Robert Bullard

In 1978, Dr. Robert Bullard was pulled into what would become, thanks to his efforts, the field of environmental justice. Conducting research for a lawsuit filed by his wife, he discovered that most of the solid waste in Houston was being disposed of in predominantly black neighborhoods. Black communities made up just 25 percent of the population, so he realized “that it was race” driving this inequity.

photo of a man wearing a suit outdoorsThe study didn’t end there, but rather sparked a lifetime of advocacy and trailblazing. Bullard, who is currently Dean of the School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University, went on to publish Dumping in Dixie, widely recognized as the seminal book on environmental justice. He helped plan the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, where the foundational Principles of Environmental Justice were developed. And in 1994, he was present when President Bill Clinton signed the environmental justice executive order, which required federal agencies to consider how their policies impacted low-income communities and communities of color.

More than three decades later, Bullard thinks the movement has “made a lot of progress,” particularly when it comes to understanding that environment, race, and income are often linked. And, he says, there is still a lot of work to be done. Communities of color still suffer the brunt of our environmental ills, and climate change is likely to exacerbate these inequalities. Of course, Bullard isn’t giving up. Pointing to the 2014 People’s Climate March, he says he is invigorated by the new generation mobilizing around climate change, which he believes is the number one environmental justice issue of our time. As he says, “To see that many young people, that gives hope.”

You are often described as the father of the environmental justice movement. How did you come to see that the environment, race, and economic justice are all connected? Was there an “aha moment” where it all came together for you?

Well, you know, discovering this interrelationship between race, environment, and vulnerability, happened in Houston, Texas, way back in 1978 when I was a sociologist here at Texas Southern University, where I am now. I was asked to collect data and do a study for a lawsuit that my wife had filed suing the state of Texas, and the city Houston, and the county of Harris, and this waste disposal company – the second largest waste disposal in the world headquartered in Houston. In collecting data for that lawsuit I had 10 graduate students in my research methods class in sociology, and we were able to pinpoint where all of the city-owned landfills and city-owned incinerators and privately owned landfills were located in Houston. And we were able to plot them on a map – this is long before GIS and long before laptop computers and iPads, and so we basically did this manually. What we found was that five out of five of the city-owned landfills in Houston were located in predominantly black neighborhoods. Six out of eight of the city-owned incinerators were located in predominantly black neighborhoods. And three out of four of the privately owned landfills were located in black neighborhoods. Now when I say predominantly black neighborhoods, I’m talking in many cases all black, because this is a very segregated city and Jim Crow residential patterns pretty much relegated African Americans to live in mostly black neighborhoods. So we found that 82 percent of all the waste disposed in Houston from the mid-30s up until 1978 was being disposed in black neighborhoods, and blacks only made up 25 percent of the population.

So that was the “aha moment”: to see these pins on a map in these neighborhoods that were historically geographically segregated and black, and not in other kinds of neighborhoods, when blacks only made up 25 percent of the population. So it was race. And then I started to expand that study to look at the southern United States, and that’s how the book Dumping in Dixie came about.

Your first study was published in 1983, and your book Dumping in Dixie came out in 1990, 25 years ago. How far has the environmental justice movement come since then?

Well, you know, we have made a lot of progress. We were starting from zero. We didn’t have a lot of information. So over the last 25 years we have improved our research methodologies and the ways we do our science and do our studies. We have very sophisticated mapping tools today, Geographic Information Systems – GIS. And we have been able to get the concept of environmental justice adopted, and it is pretty much standard today. Twenty-five years ago people were saying, “What is that? I don’t understand it. You can’t use race and environment – environment is neutral. There is no one group impacted more so than another.” What we’ve found over the years is that the environmental concepts of disproportionate impact and of cumulative impact are pretty common. And there are tons and tons of data showing that low-income and people of color communities face more environmental threats and burdens than the general population.

Now what can we do about it? That’s an issue that we are still grappling with in terms of the extent to which government should take action to force industries to clean up their act and to reduce the levels of emissions and environmental threats to communities. It’s still a struggle. It’s still a challenge. And communities that are on the front lines still don’t have enough resources – financial as well as technical as well as other resources – to fend off these threats that clearly harm the environment and harm the health of the residents.

What role can increased regulation play in addressing environmental justice issues, to address, for example, the siting of new power plants or waste disposal sites in low-income communities and communities of color?

