Take Note: Robert Bullard On The Critical Role of Environmental Justice

Apr 17, 2020

Credit Courtesy Jodi F. Solomon Speakers Bureau

Robert Bullard has spent four decades shining a light on issues of environmental racism and fighting for environmental justice. He talks with WPSU's Cheraine Stanford about how the coronavirus pandemic is highlighting existing social inequalities and why he thinks climate and environmental justice are essential issues for the upcoming election. 

TRANSCRIPT: Cheraine Stanford:

Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. I'm Cheraine Stanford. Robert Bullard is an environmental advocate and sociologist who has spent his career shining a light on issues of environmental racism and fighting for environmental justice. He's the distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. Among his many accolades, he was the first African-American to receive the Sierra Club's highest honor ,the John Muir award. He's been called the Father of Environmental Justice. Dr. Bullard and I are talking via Zoom today. Dr. Bullard, thank you so much for joining us today.

Robert Bullard

My pleasure.

Cheraine Stanford 

Can you explain for our audience what environmental justice is? What is, what does that term mean?

Robert Bullard

Well, environment justice embraces the principle that all communities are entitled to equal protection of environmental laws. And that populations that are most at risk deserve the right to have a clean and healthy environment. And it shouldn't matter where you live, that would somehow determine your quality of life. And so environmental justice is basically the right to live in a clean and healthy physical environment.

Cheraine Stanford

And can you explain some of the disparities that exist in this country? When you say it, your address shouldn't dictate you know, but we know that it does. Can you explain just some of the disparities that exist?

Robert Bullard

Well, if we look at the fact that in the real world, even in 2020, your zip code is one of the most potent predictors of health and wellbeing. Where do you live and your zip code oftentimes can determine your life expectancy whether or not you have access to health care, a grocery store, a park, as well as whether or not there's opportunities for you to advance. And so what we have been doing over the last four decades is to talk about these disparities and how structural inequality is created by policy and practices. And oftentimes a lot of it stems from structural racism, white supremacy, white privilege, and this whole idea that we have to live with and get over the fact that all communities is not created equal. And what we basically are saying is that one should not be somehow relegated to a life of poverty and ill health just because you live in a certain area where there's very little health care, access to transportation, economic development, parks, grocery stores, et cetera. And so that, that's how the built environment affects health and health outcomes. And it's not equally across the board. For a long time there were people who were saying, well that, that the environment is neutral and that and that everybody is affected the same. But we know that's not the case.

Cheraine Stanford

You've done research all around the country showing that for a lot of people of color, poor people, there is a disproportionate number of sort of these negative these things that no one wants in their communities like landfills and toxic chemical plants and those kinds of things. How do those affect the lives and the health outcomes of people in those communities?

Robert Bullard:

Yeah. Well, you know, it's, uh, it's very important to, for people to understand that America is segregated and so is pollution. And today unlike, you know, 30, 40 years ago, we have a very good tools and methodologies and with GIS mapping we can map where the pollution is and where the population is and where the, the health outcomes that may somehow result from having all this stuff that's concentrated. We call those areas that have, that are over polluted sacrifice zones or areas that are oversaturated. And so if you look at the cumulative impact of having so much toxic pollution loaded into one spatial geographic area, and oftentimes we're not talking about large land masses. We're talking about the areas that we have a high concentration of people, but also high concentration of, of pollution. And the, the health outcomes end up showing that there's elevated cancer, respiratory illnesses like asthma, there's elevated issues relating to sarcoidosis, cardiovascular, all kinds of diseases that, that emanate from being over polluted. And these are also areas that have a smaller share of things that make communities healthy, which is parks and green space, walk trails, grocery stores, farmer's markets, access to health care and hospitals. And so you talk about the, the built environment and how the built environment impacts health. And if you have more than your fair share of those externalities of the things that make people unhealthy, then it's, it's a, it's a matter of time, not rocket science, but it's more of political science that will determine the fact that people are going to be sick and that they're going to be vulnerable. Vulnerable to natural and manmade disasters such as explosions, accidents. If people don’t have cars to evacuate when there’s a flood, or a natural disaster, then they’re going to suffer. You’re going to have more deaths related to those disasters. If people are vulnerable because of underlying health conditions and the fact that people are sicker than the general population then if some type of pandemic like COVID-19, you know, happens to occur within a geographic area, it's going to hit that population the hardest. So it's not rocket science that black people are dying disproportionately, because when it comes to this pandemic. It's a matter of looking at the map and looking at where the vulnerabilities are and, and then looking at the co-morbidity. This has always been the disparate outcomes of having so much pollution and so much of the, the built environment that somehow has neglected African-American and other people of color, poor people, over generations. We're not talking about something that happened 20 years or 50 years. We are talking about in some cases, centuries of neglect and in many cases the government was part of institutionalizing that kind of structural inequality.

