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Dr. Robert D. Bullard
In this episode we connect with Dr. Robert Bullard to discuss the history of the Environmental Justice movement and his role in pushing it forward. The conversation also explores how Covid has become an Environmental Justice issue and how racist laws and lack of regulation historically increase the mortality rate between zip codes.
Environmental Justice is a global fight, "Where you get the most traction, in terms of getting the most change done and getting people ready to move the envelope, to move the agenda is at the local. There's no substitute for organizing and mobilization. I'm a sociologist and social movements have played major roles in changing society."
Follow topic threads: Civics / Environmental Justice
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Dr. Robert D. Bullard is often described as the father of environmental justice. He is the former Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University 2011-2016. Professor Bullard currently is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy and Director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice. Prior to coming to TSU he was founding Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. He received his Ph.D. degree from Iowa State University.
He is an award-winning author of eighteen books that address sustainable development, environmental racism, urban land use, industrial facility siting, community reinvestment, housing, transportation, climate justice, disasters, emergency response, and community resilience, smart growth, and regional equity. He is co-founder of the HBCU Climate Change Consortium. Dr. Bullard is a proud U.S. Marine Corps veteran.
"Environmentalism and civil rights in 1979, two separate tracks. In some cases it took almost a decade, in some cases two decades to get the two movements to converge, and it's called environmental justice."
Engaging the World: Leading the Conversation on Environmental Justice is a series of informed, sustained, and enriching dialogues looking at how environmental toxicity and risk disproportionately impact populations based on race, ethnicity, nationality, and social standing. Environmental Justice brings awareness to these disparities, fighting to ensure that every voice is heard, every challenge is addressed, and every community has a seat at the table for a greener future.
Guest: Dr. Robert D. Bullard
Host: Jon-Barrett Ingels
Produced by Public Podcasting in partnership with Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences at Chapman University.
Dr. Robert D. Bullard (00:00): A lot of them still associate environmentalists with white environmental groups, and groups and organizations that historically have sucked up all the money, the green dollars. So they all say, “No, I'm an environmental justice, I'm a climate Justice, I'm a health justice.” They attach “Justice'' to their work. That's very different than in 1979, nine years after Earth Day. We could not get one single environmental group to work with us on the Bean Case. You know, I bust them out! But at the same time, we could not get the oldest civil rights organization in the country to work with us on that case. So environmentalism and civil rights in 1979, two separate tracks. In some cases it took almost a decade, in some cases two decades to get the two movements to converge, and it's called environmental justice.
Host (00:51): Chapman University’s Wilkinson College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences and Heritage Future present Engaging the World: Leading the Conversation on Environmental Justice. This series explores environmental racism and climate Injustice. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have been choking our waters with waste, poisoning our soil, and contaminating the air we breathe all in the name of progress. And the most vulnerable communities, with the least amount of representation and power, suffer through the worst effects. Environmental justice brings awareness to these marginalized communities, their activism and the path forward fighting to ensure that every voice is heard, every challenge is addressed, and every community has a seat at the table for a greener future. In this episode, we connect with Dr. Robert Bullard. Since 1979, he has dedicated his life to teaching about, writing about, and fighting for environmental justice. Here is Dr. Bullard.
“This was not something that I had planned. It was not something that I was trained to do… I'm more like an accidental environmentalist.”
Bullard (01:56): I graduated from Iowa State University in 1976 and my wife and I, we moved to Houston. My area of specialization in sociology was housing and residential segregation so I worked with census data and I worked with looking at equity issues as it relates to fair housing. I had, in graduate school, taken a couple of environmental courses, but they were pretty standard. None of this stuff that I worked on for the last four decades dealing with equity, and race, and justice issues were included in those courses. So, when my wife came home one day and said, “Bob, I just sued the state of Texas. I sued them because this company is trying to put this landfill in the middle of this predominantly black community in Houston.” I said, “You did what?” I said, “You sued the state of Texas?” I said, “Technically you sued my employer. You sued the state of Texas!” And of course, I was just 3 years out of graduate school untenured, and she said, “I need somebody to do a study and collect all the information on where the landfills, and incinerators, garbage dumps are located in Houston from the 1920s of the 1978 and put it on a map, and tell who lives around those landfills.” I said, “You need a sociologist.” She said, “That's what you are, right?” That was my aha moment. I got drafted. This was not something that I had planned. It was not something that I was trained to do, per se. And so I actually did a transfer of my skills, training, education to move from housing and residential data and location to environment. You never know how your career will take off, or which area you will end up focusing on. A lot of time I tell students, get your training and get your skills and your methodology and your statistics down quite firm. Firm it up, because in some ways you can transfer those skills to almost any field. And that's what I did. It was, as I said, it was all accidental. I tell folks, in a way I'm more like an accidental environmentalist. Not something I set out to do.
