Pollution Affects Americans Unequally
Interview with Robert Bullard
You are often called the “father of the environmental justice movement.” How do you define environmental justice?
Robert Bullard: Environmental justice centers on fairness, equity, and particularly racial justice. For decades, the movement has worked to make sure that all communities—especially communities of color and low-income communities—are given equal protection. We have environmental laws on the books in the United States, but they’re often not applied and enforced equally.
The strange thing is that people don’t acknowledge that more. You know, most of us now live in cities. We don’t see much nature. We are very embedded in our latest technologies, such as our computer networks and our cell phones. There’s a sense that we’re so technologically sophisticated that we don’t depend on the natural world anymore. But that’s actually not true: we need it as much as our ancestors did, and for the same reasons.
Environmental justice emphasizes the fact that poor people and people of color get more than their fair share of things that other people don’t want: from landfills and lead smelters to refineries and chemical plants. It also asks that we make sure the things that make communities healthy and sustainable—such as grocery stores, farmers markets, access to clean and renewable energy—flow to communities that get left behind.
You’ve been taking on these issues for many years. How did you get into this work?
Robert Bullard: It has been a long time! I’ve worked on issues related to the environment, race, and justice for the last four decades. It started when I was a new sociology professor in Houston, two years out of graduate school. My wife had filed a lawsuit against the state of Texas, the city of Houston, and Harris County for proposing and planning a landfill in the middle of a black middle-class community in the suburbs. The idea of putting a landfill in a middle-class suburb was unheard of; the only factor that made it different is that it was a black community. My wife needed someone to collect data and I got drafted into that process.
Working with my students, we completed the study in 1979. We found that five out of five city-owned landfills were located in black neighborhoods. Six out of eight city-owned incinerators were in black neighborhoods. And more than 80 percent of the garbage dumped in the city from the 1930s up to 1978 was being dumped in black neighborhoods. Black people only made up a quarter of Houston’s population at the time.
This was the first environmental racism, or environmental discrimination, lawsuit to be brought using civil rights laws. So, all my years fighting landfills and incinerators and waste dumps and issues of industrial pollution that hit African American communities and communities of color in the Gulf Coast hardest—the work all sprang from that one study in Houston.
The environmental injustice that has drawn the attention of Americans most recently is the contamination of municipal water in Flint, Michigan. How has the movement for environmental justice been affected by this ongoing crisis?
Robert Bullard: There are lots of lessons to be learned from Flint. The saddest is that there are many Flints around this country. Flint is not the only case of old, industrial cities where the infrastructure is crumbling and posing risks to people’s health. The silver lining is that it made the rest of the country realize that we have tremendous infrastructure problems that need to be fixed.
How can science and scientists be an asset for the environmental justice movement, both from within the movement and in support of it?
Robert Bullard: Environmental justice is important for the science world, because it takes a lot of issues out of the laboratory that are antiseptic and pure and puts them into the real world and into policy. Scientists can take research that shows disparities and inequality, and work with policy analysts and decisionmakers to push for change. It doesn’t mean all scientists have to go out and become advocates on the ground. But their research can be very powerful when placed in the hands of policy and decisionmakers.
Poor communities must have access to scientists, and the information generated in reports and studies must be translated so communities can use it to speak for themselves, in committee hearings and town hall meetings and task forces and commissions that are making decisions about their lives. The people most impacted must be in the room when decisions are made, with the best information they can find. We can’t just have environmental groups speaking for people on the front lines.
It’s also important that we have scientists who come from these communities impacted by pollution. We need a growing generation of people of color and low-income people who can speak to these issues and be these policy experts and health experts—they can do it better because they come from these communities. That’s the challenge we’ve been working on.
What do you predict for the future of the environmental justice movement?
Robert Bullard: In the short term, when we talk about loosening regulations and allowing industries to pollute at will, there’s a lot of data showing rising asthma rates and rising cancer rates, which result from pollution in communities that are on the front lines breathing this stuff every day. Long-term, I am optimistic that the movement will not relent. This is a good time to rally organizations and talk about collaborations across the board: health, energy, housing, transportation, food security—all these issues now converge. We’re not just talking about the next four years. We’re talking about a strategy that’s much longer than that. That’s how we’ve been able to sustain our movement. For communities of color—and I can speak personally as an African American—our long view has stretched out far longer than four years. And for Native Americans, I know it’s much longer.
It has taken centuries of disparity—of discrimination, racism, imperialism, and colonialism—to get to where we are today. We’re talking about dismantling some very powerful institutions. It’s not an easy task and we recognize that. We’re going to shore up our troops and get people to understand: this is about building a healthy, sustainable, and livable nation for everyone.
Progress is slow but we are relentless. If you are by nature a sprinter, this work is not for you. You need to be a marathon runner.
Hear more from Dr. Bullard on our Got Science? podcast: