At 75, the Father of Environmental Justice Meets the Moment

Source: By Cara Buckley, New York Times • Posted: Tuesday, September 13, 2022

The White House has pledged $60 billion to a cause Robert Bullard has championed since the late seventies. He wants guarantees that the money will end up in the right hands.

Robert Bullard wears a gray suit and stands outside a campus building of a Texas Southern University in Houston.
Robert Bullard doesn’t recall when people started calling him the father of environmental justice. “It’s really a compliment,” he said. “I’ve been called worse.”Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

HOUSTON — He’s known as the father of environmental justice, but more than half a century ago he was just Bob Bullard from Elba, a flyspeck town deep in Alabama that didn’t pave roads, install sewers or put up streetlights in areas where Black families like his lived. His grandmother had a sixth grade education. His father was an electrician and plumber who for years couldn’t get licensed because of his race.

Now, more than four decades after Robert Bullard took an unplanned career turn into environmentalism and civil rights, the movement he helped found is clocking one of its biggest wins yet. Some $60 billion of the $370 billion in climate spending passed by Congress last month has been earmarked for environmental justice, which calls for equal environmental protections for all, the cause to which Dr. Bullard has devoted his life.

Some environmentalists have slammed the new legislation for allowing more oil and gas drilling, which generally hits disadvantaged communities the hardest. For Dr. Bullard, the new law is reason for celebration, but also caution. Too often, he said, federal money and relief funds are doled out inequitably by state and local governments, and away from people of color and poor communities, who are the most afflicted by pollution and most vulnerable to climate change. This might be a major moment for environmental justice, he said, but never before has so much been at stake.

“We need government watchdogs to ensure the money follows need,” Dr. Bullard said in a recent interview. “Climate change will make the inequities and disparities worse, and widen that gap. That’s why this time, we have to get this right.”

Dr. Bullard, 75, is one of the foremost experts of environmental justice in the world. His seminal 1990 book “Dumping in Dixie,” about toxic facilities in communities of color, has been cited in scholarly articles more than 5,600 times. He doesn’t remember when exactly he began being called the “Father of Environmental Justice,” and though the sobriquet is prominently displayed on his website, he didn’t come up with it himself (there are other vaunted elders in the field), and affects a degree of humility when asked about it.

“It’s better to be called the ‘father of’ than ‘son of,’” Dr. Bullard said during an interview at Texas Southern University this past spring. “It’s really a compliment, but again, I’ve been called worse.”

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In recent years especially, as environmental justice has come to the fore, Dr. Bullard’s visibility has spiked. Requests for talks and interviews pour in daily, in no small part because of his style: He can deliver a blizzard of alarming facts while remaining upbeat, and serve up unvarnished honesty with a smile. Of the roughly two dozen awards and prestigious appointments Dr. Bullard has collected over his career, nearly half have come in the last four years. In 2021, he became a White House adviser, and, with $1.25 million from the Houston Endowment and later $4 million from the Bezos Earth Fund, Texas Southern University opened the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice.

“I don’t know any person on the planet who has done more to advocate and raise awareness on this issue,” said Paul Mohai, a professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, who has known Dr. Bullard for more than 30 years. “It’s impossible to not have a boost of adrenaline when he speaks.”

A black-and-white archival photo showing a group of protesters, including at least one carrying a sign, in front the tree-lined entrance of the Whispering Pines Sanitary Landfill.
Protesting the Whispering Pines landfill project in Houston in 1979.Robert Bullard

Dr. Bullard was born in 1946 to a family that defied the odds. In 1875, 10 years after the official abolishment of slavery, his great-grandparents acquired several hundred acres of timberland in Elba. “We don’t know how they got it,” Dr. Bullard said. “We don’t ask.”

The land proved a game changer. As property holders, his parents and grandmother could vote under Jim Crow laws. On Election Days, they dressed in their Sunday best and headed to the ballot box, even though it meant paying poll taxes and passing literacy tests. Timber harvested from the land also allowed the family to send Bob and his four siblings to college, a rarity for Black people at the time.

After graduating from Alabama A&M University, young Bob Bullard had another stroke of luck. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and he was drafted to the Marines, yet somehow didn’t get deployed, escaping the harrowing fate that befell others in his platoon. Funded by the G.I. Bill, he went on to get a master’s degree and doctorate in sociology, and emerged determined to model his career on that of his hero, the writer and civil rights champion W.E.B. DuBois.

“He didn’t do dead white man sociology, he did what I call kick-ass sociology,” Dr. Bullard said. “You can be a scholar and an activist and you can do something to make change.”

The environment wasn’t on Dr. Bullard’s radar until 1979, when he was teaching sociology at Texas Southern University and his wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, a lawyer, asked for his help. She was filing a class-action lawsuit to stop a landfill from going into a middle class Black community in Houston, and tapped her husband to find out where the city’s other landfills were. He enlisted his students, and after painstaking research they discovered that although Black people made up just a quarter of Houston’s population, all five of the city’s garbage dumps, six of its eight incinerators, and three out of its four privately-owned landfills were in Black neighborhoods.

The case spent eight years in court, ending in 1987 with a decision allowing the landfill to proceed. Dr. Bullard was stunned. “The data and research were solid,” Dr. Bullard said. “But it was not enough to overcome the legacy of racism in the county system.”

