Addressing Environmental Racism

Dr. Robert Bullard is credited as the “Father of Environmental Justice” for his work in the late 1970s on the siting of toxic facilities and landfills in the American South. He is the author of Dumping in Dixie and is currently a Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. The Journal of International Affairs spoke with him about the roots of environmental racism and how governments can address it. 

Robert Bullard
February 11, 2020

Journal of International Affairs (JIA): You essentially launched the Environmental Justice movement with your work on the siting of landfills and toxic facilities. Can you explain what you found in your work and why it was so alarming? 

Robert Bullard (RB): I started my work as something of an accident. Back in 1978 my wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, who is an attorney, asked me to assist her in a lawsuit that she had filed challenging the location of a municipal landfill in Houston, Texas. The landfill was being proposed for a black middle-class suburban neighborhood in Houston and she needed someone to collect data for the temporary restraining order that she had filed in federal district court. 

I had ten students in my research methods class at Texas Southern University, and we embarked on a study to look at where all of the landfills, incinerators, garbage dumps, and waste sites were located in the city, from the ‘30s up until 1978. Ultimately, we found that from the ‘30s up until 1978, five out of five city-owned landfills were located in predominantly black communities. Six out of eight of the city-owned incinerators were located in predominantly black neighborhoods. Three out of the four privately owned landfills were located in black neighborhoods. Even though blacks made up only 25% of the population, 82% of all the garbage waste that was being disposed over that period of time was disposed in black neighborhoods. 

We went to federal court in 1979 and the case became Bean versus Southwestern Waste Management, Inc. That was the first environmental racism lawsuit to challenge this form of discrimination using civil rights law. We ended up losing in court because we could not prove intent. 

Even though we lost the case, it sparked my interest in environmental racism, before it had a name. I wanted to know if this phenomenon spread beyond Houston. So, I expanded the study to these types of facilities in other parts of the South. I looked at Cancer Alley, the 85-mile stretch of the Mississippi River in Louisiana from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. There, I found that most of the chemical companies and polluting facilities that moved there in the ‘40s and ‘50s were located in predominantly black communities, many founded right after slavery ended. 

From there, I went to Alabama, which has the largest hazardous waste landfill in the United States. Every state in the United States and at least a dozen other countries ship hazardous waste there. It is located in the heart of the Alabama black belt, in a county called Sumter County. The county is 75 percent black and the Emelle community the landfill is located is 95 percent black. In the ‘70s, an all-white Sumter County commission decided to locate the facility there. This lack of political representation essentially constituted environmental apartheid. 

I found similar patterns in West Virginia and in Dallas. I ended up writing my book, Dumping In Dixie, on all this in 1990. It examined how racism and Jim Crow segregation created this perfect storm that placed African Americans and poor communities on the front line of environmental assault. 

JIA: How did your studies, and the movement for Environmental Justice, move beyond the South to encompass the rest of the United States and beyond? 

RB: In 1987, Dr. Benjamin Chavis of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice did a study on toxic waste and race in the United States. The study found that race was the most powerful explanatory factor for where toxic facilities were located across the country. It was not income; it was not property values; it was not whether people owned or rented; it was not land values. It was race. 

That study, combined with Dumping in Dixie in 1990, generated a lot of buzz and the United Church of Christ ended up holding a summit on environmental justice in Washington, D.C. in 1991, where the 17 principles of environmental justice were developed. Since then, we have taken these principles to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, the COP6 Summit in The Hague in 2000, the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002 and numerous other conferences and every UN environmental summit since Rio. The principles have been translated into more than a dozen different languages and incorporated into the missions of many groups and NGOs. After working on this for four decades, I am seeing a broad grassroots intergenerational campaign for environmental justice. 

We did not just go from a court case in Houston to an international environmental justice movement overnight. We had to organize and present the facts. We had to explain that environmental justice was not just about people of color. Environmental justice also involved poor people, disenfranchised people, and marginalized communities. We had to explain that what we wanted was for no communities to be polluted or dumped on. Eventually we were able to get the Clinton Administration to adopt the Executive Order 12898 on Environmental Justice, which dealt with lower income and minority populations. 

JIA: What are the historical roots of environmental injustice? 

RB: This country was founded on four principles: free land, free labor, free men, and free enterprise. They looked great on paper, but in reality none of them were true. Free land? There was no free land; the land was stolen from Indigenous people. Free labor? The labor was forced out of African slaves. Free men? Only men with property could vote so there was no freedom that came with representation. And then free enterprise? We know there is nothing free about free enterprise; there are costs and externalities born by a system where the greatest wealth is generated from the greatest exploitation. 

And when you look at how those things intersect, it shows you how this whole Western culture perceives nature as something to be exploited and dominated. When you place this imbalance in the context of a country that is still trying to discover its national identity, it is all aspirational. It has never been achieved. 

