conditions has created these environmental sacrifice zones, is the same underlying conditions that create the conditions for all these police killings of black people and people of color. Underlying condition is racism and systemic racism. And that’s what we need to root it out and address it from criminal justice, all the way to environmental justice.

Ethan: To learn more about Dr. Bullard’s work and how to get involved addressing environmental justice in your community. Visit climatebreak.org. I’m Ethan Elkind. Thanks for listening to Climate Break.

Environmental Racism with Dr. Robert Bullard