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Truth to Power

LOOKING CLOSER Robert Bullard analyzes the nexus of race, class, and the environment.
Robert Bullard is an environmental justice pioneer exposing the toxic inequities facing poor and minority communities

I met Bob Bullard in his icebox of a corner office at Texas Southern University, where he is the dean of the School of Public Affairs. Outside of his building, in Houston's predominantly African American Third Ward, kitchen workers on lunch breaks clustered under trees in search of relief from the red-hot sun. Bullard's window overlooked a bank of solar panels that kept the building's air conditioners churning; just beyond, a formidable security fence ringed the campus.

Such incongruities are not lost on Bullard: they're his stock-in-trade. In recent years, Newsweek named him one of 13 Environmental Leaders of the Century and Grist dubbed him the "father of environmental justice" -- the movement that seeks to make sure environmental laws and regulations are being enforced free of any racial, ethnic, or socioeconomic discrimination.

Yet Bullard always insists that he was "drafted" into the environmental movement. In 1978 his wife, the attorney Linda McKeever Bullard, asked him to do some research for a lawsuit she was filing on behalf of Northwood Manor, a largely African American community in Houston protesting the siting of a landfill in its midst. The lawsuit, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc., was a legal landmark.

When your wife approached you about doing research for her lawsuit, you were a young sociologist -- a recent Ph.D. -- with little experience and even fewer resources.

She said, "Bob, I need someone who can work with census data and find out where the solid-waste facilities are located." I had 10 graduate students in my research master's class here at TSU. There was no methodology or design for doing this kind of work back then -- no computerized databases, no GIS mapping. We had base maps, and census tract maps, and block maps in books that were eight inches thick. We had colored Magic Markers and map pins that we'd stick in the wall.

We found that from the 1930s all the way up to 1978, the city of Houston had placed nearly 100 percent of landfills, and six out of eight of the city-owned incinerators, in black communities. We could lay out the streets and then overlay and color-code who lived where by income and race. Northwood Manor was a residential area; 85 percent of the people owned their homes. There was no reason to put a garbage dump there, except that it was a black community.

There were several schools within a two-mile radius of that landfill, one within 1,400 feet. On the major street, Little York, there was no sidewalk. When the schools let out, you could see the big trucks rolling up and down the streets and the kids walking. To me, that was why this landfill should not have been located where it was located. It was an assault. It was an insult.

We lost the lawsuit, but the community brought a tremendous amount of pressure to bear on the city council to pass an ordinance that limited the location of solid-waste facilities in relationship to public facilities like schools. I think the case served notice within Houston that landfills were no longer "compatible land use" with African American communities.

And it provided the impetus to start looking at other places as well.

What we were doing here locally got me to wondering what was going on in other parts of the South. I had gotten calls from folks in West Dallas who were fighting to get a lead smelter closed. A public housing project, a Boys Club, and an elementary school were all nearby. That immediately became one of my case studies. Then I expanded to look at Louisiana's Cancer Alley [the name sometimes given to the 80-mile industrial stretch between Baton Rouge and New Orleans] and the Union Carbide chemical plant in Institute, West Virginia. And then Emelle, Alabama, home to the largest hazardous-waste facility in the country.

That research became the basis for your 1990 book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality -- and was instrumental in building the environmental justice movement. But you've said that you had trouble getting the book published.

When I wrote it, I was trying to get a feel for what connected these communities. What made them prime targets for dumping? How did residents perceive these facilities' coming into their communities uninvited? They saw it as their rights being violated -- their property rights, their civil rights. They saw themselves and their communities under siege. But publishers didn't understand the concept. They said the environment was race-neutral, that you couldn't use environment and justice in the same sentence.

A lot of environmental groups still see the environmental justice movement as dealing with social issues. To which we say, yes, we do deal with social issues. We're dealing with civil rights. We're dealing with human rights. So we may have different priorities -- but where do our concerns intersect? We're concerned about clean water, about clean air. There's no black air, no Hispanic air, no white air. It's just air. So if we're talking about air quality, we should be on the same page.

Over the past 20 years, the environmental justice movement has expanded its scope beyond the South and the African American community. You yourself have addressed global issues, as well as topics like disaster response. Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit, bringing all your research full circle.

After Katrina, even the Housing and Urban Development secretary said that New Orleans would probably have a smaller black footprint and that he was going to agree to tear down public housing. Now, a "smaller footprint" for the black community means that, by design, all those people who were bused out of the Superdome -- in many cases low-income African Americans -- would probably not have the choice to return. If you tear down public housing, if there's no charity hospital, if there's no public transit, then there's nothing for them to come back to.

In December 2005, I wrote an article called "Katrina and the Second Disaster: A Twenty-Point Plan to Destroy Black New Orleans." There were things that were not being said, and I wanted to say them. It had been left unsaid, for example, that there were black areas some people didn't want to come back as residential. They wanted to have this come back as "green space." They wanted that to "revert to swampland." All without even asking the residents who had lived in these areas, some of whom were now displaced as far as 2,000 miles away.

My goal was to say: if we don't want these 20 points to come into effect, we need to address them head-on -- as opposed to whispering about it because people are too embarrassed to talk about the fact that race was driving a lot of this.

Once you've raised awareness, how do you translate that -- especially in the current political climate -- into action? There's a lot of rhetoric out there about how environmental concerns run contrary to the needs of the poor. A recent spate of advertisements, for example, talk about the "job-killing" EPA.

People are desperate for jobs -- it's like how a drowning man will reach out and grab a thorny bush to save himself. But the data are clear: more jobs are created by having strong enforcement of environmental laws and health protections. You save jobs and you increase productivity when you move to a green and clean-energy economy and away from dirty, coal-fired power plants. We can't match their advertising dollar for dollar. But environmental justice groups have to do a better job of educating the public about what's real and what's propaganda.

image of Ted Genoways
Ted Genoways, OnEarth's editor-at-large, is the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food (HarperCollins, online at www.tedgenoways.com), an examination of Hormel Foods and the great recession. The recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim fe... READ MORE >