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The father of environmental justice on whether we are all doomed

The father of environmental justice on whether we are all doomed

Robert Bullard has been trying for over 40 years to show us that racism isn’t as easy to define. The Texas Southern University professor warned us long before the water crises in Flint, Michigan that racism can be present in our environment, especially if you live in a certain zip code or have a particular skin color.

The term environmental racism was not yet a well-known term. In 1979, Bullards wife Linda McKeever Bullard brought a lawsuit against Southwestern Waste Management. Southwestern Waste Management planned to place a municipal landfill within a Houston neighborhood where 82 per cent of the residents were Black. It was the first case in American history in which a corporation was charged with racial discrimination in environmental practices.

This legal action led to a groundbreaking study called Solid Waste Sites and The Black Houston Community. It also started a crusade Robert Bullard continues today. The historically Black Texas SouthernAs A member of the Biden Whitehouses Environmental Justice Advisory Board. Bullard was born in Alabama during Jim Crow in the 40s. He has witnessed bigotry, discrimination in many forms that fit with the more violent and often outright violent symbols we have all been taught to recognize. Things such as a Klan Hood, segregated busses, a noose, and racial insults. Since publication of the textbook Dumping in DixieIn 1990, he published his first of 18 books. He’s been teachingStudents and others are reminded that racism can manifest in polluted water, lead poisoning, or dirty air.

The man many call the “The Man” Father of environmental justiceLast month, I traveled to Scotland to take part in COP26 (the United Nations conference on climate change). Bullard was so excited to be on the show, sharing his experiences and how the rest of the world sees his fight against environmental racism as part our global struggle for a world that is habitable for all.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation. You’ll find more information in the full podcast. Subscribe to our podcast. Vox ConversationsOn Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, StitcherYou can listen to podcasts anywhere,

Jamil Smith

Let’s begin with Dr. Bullard. What is environmental Justice? Although it is a term most people will understand intuitively, it is one I believe the father of environmental justice would appreciate you explaining it.

Robert Bullard

Environmental justice refers to the principle that everyone in a community has equal protection of our environmental laws. This includes housing, transportation and energy as well as food security and health laws. This principle is what environmental justice is: Everyone has the right of a clean, healthy, sustainable environment, regardless of race, color, nationality, or national origin. It is that simple.

Jamil Smith

Indeed. It has been 30 years since you all met at The National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Can you tell me about October 27, 1991 and the principles you discussed there?

Robert Bullard

[It]This was a historic moment. Dr. Benjamin Chavis was director of the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ. Here’s a Black civil rights group that is based in the church, which is a white denomination. [that]A group of us had been working together on different issues across the country. We said that the environmental movement mainstream somehow is ignoring, leaving behind and not addressing our problems and that we need a conference, a summit.

It took us over a year to plan it. We raised the funds and it was a 4-day summit. We also stated that the summit’s first two days must be open to people of color. Why? It’s because people of colour in the United States, people with color, Indigenous people, have suffered the indignities and oppression from slavery, genocide, imperialism, colonialism. So, African Americans, Native and Indigenous peoples, Latinos and Hispanics as well as Asian and Pacific Islanders didn’t know much about each other in 1991. So we had to get together as a group and try to unravel all the baggage of those -isms which basically created mistrust, misunderstanding, and mistrust.

After those two very difficult, but enlightening days, we decided to bring everyone in. We have to bring the white people in, as we don’t want to be an exclusive movement. So, These four days lasted approximately 4 daysWe had meetings, sessions, seminars, trainings, and we had workshops. We developed those 17 principles for environmental justice.

The principle’s overarching theme is that those most affected by environmental problems must speak for themselves, and must be present when decisions are made. We must also develop the types of research and empowerment tools that allow us to speak for ourselves, and not let others speak for us.

These principles had been translated into at minimum a dozen languages when we arrived in Rio de Janeiro for the Earth Summit in June 1991. Although the principles of environmental justice were created in the US, they have traveled well. Twenty years later, in Johannesburg there were thousands of us representing our global movement, which was not a US-based movement.

Jamil Smith

Sixth of these 17 principles was the one that really caught my attention in a few conversations I’ve had recently with friends. You discuss environmental justice demands, such as the cessation or reduction of all toxins, radioactive materials, and hazardous waste. This is how we think about climate change. Things like lead paint and garbage being dumped in disproportionate numbers in communities of color. How have you helped people recognize that environmentalists are responsible for this over the past 30 years?

Robert Bullard

Principle six is about the production of hazardous chemicals and waste. Transboundary waste trade is where companies that make all types of chemicals ship their products to other countries. This applies to companies from all over the world as well as US companies. They are not shipped to Europe. They are shipped to developing countries [in]Asia and Africa

When you think about the entire issue of producing materials for war, the beginning of the process is radioactive waste or even uranium being extracted in Indian lands. This violates sovereignty and poisons people. It is then made into nuclear weapons, bombs and other weapons that are not only here. This principle refers to the threat to humanity. It could be war, chemical production, or pollution that causes a problem.

Another principle is self-determination. If you look domestically, you will see that we are referring to sovereignty. This is what we are referring to: people have the right to self-determination. You don’t have to be predetermined who you will be or what your community will look like. When you explode it, you’re talking about international treaty rights. It’s country-to-country. As these principles were pushed out, people all over the globe began to realize that they could be easily translatable into climate principles later.

Jamil Smith

It is a bit like the influence of blues.

Robert Bullard

There you go.

Jamil Smith

It is funny.

Robert Bullard

(laughs). There you are.

Jamil Smith

I want to reach you: how are you? [became]These issues are still very important to me. What was your childhood like? What inspired you to become involved in conservation and a more specific fight later on?