Communities are viewed in the same context. When certain lands are seen as exploitable, the people that happen to be living there are viewed as expendable. Hence the genocide of Native people and the exploitation of slaves. At the same time, pollution is seen as just a byproduct of moving to the highest level of the economy. Smoke, air pollution, water pollution...that is the smell of progress. 

When it comes to waste, waste will flow along the path of least resistance. Historically, this means places near populations that have “less value” and have less political clout to resist. And you end up having places that are “sacrifice zones,” zones that are viewed as expendable when it comes to the environment, population, and health. When laws and regulations are built with this mindset, you end up assigning a value to those locations, and somehow that is where the waste and other externalities go. 

This is how you get Louisiana’s Cancer Alley; this is how you get the Los Angeles Alameda Corridor. This is how you get Southwest Detroit. This is how you get parts of Philadelphia. This is how you get North Richmond, California. It happens when government entities, political leaders, and economic leaders allow certain areas to be perceived as compatible with pollution. You can see the same kind of vulnerability abroad, when you look at the places that are currently getting hit the hardest with droughts, floods, and severe weather events. It is happening all over the developing world, Africa, Latin America, in Bangladesh, the Philippines, and other places. 

JIA: I’d like to briefly shift the focus to the energy system. How can we apply the principles of environmental justice as we transition to a modernized, decarbonized electric grid? 

RB: It is very simple. If we apply the environmental justice principles and the climate justice principles, we would say that all communities have an equal right to protection. Climate Change is more than greenhouse gases and parts per million; it is pollution and hazardous chemicals. As we are moving towards more renewables and green energy, what is being left behind are those dirty coal-fired power plants; that is an equity issue. That is a justice issue. We are not just talking about the carbon dioxide, we’re also talking about the particulate matter, the NOX, SOX, mercury, and lead. As an increasing number of United States coal fired power plants close, a disproportionate share of people of color still live around the dirtiest coal plants. Ironically, neighborhoods with more people of color pay higher energy bills than mostly white neighborhoods. 

But today, when we start applying modern-day policy remedies without looking at the socio-historical legacy of the racism that created those communities, we can further exacerbate the inequality. For example, if we talk about insurance and the history of red-lining, it means that historically red-lined communities, black and brown communities, find it harder to get standard homeowner’s insurance because they live in certain neighborhoods. When disaster hits, those communities are placed at a disadvantage when it comes to receiving dollars for recovery because they have been red-lined in terms of insurance. The cost-benefit analysis of the disaster relief funds may, on its face, be race-neutral, but it follows this formula; money follows money; money follows power, and money follows whites. A 2018 Rice University study examined federal disaster spending after $10 billion disasters, and found affluent whites end up having wealth increase of $126,000, whereas African Americans and other people of color end up losing $10,000-$30,000. In other words, the communities that were already the worst off end up losing more. Now I do not think the policy was designed to create and exacerbate inequality and those disparities, but that is what it does. 

JIA: How can government policies address environmental racism responsibly? What sort of policies would you like to see adopted? 

RB: An equity lens needs to be applied to how government funds are being spent, because inequities were built into the process of overcoming environmental injustice and this climate crisis. For example, if we know that the FEMA disaster relief formula creates outcomes that are differentially biased toward affluent whites and adversely impacting African Americans, Latinos, poor people, then, that equity lens should be the trigger to discussing how we can ensure that the funds we use to rebuild do not exacerbate inequality. 

Hurricane Harvey spurred this type of thinking in 2017. It took a biblical flood to get three dozen environmental justice, housing, transportation and conservation groups in Houston to come together to talk about equity issues. Before Harvey, most of the environmental groups that work on the ground here in Houston were not diverse. They worked primarily in their own space, with little interaction or collaboration with the city’s diverse people of color. Harvey flooding forced more than a dozen groups to get together, and we created the Coalition for Environment, Equity and Resilience (CEER). Following the Harvey flood, in the 2018 “Blue Wave” election, the Republican majority that had dominated the purse strings when it came to flood control got swept out. Now we have a more friendly county, in terms of its elected officials and people of color are in the majority. They are amenable to this equity guidance we discussed. 

The equity lens has to be upfront. It is not something hidden, it is not a footnote. It is the framing by which monies are to be allocated and plans are to be made. It is how we redress systemic racism on which discriminatory policies in the past were normalized. It is how we are going to not make the same mistakes of overlooking those communities that have been left behind and invisible for decades. This thesis underpinned my 1987 book, Invisible Houston: The Black Experience in Boom and Bust, written three decades before Harvey. We hope this kind of thinking can somehow be implemented without having to wait for a flood. We have to talk about how we are going to move forward in an equitable way, in a just way, and in a sustainable way.