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Welcome to the Front Lines of Environmental Justice with Robert Bullard

Robert Bullard
Robert Bullard, Ph.D.

The father of the environmental justice movement is excited. From the young people protesting in the streets for climate action and justice, to the White House elevating environmental justice as a key feature of policy discussions across the administration, people are finally paying attention.

“We are lightyears away from 1979,” says Robert Bullard, Ph.D., a distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, who has spent the last four decades researching, writing and talking about environmental injustices and inequalities – or, as he likes to say: who gets what, when, where and why in terms of pollution.

After being brushed aside by civil rights groups and environmental groups for many years, environmental justice is finally having what Bullard describes as a watershed moment.

He says the COVID-19 pandemic, while incredibly horrific and unequal, has facilitated a nationwide awakening, providing the space to step back from the status quo and reckon with the steeped, systemic inequalities of our society. While the movement is multigenerational, he is particularly inspired by teenagers who aren’t old enough to vote, yet are organizing and demanding change.

“In these young people, I see myself,” Bullard says, “going back to the 1960s when I was a student and fearless, not afraid to go to jail, not afraid to get expelled from school, and not afraid to challenge the status quo when systems themselves were unfair, unjust and corrupt.”

Born in 1946, Bullard grew up in the small town of Elba, Alabama, where he attended segregated schools. Bullard’s parents instilled in him and his four siblings the importance of education and going to college. Their teachers also stressed that with hard work they could achieve anything and break out of the segregated systems. In the 1960s, Bullard joined his peers at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) in marches, protests and demonstrations.

After graduating from Alabama A&M University, he taught high school in St. Louis, Missouri for a few months before being drafted in 1968 for the Vietnam War. He noted that only the Army drafted soldiers, but since not enough people were joining the other branches, a sergeant used a racist rhyme to pick every fourth person to “volunteer” for the Marine Corps. Bullard was one of them, serving his required two years and receiving an honorable discharge.

He had always dreamed of being a professor, so he completed a Master’s in sociology at Atlanta University and a Ph.D. in sociology at Iowa State University. He joined the faculty at Texas Southern University (TSU) in Houston and soon he would be “drafted” again – this time by his wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, an attorney – setting him on the path to become the father of environmental justice.

It was 1979. “One day, I came home, and my wife says, ‘Bob, I’ve just sued the state of Texas, city of Houston and Harris county,’” Bullard recalls.  “I said, ‘You did what?’”

A company was planning to open a landfill in a middle-class, suburban, predominately Black community, across the street from a school. Linda McKeever Bullard argued this was discrimination under the Civil Rights Act and needed data to back it up. The case was Bean v Southwestern Waste Management Corp., the nation’s first lawsuit in the country to challenge environmental racism using civil rights law. The lawsuit was filed on December 21, 1979, Bullard’s 33rd birthday.  Bullard designed the research protocol, enlisted the 10 students in his sociology research methods class, and they set to work mapping out all the landfills and incinerators in the region.

“There was no Google, there was no GIS mapping,” Bullard says.

They searched census data, historical records, and drove around to confirm addresses of waste facilities. They recorded the data on paper street maps attached to poster boards spread out on the living room floor, using Magic Markers to color code the census data, and pushpins to mark the waste facilities. When they were done, the maps spoke for themselves. From the 1920s to 1978, 82% of Houston’s trash was dumped in majority-Black neighborhoods, even though Blacks made up only 25% of the city’s population.

While they lost the lawsuit because it was difficult to prove intent, “we won the war,” Bullard says. Houston is notorious for having nearly nonexistent zoning laws, but the City Council passed a law prohibiting landfills being established within 2 miles of any school, and prohibited their city dump trucks from using the private landfill the Bullards had fought so hard to block.

Bullard was still curious if this form of environmental discrimination was a Houston problem, or a Southern problem. He went on to apply the methodology across the South, which resulted in “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality”, the first book on environmental racism in the U.S. – one of the reasons he is credited as the founder of the discipline. Bullard said many publishers rejected the manuscript, arguing the environment treats everyone equally, but finally, it came out as a textbook in 1990. 

Since then, Bullard has continued to document different aspects of environmental racism across sectors and nations, publishing 18 books and counting. He is currently writing his memoir. Even today, the legal theory and research protocols he and McKeever Bullard came up with in 1978 are still widely used and awareness is ever-growing. Environmental justice issues are no longer relegated to a small corner of sociology; they are studied in law, education, housing, urban planning, health and medicine, child development – “it’s in almost every discipline,” Bullard says, “and that means it is more powerful.”

That extends up to the highest levels of government, where President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris established a 26-member White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Bullard is one of the members, bringing his experience from serving on the council for former President Bill Clinton. He is delighted to see the council elevated from the Environmental Protection Agency to now advising the entire administration, from the U.S. Department of Energy to Health and Human Services.

Bullard has received many awards for his work, including the U.N. Champion of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020. But never in his wildest dreams did he expect to receive a call saying the Houston Endowment would like to give $1.25 million to HBCU to establish an environmental justice center, named in his honor.

“That was not a movie, that was not a dream, it actually happened,” Bullard says in amazement. He plans to continue to fundraise and endow the Robert D. Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice (CECJ), to ensure a long future serving as a resource for the most vulnerable communities.

He encourages AAAS Members to contribute their expertise and help identify research gaps and champion scientific facts. Of course, even now, he cautions, all the evidence and data in the world isn’t always enough to convince policymakers and officials. But Bullard is pleased to see how the civil rights and environmental movements have finally converged into a massive groundswell, making these facts and issues impossible to ignore.

“That’s why I say these are exciting times,” Bullard says. “The level of commitment to make transformative change is there; not just baby steps, but giant transformative steps that can turn this country around when it comes to the arc towards justice.”


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