Dr. Robert Bullard: 'We Don't Have 40 Years' to Fight for Climate Justice | Civil Eats
Robert Bullard leads a delegation from HBCUs during the People's Climate March.

Dr. Robert Bullard: ‘We Don’t Have 40 Years’ to Fight for Climate Justice

The ‘father of environmental justice’ discusses the legacy of his work, how systemic racism in agriculture is tied to the larger injustices faced by Black and brown communities, and what brings him hope in this moment.

A recent study of industrial farming’s impact on climate change confirm what nearby communities have known for decades: The air pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is killing 16,000 people in the U.S. every year.

But this fact comes as no surprise to Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University, also known as the “father of environmental justice,” who has long been tracing the way that Black people in the South, in particular, have long had to contend with pollution from CAFOs. Bullard’s work has been integral in connecting the dots between environmental outputs and their impacts on communities of color, and he was one of the first researchers to prove that neighborhood composition, food waste, food production, education, and quality of life are all linked.

But when Bullard began his work in the late 1970s, the environmental justice movement had no name and no academic or widespread sociocultural legitimacy. “In 1979, environmental justice was a footnote,” he says. “In 2021, it’s a headline.”

Dr. Robert Bullard in his office at TSU Houston.

Dr. Robert Bullard in his office at TSU Houston.

Civil Eats spoke with Bullard about the legacy of his work, how societal structures make the injustices faced by Black and brown communities invisible, and what brings him hope in this moment.

You started your work in the ‘70s before environmental justice even had a name. This year, Texas Southern University is opening a Center for Environmental and Climate Justice in your name. What does this mean to you?

Well, these are strange times we’re living in. When I started collecting data in 1979 for a lawsuit that my wife filed challenging the location of landfills and waste facilities, arguing that this was environmental discrimination and racism, it was very difficult to get the larger society in Houston, Texas, and the country to realize that this was another civil rights issue. The results were just so overwhelming: Five out of five of the city-owned landfills, six out of eight of the city-owned incinerators, and three out of the four private landfills were located in Black neighborhoods. Black people made up only 25 percent of the population but received 82 percent of the garbage dumped over 50 years in a city that doesn’t have zoning.

In 1979, environmental justice was a footnote. In 2021, it’s a headline. It’s amazing to see the changes that have taken place over the last four decades, even though it’s not very long in terms of how racism impacts public policy or in terms of the environment. Public investment in tending to these issues was not always commonplace or accepted.

For instance, in 1989, when I expanded the Houston study into a book called Dumping in Dixie, it took a whole year to get it published, because I sent the manuscript around to different publishers and I got back nasty rejection letters. The letters said that there was no such thing as environmental discrimination, environmental racism, or environmental injustice, because the environment is neutral and objective. Ultimately, the publisher made it a textbook, and universities across the country adopted Dumping in Dixie. For two years, that was the only book on environmental justice.

It’s amazing to think that racism in the publishing industry almost prevented the public from learning about environmental racism.

Yes, and there are other background stories. It was difficult to get the green groups to assist us in that lawsuit my wife was pursuing. My wife and I went to some of the large environmental groups and showed them the 1979 study that I conducted, and they said, “Oh, isn’t that where the landfill is supposed to be?” I was shocked. Then we went to the civil rights organizations, like the NAACP, and showed them the study, and they said, “We don’t work on the environment. We work on housing, education, employment, and voting discrimination.”

We were hanging out by ourselves, and for almost two decades, it took almost a miracle for the environmental community and the civil rights community to converge around this issue of environmental justice. That’s what we have: the idea of the environment and the issue of civil rights basically saying that no community should be overpolluted and targeted because of the race, color, or national origin of the residents.

It was really Ben Chavis’ work in Warren County, North Carolina, that brought attention to the issue. There were isolated struggles across the country, but Warren County brought it into the fold because of the demonstrations and the fact that 500 people, including middle and high school kids, were putting their lives on the line. That’s what it has taken to get environmental justice, economic justice, energy justice, food and water justice, and health justice to become headline issues. That’s what it took to push these issues forward and assert that you cannot have climate justice and environmental justice without racial justice.

That’s a reality that has not been a reality for long. Forty years—in the lifespan of the struggle for justice—is just a blip. Those of us who were there from the beginning can see a lot of change, in terms of people understanding, connecting the dots, and saying we should follow the data and we should follow the facts, which should follow the science. But for decades, the only science that would drive who gets what, when, where, and why, in terms of environmental protection and pollution, was political science.

New research provides a smoking gun on air pollution deaths caused by factory farm air pollution. Why do you think it took so long for that evidence to become available?

You have to understand how media and information gets communicated through the press. CAFO pollution—like air and water pollution—is nothing new for Black people in the South.

In 1998, PBS filmed a documentary about environmental racism and pollution in North Carolina because of the hog farms. The people who were impacted were mostly poor, Black, and rural. That’s like a triple whammy of not getting any publicity or justice. The health impacts, the lowering of property values, the impact on the community—all those factors were brought out decades ago.