Well, I think that the Environmental Protection Agency and the regulations that have been in place since the early ‘70s are key to protecting the environment and protecting communities. There are some people who say we need fewer regulations. But we need more vigorously enforced regulations that really talk about preventing this from happening, as well as ensuring that if a company is in violation they are not just given a slap on the wrist or a small fine and treated as if that is the price of doing business.

The fact is that the problems in some communities have worsened over the years because of lack of stringent enforcement and uniform enforcement. And again, if you look at the communities that are within hot spot zones – or the zones of threat – for the dangerous chemicals, you can see that that problem has not decreased; it has actually increased. So we are talking about protecting communities that are most vulnerable and creating standards that are protective of public health.

Last time I talked to you, we discussed President Clinton’s executive order on environmental justice. It’s been 20-plus years since Clinton signed the order. What do you think that executive order meant for the environmental justice movement?

Well, I think environmental justice Executive Order 12898 was significant in that what had started out as small, grassroots, isolated struggles in low-income communities and communities of color and working class communities all around the country had trickled all the way up to the White House. And the signing of that order was basically having the president put his pen to paper and say that environmental justice is not just a local issue and is not just a state issue – that it is a national issue that deserves the attention of the White House. To mandate that federal agencies develop strategies to implement that executive order, I think that was also significant.

Even though it has been a little more than two decades, we still have not had the executive order fully implemented, even with three presidents – Clinton, Bush, and Obama. But it’s significant in that it is still an executive order. It has not been repealed. It was reinvigorated under the current administration, and people are saying that we need to make sure that the executive order and the laws on which it’s based – the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title XI, and the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 – don’t get rolled back, don’t somehow get dismantled. Because the executive order is not a law – it’s an order that uses two key pieces of legislation. And in the last couple of years we’ve seen forces trying to dismantle the National Environmental Policy Act, or NEPA, and to weaken the Civil Rights Act. So I think it is important for the environmental justice community, and the environmental community at large, to really circle the wagons and say, “We do not need these two laws, or any environmental law, to be weakened, or dismantled, or neutralized.”

Despite increased awareness of environmental justice issues during the past few decades, low-income communities and communities of color still bear the brunt of our environmental problems. How far does the movement still have to go? Where does it go from here?

I think the movement has to stay focused on dealing with environmental pollution, environmental degradation, environmental health, negative impacts, and cumulative impacts. We have to stay on those issues, because we can’t let up. Even though some improvements have been made, there are still areas where communities are really bombarded with too much pollution. These communities are almost like sacrifice zones. They are hot spots that deserve targeted enforcement.

And at the same time, while we are also focusing on these negative impacts of pollution and environmental problems, we also have to focus our attention on ensuring that communities of color, and working class communities, and low-income communities get their fair share of the good things that result from our country moving forward to a clean energy economy. We can’t allow those communities that have borne the burden of environmental degradation for decades somehow also [to] get left out of the things that are going to move us forward when we talk about a clean energy economy. So we have to have trainings, we have to make sure that resources flow to those communities so that they can participate in ensuring that resources get distributed in a way that is fair and equitable.

When we talk about clean transportation, and moving toward housing that is using the best technology in terms of green building techniques, and making sure that communities have all of those types of amenities that make them healthy, when we talk about design features of building walkable and livable and healthy communities, those things have to treated as if all communities deserve them. Not just affluent and middle-class communities, but also low-income, working-class communities. And in some cases those amenities are not really amenities. Having a full-service grocery store, having a park, having green space, and having access to clean, affordable, and efficient transportation – we don’t see those necessarily as amenities. We see those as basic to having a good quality of life.

Whom do you hold responsible for the inequitable distribution of environmental ills, as well as these environmental goods you just mentioned? Is it corporate America? It is uniformed politicians? Is it willfully ignorant or biased politicians? Or all of the above?

Well, I think when we start allocating and dividing up the blame, I think there is a lot of blame to go around. And I think when we talk about the distribution of the locally unwanted land uses, or the “LULUs” – the things that most people don’t want in their neighborhood – a lot of it has to do with land-use planning and zoning. And to a large extent, historically, we have had excessive discriminatory zoning that follows the path of least resistance, and too often, that has meant the LULUs end up in low-income and working class [areas] and communities of color. Those communities get the things that create environmental pollution, and create environmental degradation, and lower property values, and pose potential health threats.

Almost all land-use decision-making is local. Because of the way that our society is structured, the power arrangements often times are not democratic and are not representative, so people who have the power often direct those things that are negative away from [themselves] and their constituents. When we move from the local county level to the state level, we’ve had state officials in many cases who don’t necessarily see equity and see social justice and see civil rights and environmental justice as things that should be used to level the playing field, to ensure that all the citizens in the state are somehow protected and that all the environment in the state is protected.

