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March 14, 2006


Meet Robert Bullard, the father of environmental justice

[Rachel's introduction: Robert Bullard put environmental justice on
the map when he published Dumping in Dixie in 1990. In this interview
he explains, among other things, why the devastation wrought by
hurricane Katrina was not an aberration. His new book is The Quest
for Environmental Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of

By Gregory Dicum**

Robert Bullard says he was "drafted" into environmental justice while
working as an environmental sociologist in Houston in the late 1970s.
His work there on the siting of garbage dumps in black neighborhoods
identified systematic patterns of injustice. The book that Bullard
eventually wrote about that work, 1990's Dumping in Dixie, is widely
regarded as the first to fully articulate the concept of environmental

Since then, Bullard, who is as much activist as academic, has been one
of the leading voices of environmental-justice advocacy. He was one of
the planners of the First National People of Color Environmental
Leadership Summit in 1991, at which the organizing principles of
modern environmental justice were formulated. Bullard later helped
the Clinton administration write the watershed executive order that
required all federal agencies to consider environmental justice in
their programs.

Under the Bush administration, progress made during the 1990s is under
attack, with even the U.S. EPA working to dismantle that provision.
As he has for 25 years, Bullard stands at the forefront of efforts to
maintain environmental-justice gains, and to make mainstream
environmentalists aware of the issues at stake.

Currently on sabbatical from his position as director of the
Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University,
Bullard has just published his 12th book. The Quest for Environmental
Justice: Human Rights and the Politics of Pollution brings together
more than 20 contributors for a survey of the movement's past and

Grist caught up with Bullard as he took a break from working on a Ford
Foundation-funded study of how government actions have endangered the
health and welfare of African Americans over the past seven decades.
Most recently, this work has turned Bullard's attention to the area
devastated by Hurricane Katrina, which he describes as the latest
urban environmental sacrifice zone.

Q: How did you first become involved in environmental justice?

A: I was a young sociology professor just two years out of graduate
school. My wife asked me to collect data for a lawsuit she had filed.
A company had decided to put a landfill in the middle of a
predominantly black, middle-class, suburban neighborhood -- a
neighborhood where 85 percent of the people owned their homes. Of
course, the state gave them a permit, but the people said "no."

I saw that 100 percent of all the city-owned landfills in Houston were
in black neighborhoods, though blacks made up only 25 percent of the
population. Three out of four of the privately owned landfills were
located in predominantly black neighborhoods, and six out of eight of
the city-owned incinerators. In a city that does not have zoning, it
meant that these were decisions made by individuals in government.

That's how I got dragged into this.

Q: And you got hooked.

A: I got hooked. I started connecting the dots in terms of housing,
residential patterns, patterns of land use, where highways go, where
transportation routes go, and how economic-development decisions are
made. It was very clear that people who were making decisions --
county commissioners or industrial boards or city councils -- were not
the same people who were "hosting" these facilities in their

Without a doubt, it was a form of apartheid where whites were making
decisions and black people and brown people and people of color,
including Native Americans on reservations, had no seat at the table.

Q: Just before Hurricane Katrina, you were getting ready to look at
natural disasters as part of a study of how government actions
endanger the health of African Americans in the South. How does
Katrina fit the historical pattern?

A: Katrina was not isolated. It was not an aberration, and it was not
incompetence on the part of FEMA and Michael Brown and the Bush
administration. This has been going on for a long time under
Republicans and Democrats, and the central theme that drives all of
this is race and class.

Q: You've done a lot of work with schools. Why is that of particular

A: Poor children in urban areas are poisoned in their homes. And when
they go to school, they get another dose. And when they go outside and
play, they get another dose. It's a slow-motion disaster: the most
vulnerable population in our society is children, and the most
vulnerable children are children of color. If we protect the most
vulnerable in our society -- these children -- we protect everybody.

Q: Can you give a sense of the scale of the problem surrounding these

A: Moton Elementary School, in New Orleans, is built on top of a
landfill, causing lots of problems with the water in the school. The
playgrounds in Norco, La., in Cancer Alley, are across from a huge
Shell refinery. You stay there 15 minutes and you can't breathe. And
in South Camden, N.J., there are schools and playgrounds on the
waterfront where you have all this industry, all this nasty stuff.
Almost two-thirds of the children in that neighborhood have asthma. In
West Harlem, the North River Water Treatment Plant covers eight blocks
near a school. On the south side of Chicago, it's the same kind of

From coast to coast, you see this happening. It's not just the
landfill, it's not just the incinerator, it's not just the garbage
dump, it's not just the crisscrossing freeway and highway, and the bus
barns that dump all that stuff in these neighborhoods -- it's all that
combined. Even if each particular facility is in compliance, there are
no regulations that take into account this saturation. It may be
legal, but it is immoral. Just like slavery was legal, but slavery has
always been immoral.

Q: Let's look at a specific case in which you're an expert witness:
In Dickson County, Tenn., a county that is just over 4 percent black,
a landfill was sited in the middle of a poor black community several
decades ago. The dump was later a candidate for Superfund status, yet
black families contend that authorities told them their water was OK
to drink, even as they were telling white families not to drink it. In
2003, one family whose land borders the dump began a lawsuit against
the county and the company that allegedly dumped the industrial waste.
What does it take for a community to stand up against such
comprehensive injustice?

A: In every struggle, somebody has to step forward, just like Rosa
Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. In this case, it's the Holt family:
they have drawn a line in the dirt and said "no."