After the landfill was built in the tree-lined community of Black-owned homes, Dr. Bullard said more industrial sites followed, driving down property values. “That’s theft of wealth,” he said. Outraged, he was determined to uncover more examples of how communities of color were disproportionately beset with poisoned water, soil and air.

An archival photo shows Ben Chavis, center, whose outfit includes a clerical collar, raising his fist and shouting in a crowd of protesters whose signs say “PCB” with a line crossed through them, and “Dump Hunt in the dump,” and “Detoxification protects, landfills kill.”
Rev. Benjamin Chavis and others protesting the Warren County P.C.B. landfill near Afton, N.C., in 1982, considered one of the first environmental justice demonstrations in the United States.Greg Gibson/Associated Press

In the 1980s, environmentalism and civil rights were by and large on two different tracks, and Dr. Bullard struggled to get backing from either camp. The major environmental groups told him they didn’t work on what they characterized as a social issue — “my response was, ‘Is breathing social?’” Dr. Bullard said. Meanwhile, civil rights organizations often said their focus was on discrimination in housing, voting, employment and education. The “Dumping in Dixie” manuscript was rejected a dozen times for similar reasons; Dr. Bullard was told the words “environment” and “racism” didn’t belong together because the environment couldn’t be racist. The publisher who finally bought it made it into a textbook, which initially angered Dr. Bullard until he realized it was getting adopted by universities nationwide, seeding his findings in young minds.

“‘Dumping in Dixie’ is the environmental justice bible,” said Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, an environmental health scientist who studied under Dr. Bullard as an undergraduate, and now teaches at Spelman College. “He set up a road map for others to follow who wanted to combine scholarship along with activism and advocacy.”

Today, after decades of organizing and mobilizing, environmental justice is a foremost concern to climate activists, a rise that Peggy Shepard, executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, in Harlem, attributed in large part to the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd’s murder. Ms. Shepard added that she’d never seen so much media interest or funding offers. “We’ve been fighting the David and Goliath fight with slingshot,” she said.

And environmental organizations that ignored race 15 years ago were now “stumbling over each other” to enlist people of color, Dr. Bullard said. The biggest green groups remain overwhelmingly white, and have faced their own racial reckonings. In 2020, a Black staff member resigned from the Union of Concerned Scientists, publicly slamming what she described as its ingrained tokenism; a few weeks later the Sierra Club said it had to confront the white supremacism of its founder, John Muir.

Beverly Wright, founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans, and a longtime collaborator with Dr. Bullard, said the exclusion of people of color came at a cost. Surveys taken in 2020 by Yale University and George Mason University showed that 80 percent of Latinos and 75 percent of Black people were worried about climate change, compared with 59 percent of whites.

“They realized they can’t do this by themselves, and need us in the room to get anything done, or passed,” said Dr. Wright, referring to the major environmental groups. “All things work better for all of us when we are in the room.”

Still, theirs remains an uphill battle. In August, Democrats made concessions allowing for more fossil fuel expansion in order to secure support for the climate bill from Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who holds a crucial swing vote in an evenly divided Senate. This infuriated some environmental justiceadvocates who said marginalized communities, especially those near Gulf Coast petrochemical plants, were being made sacrificial lambs.

There are also questions about whether the Democrats are overcounting the $60 billion designated for environmental justice in the new climate law. Sylvia Chi, a strategist with the Just Solutions Collective, calculated the amount to be closer to $40 billion; by her analysis the White House appeared to be including the value of entire programs rather than smaller amounts targeted to disadvantaged communities, or possibly programs that don’t target those communities at all.

A wide shot of Dr. Bullard in front of a brick wall, with his hands out and open and with a smile on his face, as though he’s mid-sentence in a lecture.
For Dr. Bullard, the Inflation Reduction Act is reason for celebration, but also caution. This might be a major moment for environmental justice, he said, but never before has so much been at stake.Michael Starghill Jr. for The New York Times

Dr. Bullard, for his part, touted the bill as historic, and applauded the inclusion of community block grants and funding for pollution monitoring near industrial facilities.

But he and his colleagues are concerned about oversight and the money getting to disadvantaged communities as intended, and fear that enforceable targets aren’t laid out explicitly. “The implementation is the fight,” said Dr. Wright.

Dr. Bullard pointed to an investigation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development earlier this year that found a Texas state agency discriminated against people of color when it distributed relief funds after Hurricane Harvey. Research also shows that FEMA, the government agency responsible for helping Americans recover from disasters, has often helped white disaster victims more than people of color, even when the amount of damage is the same. Southern states especially had a long history of unequal treatment of communities and lax enforcement of civil rights laws, Dr. Bullard noted. “The devil is in the details,” he said.

A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget said the administration was “committed to allocating the funding in line with the statute.”

Jalonne White-Newsome, the senior director for Environmental Justice at the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, said a new environmental scorecard was being developed to hold federal agencies to account. Funds are also to be allotted using a new framework the Biden administration announced earlier this year. Still, the formula raised some hackles because it omits race.

Since the law was enacted, Dr. Bullard has never been more in demand, and Dr. Wright, who is also in her 70s, said they recently shared a laugh over how busy they were.

“I said, ‘Bob, it’s coming in so fast we can’t get to it,’ and he said ‘Isn’t that amazing?’” Dr. Wright recalled. “It would’ve been better at 40, but why are you going to slow down when you finally have resources?” she continued. “He’s never slowed down. Why would he now?”