If you look at certain regions of the country, you can see vast differences. We have 50 states in the Union, but all 50 states are not created equal. There are some states that have really done a poor job of ensuring that their citizens are protected and that the environment in those states is protected. And I can say emphatically that the southern states have been dumping in Dixie. It is no accident that the southern Untied States is the most environmentally polluted region of the country, and it’s not by accident that EPA Region 4 and Region 6, located in southern states, have probably the largest number of environmental justice complaints from residents. And a lot of it flows from this, come on down, bring us anything, jobs over anything, and we will take it if other places don’t mentality. That kind of mentality and that kind of thinking has driven the region into becoming the dumping grounds. And that, I think, has created tremendous problems.

As I’ve said before, it’s not by accident that the civil rights movement was started in the South, and it’s not by accident that the environmental justice movement was born in the same region. This is not to say that other regions of the country don’t have similar problems, but they don’t have the same extent of in-your-face environmental racism. In order to reverse those patterns it has taken a movement. And even though the EJ movement started in the South, it spread all across the country to link up organizations and groups to talk about these issues, to work on these issues, and to try to get these issues integrated into laws and enforcement.

Every state in the country has some type of environmental justice law or an executive order, or an environmental justice policy, but all of them are not the same. There are some that are just written on paper, and in some cases [the policy is] not even worth the paper that it’s printed on, because the enforcement is lax, or they don’t have the teeth to demand that the change be made and that industries that are creating problems actually reduce the emissions and do the things that will be protective of public health and the environment. So those are major concerns, even in 2015, that we have to address – that unevenness in terms of enforcement and the extent to which government entities within those states will do their job and enforce the laws that they are obligated to enforce equally across the board.

I’m curious where you see the environmental justice movement fitting in with the mainstream environmental movement, and whether you think the goals of the two movements are in harmony with one another.

I think the environmental justice movement came about because there are certain issues that resonate across communities. I guess the framing of environmental issues and social justice issues and equity issues – that framing actually is a centerpiece of the environmental justice movement. To some extent, that framing does not resonate in the same way in many of the mainstream organizations, particularly as they focus on issues that may not be centered around communities that have historically been disenfranchised in various forms. And so in order for the environmental justice movement and the mainstream, or the conservation environmental movement, to really see the overlap, there would have to be a different set of principles and commonality drawn that would bring them together. I think after three decades, we have seen some convergence.

Again, the fact that the environmental justice movement has centered around a bottom-up, grassroots, community driven model – whereas many of the larger mainstream organizations have used the corporate model of having boards of directors and paid staff – that is a bit different. Because of those differences, I think it has been a challenge to meld the idea that we have just one movement, and that is the environmental movement.

You know, there is no environmental justice air; there is no mainstream air. There is no environmental justice water, or mainstream water. And so when you talk about how these issues get defined and the strategies that are laid out, and the priorities that are put forth, one could easily see how the environmental justice movement and the mainstream movement have, in many cases, been on parallel tracks.

When you add the resource issue, it becomes apparent that there are clear differences between which groups have been funded at certain levels, and which groups have not been funded at certain levels. And then you look at the issue of diversity, of who are members of different organizations, and you can see that the environmental justice movement is much more people of color-dominated in this country, whereas the mainstream environmental conservation movement is more heavily Anglo or white.

To bring those pieces together, that is a major challenge. And there are some who would probably say that we may not need to bring them together. And I’m one from that camp. I think we need strong environmental justice people of color and Indigenous organizations that work on those issues that are a centerpiece to those communities. But at the same time I do think that there needs to be more diversity within the mainstream organizations so that they represent communities when they go in and talk about these issues. So they are not speaking for these communities – that there are community members that are a part of these organizations.

That touches on my next question. There was a big report just last year finding that minority groups made up just 14.6 percent of the staff of mainstream environmental organizations. That is an equity issue in and of itself. But do you also think that if mainstream environmental groups increased their diversity, it would have an impact on the movement as a whole?