Steve Wing, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, conducted studies about 30 years ago on the impact of these large corporate farms in North Carolina on the land and public health. Corporate hog farmers attacked him viciously because of this research.

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This is a clear example of how suppression of facts, information, and studies that point to harm and the legacy of harm continues even to this day. This is not new news but old news that’s now coming to light because of new studies pointing out these disparities and huge health impacts.

For example, studies produced in the last couple of years show racism and land use planning—whether it’s farming or racial redlining—are showing up in terms of negative and adverse health impacts. Areas that were redlined 100 years ago are now areas in cities that are the hottest, have the greatest vulnerability for flooding, and have the highest concentration of COVID-19 cases.

These disparities and vulnerabilities have decades-old roots. In many cases, state governments have succumbed to farm, food, chemical, and pharma lobbyists in that they’ve suppressed research that could have been conducted decades ago that would have shown the impacts. Moreover, many of our universities have chemistry or biology programs that take money from these corporate interests and haven’t addressed the externalities that get disproportionately pushed onto poor and rural people and people of color.

What has the COVID-19 pandemic revealed about our food system and food supply chain?

We’ve always known that our food system is broken and that the communities and populations that can least afford major disruptions are always hurt first and the hardest. Whether it was during the Great Depression, major wars, or a pandemic, the populations with limited means or fixed incomes are going to suffer. If there’s a run on food and you are dependent on the bus to get to the grocery store, and the bus schedule has been cut back, you’re going to suffer.

Look how land uses are laid out in terms of racial and income segregation, disinvestment in neighborhoods, and large areas within cities that have become food deserts. It means that in normal times, many low-income families and families who live in those food deserts have difficulty getting access to affordable healthy food. Then you add a pandemic and the favor is skewed toward those who have resources as opposed to those who are living day to day on low incomes and fixed incomes.

All disasters, whether it’s a natural or manmade disaster, tend to further marginalize already marginalized populations. Without federal intervention that would make up for those communities, you’ll see people getting sicker and experiencing further insecurity in all ways.

When you talk about disasters, you’re talking about people with resources competing against people without resources, and you can predict who’s most likely to win. When you talk about food and water security, you’re also talking about economic, transportation, energy, and health justice. These are real issues that oftentimes are invisible but are made more visible during crises.

Do you think consumers’ interest in what goes on behind the production of their food can help more people understanding environmental injustice—and what it would take to achieve justice?

Back when Dr. Martin Luther King [showed support for] César Chávez’s work with farmworkers, most people had no empathy or understanding of the conditions in which farmworkers had to labor under in terms of wages, working conditions, poor health, and inadequate housing.

When you start getting more and more people to understand the link between poor working conditions, low pay, and so-called cheap food, they start to understand there’s a price that’s being paid, and usually it’s on the backs of the most vulnerable.

But the populations that are basically responsible for getting food to the table, [their challenges are] still pretty much invisible to the average American. In communities where we have these huge hog and poultry operations, in many cases, they are communities of color. That’s definitely the case in the South. They have to live with the pollution, the low wages, and the health impacts—and it’s not just the workers but the entire communities where they are located. And these agribusinesses have not lifted these families or these regions out of poverty. In some cases, it has made it worse for them.

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I grew up in Alabama, and I’ve done a lot of my work across the South, but it’s not just a southern issue. Wherever you find those large farms where you have workers brought in, or you have communities that depend on the workers—and these are not family farms, for the most part— you’re seeing grinding poverty [impact] generation after generation after generation. In the ’40s and ’50s, it was Black people who did the work and, of course, it ties all the way back to slavery. Now a large percentage of the workers are Latino. [And working in or living near big ag operations] is just like living near a chemical plant or an oil refinery. When people gas up their cars, they don’t think about people who live next door.

And climate change will make it even more urgent to get it right and talk about addressing these equity issues because of future scarcities: of water, food, energy, housing that’s not in a flood plain, not on the edge of rising sea levels. And it’s going to get hotter, we’re going to have more bad air days, more 100-degree days and 100-percent humidity days. It is going to be really extremely difficult to work outside, and we know who has the jobs working outside: farmworkers, construction workers, landscapers. It’s disproportionally people of color.

Is there anything bringing you hope at this moment?

What brings me hope is that every social movement has been successful in this country because of strong and fearless youth and students. That’s what we have today. These young people are also working in collaboration and partnership with elders and veterans like myself. When we work together as an intergenerational collaboration, we are the most powerful. That gives me hope.

Young people also have a sense of urgency. We don’t have 40 years to get it right. Young people are not willing to go home and be quiet, and that’s important. We need transformative change now, because climate change is staring us straight in the face and we have no time to debate and wait.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. 

Ray Levy-Uyeda is a freelance writer living in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in Mic, Teen Vogue, and elsewhere. Read more >

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