“It took 40 years plus for people to understand how social inequality and racial injustice will fuel vulnerability.”
Host (04:22): We’re 42 years into your career, you know, as the anointed “father of environmental justice,” and this past year… Really, I mean, in the past four decades, we really see that the two issues that your study marries, of Racial Justice and Climate Change, are two of the most important issues that we face as a country, as the world. How has that changed? How has it grown and adapted in the four decades of your work?
Bullard (05:05): Well, if you look at, in 1979, environmental justice marrying it with racial justice was a footnote. In 2021, it's a headline. The dots have been connected and in some ways it took 40 years to connect those dots. It took 40 years plus for people to understand how social inequality and racial injustice will fuel vulnerability. Whether this is dealing with housing, transportation, energy, food and water security, issues around climate adaptation, issues around which communities get infrastructure to build resilience. Hard infrastructure but also that human social infrastructure in terms of funding organizations and institutions to ensure that equal protection and equal enforcement get carried out. The discoveries that were made in the 70s, 80s, 90s, 2000, now we're in the 2020s, those discoveries, each one built on the other and lessons learned, in some cases lessons not learned. But I know it's like science and social science discovery; we are better able to use technology today because when I was doing the study in 1979, there was no Google, there was no iPad, iPhone, laptop, none of that, there's no database, there was no GIS. We had to color code maps, basemaps glued to a poster board, and using census tracts, and color-code census tracts using magic markers. Yellow, less than ten percent minority. Green, 24.9%, and less. Orange, less than 49 less than 50%. And red, 50 percent or more. The most of the pins in the ‘79 Solid Waste study was in the red, literally in the red. It took years. The study was done in ‘79, got it published in ‘83, it went to court in '85. So from ‘79 to ‘85, it was intense labor. It was not something you could pull up on a laptop or iPad or a cell phone today. We can do that instantly, like right now, it's easier. But the data and the outcomes are pretty much consistent with what we found in 1979, what studies have been finding now in 2021, in 2020, that race is still the most important and potent variable to determine quality of life, life expectancy, in terms of who gets polluted and who gets resources, in terms of disaster funding, in terms of mitigation funding. Racism is still so potent in our society that we have to devote more time and effort in dealing with that, taking that racial justice and equity lens to these challenges. And Covid has made it so clear and understandable how race operates in making more communities vulnerable. Covid is a respiratory virus and it attacks the lungs. It's about breathing. And if you look at this virus, you see it almost as a heat-seeking missile that's zeroing in on the most vulnerable population. And the bullseye is on those communities that have elevated health disparities, because of lots of pollution that’s creating lots of asthma and respiratory illnesses, etc. Lots of underlying conditions exist in those communities because of lots of pollution, lack of access to healthcare, lack of access to healthy foods, all those things converge, lack of transportation. So when covid is is seeking that bullseye, it’s going to that population that is very vulnerable and anything that will be disruptive will have a huge ripple effect across that population. If you talk about this whole question of hospitalization and deaths and you talk about access to transportation to get to Health Centers. If you look at, in America, owning a car, a private automobile is almost universal, 95% of Americans will have access to a private automobile, but if you look at certain populations, those numbers are not 95% in some cases. 20% of African-American, for example, don't own a car. You look at major cities, in some cases, it could be like a third or more. So having a car can get you to safety in a disaster, flooding, hurricanes. It can also get you to a test center and a vaccination center. And so having those kinds of disparities, transportation inequity in terms of mobility… when for example, when test sites and vaccination sites for Covid are placed in grocery stores and supermarkets, when they're placed in drugstores, when there are food deserts in lots of low income communities and communities of color, that means you are designing failure, in terms of mobility and access. Those are structural factors that, if you don't build an equity lens into, you will further marginalize populations that are already experiencing health disparities, transportation disparities. And then you add another layer of the digital divide: people not having… households not having access to a computer or device that gets you online. Then, when the government sets up your application process for disaster aid from FEMA, you go online and fill out the application and you can go. But if you don't have a computer, you can't go online for your Covid appointments, go online and set up the appointment. These are all structural factors. That further marginalizes an already marginalized population. And what we've said all along is that we have to look at this Equity lens. This justice lens that can peel away, you know, the onion to say, well there are certain populations that if you use these standards and this application process that standardized you will miss a huge segment of our society that were of the greatest need and that's what we've been saying all along.