Every time I go there, I'm amazed at their spirits. These are
fighters, from strong stock: this is a community of black people who
owned land dating back over 100 years. They are resilient. But at the
same time, they're sick. Harry Holt is the patriarch in the family
right now, and he has cancer. His daughter, Sheila Holt-Orsted, has
cancer. His son has an immune deficiency.

That's how these lawsuits play out: it's a waiting game. The people
with the money can wait the longest, and the people who are sick
generally can't, because at some point, sick people die. And they know
that. That is the cruelty and the horrific nature of environmental

Q: What keeps you going?

A: People who fight. People like the Holt family. People who do not
let the garbage trucks and the landfills and the petrochemical plants
roll over them. That has kept me in this movement for the last 25

And in the last 10 years, we've been winning: lawsuits are being won,
reparations are being paid, apologies are being made. These companies
have been put on notice that they can't do this anymore, anywhere.

Q: It's no longer overt policy to practice environmental racism in
this country, yet it keeps happening. Where is the locus of the
problem now?

A: Now it's institutional racism. You don't have a lot of individuals
out there wearing sheets and hoods. Instead you see it as the policies
get played out. On their face, policies may appear to be race-neutral.
They say, "We're going to look at unemployment, poverty rates, and
educational level," but the poorest areas oftentimes correspond to
racialized places. Without even talking about race, you can almost
predict where these locally unwanted land uses, or LULUs, will go.

Q: In your 2003 book Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal
World, you took a look at what sustainability means from an
environmental-justice perspective. Is there such a thing as
sustainability without justice?

A: No, there's not. This whole question of environment, economics, and
equity is a three-legged stool. If the third leg of that stool is
dealt with as an afterthought, that stool won't stand. The equity
components have to be given equal weight. But racial and economic and
social equity can be very painful topics: people get uncomfortable
when questions of poor people and race are raised.

Q: In your latest book, you wrote, "Building a multiethnic,
multiracial, multi-issue, anti-racist movement is not easy." That
seems like a huge understatement. Has anything like that ever been

A: No. What we're up against is really trying to disentangle and
unpack a lot of baggage, from slavery to colonialism to neo-
colonialism to imperialism, and all those -isms that have really
served as wedges.

For example, before we had the First National People of Color
Environmental Leadership Summit, there was very little interaction and
understanding and collaboration among African Americans and Latino
Americans and Native Americans and Asian and Pacific Islander
Americans on anything. We had the civil-rights movement, but the
modern civil-rights movement was not necessarily your model
multiethnic, multiracial movement.

There was friction and lots of confrontations and animosities in terms
of who's going to lead and the extent to which paternalism and racism
and sexism could be eliminated. The environmental-justice movement
took on the huge task of breaking down mistrust and stereotypes and
the internalized racisms that we're all victims of. You have some
dynamics that are really very complex. But we've made a lot of
progress: we've worked out the relationships for partnering and
respecting leadership styles.

Q: There are a couple of cases in your latest book of people involved
in local struggles who went on to hold elected office. How
representative is that of environmental justice as a leadership

A: In at least a quarter of cases, the leaders that emerge to work on
local environmental-justice issues get involved in electoral politics.
They get elected to school boards, city councils, and run for state
representative. And 35 percent of them are women.

In other cases, they become the go-to people when it comes to, "What
about jobs? What about this facility? Will it be a good thing or is
this just a sell job?" Whether they be retired school teachers or
retired mail carriers or little old grandmothers who have lots of time
to devote to these issues, this is the training ground for leaders.

Q: Marshall Ganz has pointed out that many of the mainstream,
national environmental groups are D.C.-based lobbying organizations
that don't have the really engaged grassroots constituencies you're
describing. How do you see these two different kinds of groups working

A: The environmental-justice movement was never about creating little
black Greenpeaces or little brown Environmental Defenses or little red
Audubon Societies. These organizations have their expertise and when
we can work together and maximize our strengths, that's when we win.

There's division of labor that can work to the advantage of this whole
movement. When the mainstream national environmental groups pair up
with environmental-justice groups that have the ability to mobilize
large numbers of constituents -- to get people marching and filling up
those courtrooms and city council meetings -- that's when you can talk
about an environmental movement.

A great example of how it should be done is happening right now in
Louisiana. The Natural Resources Defense Council is partnering with
the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice and the Louisiana
Environmental Action Network to work on testing and issues of
environmental justice after Katrina. NRDC brings a lot of expertise,
but is respecting those organizations based in New Orleans and Cancer
Alley. They're really showing how a national group and local groups
can form a relationship that is principled.

Q: So you're hopeful?

A: On our side we have lots of committed troops on the ground and a
growing movement of young people. Because of the way race operates in
this society, there are some people -- poor white people, for example
-- who have been given blinders; they're blinded by racism and have
voted against their own best interests. When we take the blinders off
and allow every single American to rise and reach his or her potential
without these artificial barriers, then we could really become a great

What environmental-justice issues might we be surprisingly close to
breaking through on?

Globally we've got a long way to go, but the fact is we don't have a
lot of time -- I think that reality will force collaboration. An
awareness that what we do in the developed world doesn't just impact
us is now pretty much a given. But we have to move that to another
level of action and policy: the framework that environmental justice
has laid out can resonate across a lot of developing countries.

In the end, I think we'll be able to get our message out because it's
based on principles and it's based on truth and justice.


Click here to read more thoughts from Robert Bullard on Katrina and
institutionalized racism.

** Gregory Dicum is the author of Window Seat: Reading the Landscape
from the Air. He writes a biweekly column for SFGate, the online
edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, and has written for the New
York Times Magazine, Harper's, Mother Jones, and others.

Copyright 2006. Grist Magazine, Inc.