I think that anytime you have organizations that are supposed to be national organizations, and organizations that are supposed to be representative of environmental issues across the board, it makes a whole lot of sense to make sure that those organizations are representative. I think that these organizations have made some progress in their numbers, but the numbers still do not reflect the changing demographics that have taken place in the country over the last 25 years. When we talk about that 14 or 15 percent, that’s larger than it was in 1990, when we had the People of Color Summit in Washington, DC. But it’s still not representative of the county. You know, people of color make up just under 40 percent of the US population, so one would expect to see more diversity within these organizations. That emerging majority population of people of color will be the majority in three decades or so. So it is time for those national groups to start working on those issues, trying to incorporate not only the environmental justice issues, but also the communities where individuals are on the frontline working on these issues, into their agenda. Not waiting 30 years from now, but working on it right now.

What do you see as the most pressing environmental justice issue right now?

I think the number one environmental justice issue facing us right now is climate change. And a big issue is the extent to which our policies, and programs, and strategies will somehow bring frontline communities into the discussion, into the decision-making process, to ensure that whatever plans are being made to mitigate climate change and adapt to climate change include those communities that have borne the impacts first, worst, and probably longest. To make sure they are in the room and at the table so that they can speak for themselves.

And I think this is not only true for the US. Climate change is also the number one environmental justice issue globally. People who are most impacted around the world are also the communities that often times don’t have the resources or the technical expertise, and don’t have the political clout to force the powers that be to do the right thing, and to be fair, and to be just. And that is why we have climate justice. I think that is what we have to deal with.

The climate justice movement touches on a whole lot of areas. It’s not just greenhouse gases, but it’s also dealing with the other coal pollutants from the dirty coal power plants, and trying to deal with getting clean, green transportation in our communities. A disproportionate share of our environmental justice community residents don’t have cars, so that means that we need to have good, clean, affordable, and efficient public transit. And we want to make sure that we benefit from the policies that are put in place in terms of green energy – in terms of training, in terms of jobs, in terms of making sure that green energy also gets implemented into our communities, and that we aren’t just still relying on the dirty, tired old energy scenario.

Last year the People’s Climate March, which was led by frontline communities, brought global attention to the climate justice movement. What was your reaction to the march, and did it give you hope for environmental justice and the climate justice movement?

Oh yes. You know, the march in New York was fantastic. We saw a resurgence of environmental justice, and climate justice, and youth, and students from all over the country. I mean, I came out of the civil rights movement, out of marching and demonstrating. To see that number of individuals, and to exceed the expectations of the planners of the march and the event, to see young people really take the lead and own the issue and come together and talk about the kinds of strategies and plans that they will put in place once they get back home was fantastic.

HBCU-Consortium-Delegation-Participate-in-Peoples-Climate-March-in-New-York-2014.jpg Communities of color are increasingly on the frontlines of environmental activism, like these students from historically black colleges participating in the People’s Climate March in New York last September.

I think that the march was probably the most diverse environmental event that I’ve seen in a long time, and I think it was planned that way. In order for this movement to address climate change to have, I guess, any legs – for it to take root in communities around the country – it must reach out and it must be inclusive. And we saw all kinds of individuals who made it to New York on buses and on trains, and who actually came there to stand in solidarity. I think they had planned for 100,000, and 400,000 people came. That’s always a good sign that the issue is taking root and is resonating. And to see that many young people, that gives hope.

In his second term, President Obama has increasingly turned his attention to environmental issues, and in particular to climate change. What could he do to bolster the environmental justice movement, and what would you like to see him do?

I would like to see the President really stand firm and draw a line. To give the signal that the EPA is not going to be dismantled, and continue to allow the EPA to do its job. To allow the EPA to take the lead in terms of its climate action plan, in terms of moving to renewable energy and clean energy, and addressing coal-fired power plants, and addressing health issues. I’d like to see him continue moving in the direction of trying to get cleaner cars and cars that have better mileage, and things that we know are improvements, and to really begin to talk about infrastructure. I’d like to see him really hit home the fact that when we talk about greening our infrastructure, we are talking about health, we are talking about economics and jobs, and we are talking about livability. I think those things should be issues that would bring Republicans and Democrats together because we are talking about jobs and we are talking about rebuilding our country, and doing it in a way that is green, sustainable, and healthy.

And I think I’d like to see him stand firm and not allow environmental regulations and laws to be whittled away, and at the same time, have the same vigor and vitality in defending basic civil rights and equal protection. Those are the tenants of environmental justice – equal protection, preventing pollution, and addressing those issues as they are linked to negative impacts on health and health disparities. Not just hold the line, but also try to move the envelope forward and not just use the next two years to rest.

Zoe Loftus-Farren is an Earth Island Journal contributing editor. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our monthly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

For $15 you can get four issues of the magazine, a 50 percent savings off the newsstand rate.