“We cannot separate environmental justice from economic justice, from climate justice, racial justice, and justice in terms of our political system. It's all intertwined.“
Host (12:03): The same would go for voting rights as well.
Bullard (12:06): Voting rights, it's the same thing. When you start removing… and that's what's going on right now, the same forces that created these pollution hotspots, these environmental sacrifice zones, the underlying condition, this racism drove this pollution to these neighborhoods, the same underlying conditions that drove redlining in terms of urban heat islands and flooding are the same forces that's driving closing voting stations, voting precincts and suppressing the vote. And if you don't have the right to vote, and if you can't put individuals into offices that can say, no, we're not going to pass policies, and we're not going to send monies in a way that's discriminatory, if you lose that right and somehow it's taken away, that means you're turning the clock back in terms of participatory democracy. And we can have those maps to show the states that it is hardest to vote, and if you put that map up on, it's the same map where you have high poverty, you have maps that have bad health, lack of health insurance, etc. high pollution, and it's the same map! And that's what we're saying. We cannot separate environmental justice from economic justice, from climate justice, racial justice, and justice in terms of our political system. It's all intertwined.
Host (13:31): You've said, time and time again and it's on your website that zip code is still the most potent predictor of an individual's health and well-being.
Bullard (13:40): Yes, you tell me your ZIP code, I can tell you how healthy you are and what's in that neighborhood. And if you could have a zip code that's next to each other, contiguous, and depending on on who lives there and the kinds of investments, infrastructure that have been placed in those neighborhoods, you can have a differential life expectancy of 10 to 15 years just by what's in a neighborhood and what's not there.
Host (14:09): Now, this is my chicken or the egg question. Is it that those zip codes, those areas? That's where these problems came to, or is it that those are the places that are affordable to live, or where people are allowed to live because of redlining? Is it when you're searching for the American Dream and you could buy a house for next to nothing here next to this petrochemical plant or is it the petrochemical plant is being put next to a community, legacy community?
Bullard (14:41): It's both. If you look at… most of the data will show that the most potent factor that determines where these facilities are, these polluting facilities are, it is not income, it's race. For example, a 2008 study done by a professor at University of Colorado shows that nationally, African-American families who make 50 to 60 thousand dollars a year, that's a middle-income family household, are more likely to live in neighborhoods that are more polluted than whites who make ten thousand dollars. How can that be? Well, a middle-income African-American making fifty to sixty thousand dollars a year face more housing discrimination and residential segregation then a white household who is very poor. A poor white person can escape polluted neighborhoods by being white and going to another neighborhood and not meeting that discrimination, not meeting racial discrimination. There may be some income discrimination, but the racial discrimination is most potent. And studies now show that regardless of income, black and brown communities are more likely to have more pollution than comparable white neighborhoods at equal value in terms of housing. So, racism overlay is creating lots of the problems. And when you find, like in Houston in 1979, that the subject of Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corporation, which was the lawsuit, the lawsuit was… in terms of the plaintiffs, the plaintiffs were black middle-class homeowners. They were not public housing residents. They were not homeless. The neighborhood was a neighborhood of black middle-class homeowners. 85 percent of the residents in that neighborhood own their home. So race was the driver. And so, what happens is that race will drive pollution toward people of color, regardless of income. And as you start getting one Locally Unwanted Land Use, or LULU, it's easy to get 10, because of the targeting, if you have 9. The thinking is, and it's crazy, it's racist, well, you got nine so one more won't make a difference. Let’s not pollute this green field. Let’s not pollute this area where there are no industrial facilities, there's no facility like this. And the rationale is, well, no, we should not be doing this because this is not compatible with… This residential area is not compatible with a landfill, or incinerator, or even a sewer treatment facility where everybody wants their waste treated, or water treatment facility,. That's the thinking. And that's how racism plays into it, which communities are more compatible with this, as opposed to which communities we must protect. And studies also show that having green space, having parks, and having trees… You know, a 2021 study shows that affluent whites are 51 percent, more likely to have trees and green space, etc. Then poor people are like, okay, how is it that if trees are good, why are there no trees in the ghetto? Well, going way back showing when communities were designed, neighborhoods were designed, trees were designed into it. And we