Robert Bullard

Alabama was home to me, and I remember the issues that were important to me as a child. Justice was evident in every issue. Housing was one example. You grew up in segregated neighborhoods with dirt roads, no sewer lines, no water hookups and no street lights. You can see that your segregated school’s libraries are white and you cannot go to the main school library. You can’t go to your swimming pool because it is white.

So, after seeing the segregation in South life, and not realizing it, I would be involved later in a lawsuit to challenge that separation. Understanding that America is segregated, and also that pollution, was my goal. Growing up, I didn’t realize this. Everything is segregated. Later, however, I realized that my work was teaching students and teaching others to make the connection between where you live in relation to how long you live. [how]What you see in your community can make you healthier and what you see in your neighborhood could make you sick. The good stuff ends up on the west side of town, while the bad stuff is sent to the east. Unwanted land usage is just one way that planners refer to all garbage dumps (landfills), incinerators and highways locally. [but in]All infrastructure, or the built environment we refer to as infrastructure, is not created equally.

And all my writings, all books, and all my research will use the equity lens to see most of what makes communities unhealthy or less livable. This was an unintended discovery. I didn’t intend to do this. It was just something that happened, kind of like accidental environmentists, if that is a term you can think of (laughs).

Jamil Smith

(laughs) It makes a lot sense. I know that you were raised in Alabama and graduated in 1964, the year my dad graduated from high school. For those who don’t get it, I wanted to briefly explain that you were raised in the Jim Crow South.

How did this upbringing eventually lead to academia? I would love to know why you felt that this was the best path to making the most impact.

Robert Bullard

W. E. B. was one of my heroes in all of my readings. Du Bois. He was a sociologist, a great professor and teacher, but also a brilliant political analyst. So I graduated college and knew that I wanted to be a college professor.

I have four brothers and sisters. There are five of us. Four of the five are teachers. Because, you know…I wanted to be a college teacher. I thought it was cool being a college teacher. So I went to Atlanta University [now Clark Atlanta University]for my masters degree, and then I went on to Iowa State University to finish my PhD. I wanted to model my career on one of my heroes. W. E. B. Du Bois created the Atlanta University sociology department. Du Bois did all his research in Atlanta. Although he could have traveled anywhere he chose to do his research at an HBCU.

My career was modeled on someone who would write and work with communities. Du Bois helped to found the NAACP. He wasn’t just a bookworm or a professor. He was also an activist in politics.

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Robert Bullard

So that’s where I am. I write. I enjoy researching. I enjoy working with communities to help and support them. Although I don’t pretend to be a leader, I will help and support communities if they ask. This is what our movement is all about; empowering local communities to speak for their own interests and giving them the tools and training to defeat the forces that want to destroy them. This is a toxins. Let’s not make it look fancy and wrap a ribbon around. Many of the environmental challenges facing our communities, including climate change, are made worse because of racial redlining 100 years ago when Black communities weren’t provided flood protection and were not provided with the landscaping and landscaping they needed. These same areas are hotter in 2020s because there aren’t trees or green canopy. They are more susceptible to flooding. They are more susceptible to flooding and have higher rates of Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths.

You discuss what has happened over the years due to systemic racism, planners, policy and financing. This is how science, research, and data can be used to fight that. If we are focusing on emotion, and want people to be mad, or angry, then we need to have other tools in order to combat that. This is how the environmental justice movement was able to create more practitioners who can do this work.

Jamil Smith

The legal system is one such tool. Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management cCan you tell me a bit more about the importance of that lawsuit?

Robert Bullard

Bean The first lawsuit to challenge environmental racism through civil rights law was filed. And the legal theory behind BeanThe idea that Black communities could have landfills, incinerators or garbage dumps was discriminatory, as it was denying them equal protection under the law. The emphasis was on civil rights being used to say “No, this is illegal and therefore you cannot do it.” I was then asked to conduct the study.

But remember that the lawsuit was filed in 1979. The case went to court on August 15, 1985. The case was eventually lost but that was not the end. This is significant because even though you lose a case, you learn that it is a justice cause and a matter of justice, and you move on to the next line of defense. Solid research methodology and a solid legal theory can help you to find other types and types of legal arguments.

Dumping in DixieIt was based in Houston. We expanded the Houston case study to the entire South and looked at landfills and petrochemical plants, as well as refineries. The same pattern was then found in the South, and then we expanded it through the United States. Expanding from the United States to see, globally, which nations and communities have suffered the worst effects of our environmental policies and global industrial policies.

All of this arose from Houston, from one case and one study. There are 18 books that link the dots on transportation, disaster response and energy security.

These things link in a way that is easy to see today. But 42 years back, people would make fun of you and say, “There is no environmental racism.” There’s nothing called environmental injustice. I received nasty letters back from publishers in 1989, when I had the original manuscript.

Jamil Smith

What kind of letters are you looking for?

Robert Bullard

They were saying, “No, you cannot use that.” You can’t use that.

Jamil Smith

You have a new idea that they can’t accept because they haven’t heard of it before.

Robert Bullard

The book was finally published in 1990. Dumping in DixieIt was adopted as a textbook. It was the only book on environment justice for two years. It kind of took off. This book was written in an unconventional way. It challenged environmental groups in that they were not working on these issues, obtaining all the money, and not dealing with the real issues in many communities. It was threatening in ways that were not my intention.

The idea that you have organizations that have been around since 1890s, but had never dealt with these issues before, and very smart people is a great idea. But we know that very smart people don’t know everything. It took some time for some of our environmental friends understand the concepts. Five leaders from environmental groups were invited to our People of Color Summit. Two of them arrived. The three other men said, “We don’t know what you’re talking about.” (laughs).

Jamil Smith

(laughs) Oh, my goodness gracious.

Robert Bullard

We have made great strides since then. We’ve made great strides in the last 30 years. These issues are still poorly understood.

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