Robert Bullard of Clark Atlanta University is often called the father of the environmental justice movement for his efforts to fight toxic dumping in minority communities. He recently delivered a lecture sponsored by the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum. The magazine's Kenneth R. Fletcher spoke with him.
When did you first conclude that environmental problems affect minorities disproportionately?
In 1978, when I was an assistant professor in sociology at Texas Southern University, I collected data for a lawsuit filed on behalf of a black middle-class community in suburban Houston targeted for a landfill. My students and I found that 100 percent of city-owned landfills in Houston were located in predominantly black neighborhoods, even though African Americans accounted for only 25 percent of the population. I expanded that research to include the entire southern United States. Since then I've discovered that it's a national phenomenon.
Before you started working on this, did people feel that they were targeted because they were black?
I think many people realized what was going on, but often times there is a lack of political power and lack of having information to document systematically and empirically where facilities are located. People would move from a neighborhood, running from a waste facility, to find out that a year later there's another facility following them. People were not making a lot of connections as to where these facilities are located.
Would you call this environmental racism?
We were the first to use the 1964 Civil Rights Act to fight discrimination in the location of a waste facility. We made that connection. You have a right to breathe clean air, you have a right to drink clean water, you have a right for your food not to be poisoned—just as you have a right to fair employment and equal opportunities in education.
It took us 20 years to get civil rights and environmentalism to converge, and we still have not achieved total convergence. I like to tell people that if you breathe air and are concerned about what's in the air you're an environmentalist, you just may not know it. We've been trying to really educate people and inform about how these issues impact them and get them involved in this movement for environmental justice.
Is low income a factor?
A study 20 years ago found that race—not income, socioeconomic status or property values—is the most potent predictor of where these waste facilities are located. In a February 2007 study, we found this still holds true.
Because of residential patterns and how decisions get made for where housing gets built, barriers keep some middle-income people of color from getting into neighborhoods that are livable, healthy and pristine. It's not always how much money you make. There should be no communities that become the dumping ground for any kind of waste.
If you look at the Appalachian states they also receive a disproportionate share of dumping. These are white, largely poor, people being dumped on. Because some regions may be economically depressed, a lot of times political leaders will recruit dirty industries. Often the environment and health get pushed on the back burner. It's an injustice whether the community or the population is black, brown, white, red, polka dot.
The environmental justice movement also talks about benefits. We want to make sure that we have access to clean, affordable, efficient public transportation so that we can get to jobs. A large proportion of people of color don't own cars. We are dependant on transit. We need to have good transit that can get us to our jobs, because in many cases jobs have left the city.
How can we build and develop fairly?
I think we have to grow smarter. It's not enough to say that we are going to rebuild our urban infrastructure and revitalize older neighborhoods and bring middle-income folks back to the city. We have to talk about what happens to people who are displaced. This is not to say that we are not encouraging people to come back. But we also have to make housing affordable and not price people out. The people who are in cities now deserve to have parks, bicycle lanes, jogging trails.