know the health and nurturing impact of trees. But again it's this assumption, “Well, you don't need trees. You don't need a park. You don't need a walk trail. You don’t need bicycle lanes if you are poor.” Well, it's not true because if you build them they will come! They will use them! And so that's the thinking, that equity lens that needs to be applied across the board when we talk about infrastructure. And that's the lens that the current administration is using to push out Justice 40, as we transition to clean energy, and renewables, and build a resilient economy, society, 40% of those Investments are to be sent to those, what they call “Disadvantaged Communities”, we call them low income, communities of color, environmental justice communities. So it flips the paradigm, instead of saying these communities don't need parks, green space, walk trails, bicycle lanes, infrastructure. Let's put infrastructure in those communities so infrastructure could be like writing a prescription for a healthy community. Reducing obesity, having good kinds of healthy living, in terms of walking trails and bicycle lanes, the parks, Farmers Markets, all that. We know the benefits of all of that through our science, through our research, and through our data. It's not like smoke and mirrors or Voodoo, it's real and we have data. You just have to apply that data equally across the board.
Host (19:58): How important is awareness to these affected communities? Is there just kind of this blissful ignorance? This is where I live and I'm not aware of the poison that I'm breathing or drinking, or that's in my soil. How many people are aware of the problems in their communities?
Bullard (20:19): Well, over the years, our science and our community/university partnerships are working directly with impacted communities, has given rise to movements in terms of information as power, and having information in a translational way so that communities on the ground can you use it, and can apply it, and own it. You know, we have citizen science, we have community epidemiology, we have community GIS. We have all that now, it has been pushed down to the community level. And with technology, you have community monitoring, you know, real time monitoring is being put in communities and the cost has come down so that we don't have to always depend on our DEQ, Department of Environmental Quality to give us information because sometimes they give us information too late. And so communities now are much more aware. They are much more informed, and they are taking a much more aggressive stance and challenging our city, local, state, federal government to produce more information instead of less and to produce it in real time. And so the public right now, and particularly all those publics in those communities on the fence line and those communities that experience the greatest harm are being organized, mobilized. And now we are fighting to get those organizations in those communities resourced, because in many cases over these many years, the communities of greatest need are also under-resourced. Today, because of racial justice, it’s now been elevated to dealing with environmental, dealing with issues around energy, issues around transportation, issues around criminal justice and policing, health. These issues now have merged and converged, and that organizations now see all these issues as their issue. They may not have the expertise and the specialization in all the areas, but they see things connected today, and not seeing themselves as, you know, more traditionally environmentalists. But, in terms of the issues that they work on, they define environment in a very different way than the environment and environmentalism that was practiced in 1970, with Earth Day. The environment is where we live, work, play, learn, worship as well as the physical and natural world. They don't leave a whole lot out.They are covering all of those areas. And so, when you go in those communities and you start asking and inquiring about, what are you working on? They'll tell you all the things they're working on. And if you ask them, are you an environmentalist? Many of them will hesitate. Because a lot of them still associate environmentalists with white environmental groups and groups and organizations that historically have sucked up all the money, the green dollars. So they all say no I'm an environmental justice, I'm a climate justice, I'm a health justice. They put Justice, they attached Justice to their work. That's very different than in 1979, nine years after Earth Day, we could not get one single Environmental Group to work with us on the Bean Case, I'm, you know, I bust them out! But at the same time, we could not get the oldest civil rights organization in the country to work with us on this case and that case. So environmentalism and civil rights in 1979, two separate tracks. In some cases that took almost a decade in some cases, two decades to get the two movements to converge. And it's called environmental justice.
“Climate change is real, global warming is real and I think it's a global justice issue.”
Host (24:10): We're recording this in September. We're still in the heart of storm season in the gulf and we're coming off of a slew of terrible storms and we are also coming off a year of the most storms recorded. In your book, Race, Place and Environmental Justice After Hurricane Katrina, you explore the horrific aftermath and response to Hurricane Katrina. Do you see similarities with the communities affected and the national response after Ida?
