Black History:  Special Delivery!!

Robert Bullard (1946 – ) is known as the “father of environmental justice.”  Bullard is the former dean of Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.  He currently serves as Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy. Bullard was the founding director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.  He received a Ph.D from Iowa State University and is also a Marine Corp veteran. 

Bullard is widely recognized in the United States for his trailblazing efforts in the 1970’s when he worked tirelessly to highlight the negative impacts of pollution on communities of color.  He has been a leading advocate fighting against environmental racism since the 1980’s.  Bullard is also the author of 18 environmental justice books.  Environmental justice promotes the principle that everyone is entitled to equal environmental protection regardless of race, color, or national origin and that everyone has the right to live, work, and play in a clean environment. 

When it comes to environmental equality, individual and community experiences can differ based upon race, geographic location, and socioeconomic status.  Enforcement of environmental protection laws can also vary based on these demographics as well.   Environmental inequality finds its roots in racism in housing and land use.  Particularly in the south, the US, Jim Crow segregation further disenfranchised communities of color.  Unjust practices made it legal for certain industries to pollute certain areas.  White communities could often successfully oppose having pollution near their communities.  Even with segregation now being illegal, communities of color still experience the adverse effects of pollution.  Examples of this include oil refineries, chemical plants, and landfills residing primarily in communities of color.  Many studies reflect that race is the primary determinant in who experiences pollution and who does not. 

With much of the U.S. still living in segregated communities, it stands to reason that pollution remains largely segregated in its impact as well.  People of color comprise 57% of residents living within a 2-mile radius of hazardous facilities, and they also make up 60% of residents living near polluting facilities.  Sadly those impacted also have little influence on political and municipal structures as well.  People of color are underrepresented on decision making bodies (boards, commissions, etc.) responsible for these outcomes.  This lack of representation causes the discriminatory practices to continue.  Bullard argues that the only way to prevent this type of discrimination is to change the belief that communities of color impacted by poverty are dumping grounds for pollution. 

We aren’t just talking about pollution either. Often poor communities and communities of color also lack access to green spaces, nature trails, schools, fresh food, etc.  The outcomes of these inequities resulted in adverse health effects such as higher cancer rates, learning disabilities, asthma, etc.  An example of environmental racism and injustice is the Flint Water Crisis. Thousands of people drank contaminated water for months with health officials at the highest levels well aware that the water was toxic.  Sadly there many other communities across the nation that are also experiencing the deadly result of environmental racism.  Bullard first got involved in Houston’s environmental justice in 1976, when he was working as a sociologist.  In 1978, Bullard’s wife filed a lawsuit suing a business that had plans to put a landfill in a black middle class neighborhood in Houston. 

Bullard assisted her with collecting information for the court case.  It was the first lawsuit that highlighted civil rights law to support environmental discrimination.  Bullard’s investigation found that five out of six landfills in Houston were located in black neighborhoods, and six out of eight incinerators were in black communities.  Bullard’s wife lost the case with the judge finding that intent of discrimination could not be proven.  However, Bullard’s data proved otherwise.  It also reflected that an all-white city council approved these decisions.  This case ignited Bullard’s passion for advocating for environmental justice.  Bullard then started doing work in Texas and Alabama finding similar results; hazard facilities located in primarily black communities with decisions being made predominately white governing bodies.   He then began to look at the U.S. as a whole. 

Bullard was unique in his approach of highlighting environmental injustice as a civil rights issue.  He says, “Environmental racism steals people’s wealth and health.  Everyone deserves to eat safe food, drink safe water, have their kids play outside safely.” What should be done? Bullard encourages communities to recognize their collective power and use it to fight against environmental injustice.  He further states that, “If we strive to eliminate racism and classism, as well as pollution and environmental degradation, then we are doing what we can to make sure communities are sustainable and livable.  It takes a lot of work its not a sprint.  But its achievable if we view it as important.”