Bullard (24:46): Yeah, there are so many similarities. When we did the book, the Katrina book in 2009, the idea behind that book was let’s look at Katrina, and let's have some lessons learned, and let's try to look at what are some of the real time ways that we can build in a resilient response, recovery, revitalization, reclaiming community and and start to not just look at Katrina as an isolated kind of one-off. 16 years have passed. We followed up, Dr. Beverly Wright and I, followed up in 2012, after the Katrina book with The Wrong Complexion for Protection, and building off of that, 2012, that that's like, you know, ten years ago and they're still lessons not learned in terms of communities that are still on the frontline of climate change, not putting the investments in those communities in a way that make them much more climate resilient, make them in a way that can withstand the kinds of storms that are hitting now more frequent and more powerful. And that these same communities are on the frontline of these climate impacts, the same communities that are more prone to flooding, the same communities that are at risk when it comes to not having transportation in terms of being able to evacuate, high poverty rates, not having money. Many of these storms are hitting three days before payday, toward the end of the month, when the money's gone and it's like, well, evacuate! Well, when we talk about these storms, we used to plan for disasters in the Gulf Coast June through November. That's hurricane season. But winter storm Yuri hit us down here in Texas and the Gulf Coast in February. So now we have to plan year round and the same communities that got hit in February are the same communities that got hit in June through November. And right now, the communities that got hit with Ida and Nicolas, before you could get to the blue tarp off these homes after one hurricane, another one hit the next season. So this is real. This is not theory! The most vulnerable places and the most vulnerable people, it's colliding in terms of how money is not being spent in a way in terms of making these communities that are at greatest risk, making them whole. We talk about the money following money, money following power, money following white, and this climate gentrification, those communities that didn't flood, that maybe low income communities of color, they're getting pushed off the high ground. They're getting displaced because market forces are pushing them off. And in terms of which communities are being able to get behind a levee and which communities are being left on the outside, there are other racial, economic dynamics that are being put in place. Which communities are being hardened, in terms of investments for making them more climate resilient, and which communities are getting left behind. Even FEMA's own study in 2020 shows that the recovery dollars and funding is leaving behind the most vulnerable. And what we have to say is that if we are to build a just and fair and resilient, climate-resilient society, we cannot allow our traditional, dominant paradigm, overlay framework to drive it. We have to allow justice and equity to drive that planning so that we don't just build on inequity, build on inequality. And so the administration’s Build Back Better also has to build back fairer and more just and and look at these legacy inequalities that have been somehow invisible or ignored for decades, in some cases centuries. We're making our message and communicating these issues much more clearly today than in the past. And with social media, and with young people, intergenerational, pushing out these messages and communicating in real time that gives me hope. That makes me optimistic that we can turn this ship. Not going to be easy, but to make the kinds of transformational change that's needed, we don't have 40 years like I've been working on this for these decades, the IPCC reports say we may have 20, maybe.
Host (30:03): Where's the fight most important? Is it at the community/local level? Is it at the state level? Is it at the federal level or is this a global conversation and a global fight?
Bullard (30:15): It is a global fight. You know, climate change is real, global warming is real and I think it's a global justice issue. But where you get the most traction, in terms of getting the most change done and getting people ready to move the envelope to move the agenda is at the local. There's no substitute for organizing and mobilization. I'm a sociologist and social movements have played major roles in changing society. And so getting individuals at the local level, community, at the city, county, in the states, there's much more activity in terms of positive mobilization happening at the city and the metropolitan level then at the state level. So as we start mobilizing, and getting people to understand that voting is so important and that mobilizing people to be opposed to this voter suppression, because it's the same forces. We have to connect those dots. And as we start moving the states and the United States, we have to make sure that we re-engage with the global community because the United States is still a superpower, and it has to act like it. It still has to lead in a lot of ways. It also has to work in collaboration with other nations to move this threat to humanity. And I think that it's beginning to happen. But we have to accelerate that and that leadership has to be there for the long haul. We just can't go, ups and downs, ups and downs, because climate change won't wait. We have to push fast and furious forward.
Host (31:58): If you would like to continue the conversation, visit drrobertbullard.com for more or chapman.edu/wilkinson to watch the full lecture. For more socially conscious content, visit publicpodcasting.org, or follow us at Apple, Spotify or wherever you podcast.
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