Cheraine Stanford

So those placements of those kinds of things in poor neighborhoods and communities of color you found were not by accident?

Robert Bullard

No, this is not accidental. If you look at Houston, the fourth largest city in the country, when I did this study in 1979, Houston was a city that doesn't have zoning. It still doesn't have zoning. It has what's called unrestrained capitalism and if you have the money, you can build anything anywhere, anytime. And that Houston, up until 1972, was a city that did not have one, African-American on the city council. So these decisions, you know, from the 30s up until 1972, these were decisions that were made by mostly white men. And so the idea of put it over there, or this area is not compatible. The idea that, you know, not in my backyard, or NIMBY, was a practice that, that white elected officials, that was the dominant paradigm and what... But the flip side of that, what I call instead of NIMBY was PIBBY, place in Blacks backyard.

And so that meant that blacks got the overload, blacks got, the, saturation, the concentration. And so these were conscious decisions. And so that's how, that's how structural and institutional racism operates. We know in science, whether it's social science, physical science, natural science, behavioral science, the, the elements that make communities healthy and we know the same indicators and the same indices that make communities unhealthy and make them vulnerable. And we don't need a Hurricane Katrina with people, black people on rooftops waiting to be rescued in 2005 and then in 2017 in Houston seeing some of the very similar images where people are waiting to be rescued, having to be floated out on boats or helicoptered out and that kind of thing. And again, it's those vulnerable communities, those same populations, low income communities, low wealth communities and communities of color that are on the front line when it comes to the chemical corridor where most of the pollution is coming into the air and into the water, are the same communities that are being threatened when it comes to these dangerous hurricanes, floods and severe weather events. These are the same communities that are hitting, that are going to get hit the hardest when it comes to this pandemic. And, and the numbers are showing today in Houston and New Orleans and, and New York and Chicago and you name it across the country, these cities, the same communities that are impacted disproportionately when it comes to environmental hazards, whether you talk about water quality issues in Flint or whether you talk about water quality issues in a rural community like Dixon, Tennessee, that the environmental justice and the equity impacts and health impacts fall hardest on those populations that had been disenfranchised in terms of voting as well as not having access to health care, as well as not being protected equally across the board by our state environmental protection agencies as well as our regional EPA agencies as well as the federal EPA.

Now that's now that's playing out today. I was working on that in 1979. And so what we're saying is that when you fast forward from 1979 to 2020, you would hope that we would be doing a better job in addressing these issues, but somehow invisible communities are still invisible. And we only can make them visible by speaking up by basically making the policies that would send money to need as opposed to the dominant paradigm is when we talk about these disasters. And you can go back, you know, 40, 50 years, 80 years and show that when disasters hit and when recovery monies flow to those disasters, the dominant paradigm is money follows money, money follows power and money follows whites as opposed to money following need. Oftentimes when we have these disasters, whether it's a natural disaster, like a hurricane or a like a flood, or like this pandemic, the people with the money, with the power and with access to power and money and access to getting online and getting their information into the system, can get recovery dollars and get insurance payments and get small business loans and, and get those kinds of resources to make them whole, while those people who have been struggling for decades before these major disasters oftentimes have to get in the back of the line and oftentimes don't get made whole and, and oftentimes fall further behind, when we talk about these disasters. Disasters exacerbate inequality. And the fact that, that if we do not address these disparities and these inequalities that exist today, we're going to have more and more people falling into poverty, more people, more and more people sick and more and more people die.

Cheraine Stanford

Right now, we're seeing reports that in some cities, African Americans are, by gross margins, disproportionately dying from COVID-19. And a lot of, research and articles are pointing to the fact that significant crises like this highlight the underlying disparities that you're talking about. How do you think this pandemic is showing those underlying disparities that you've seen over just your whole career?

Robert Bullard

Well, you know, COVID-19 is, is really another, a textbook case that, that highlights the things that oftentimes are invisible to the majority of our society. But most of us who have been black most of our lives and lived around black people or people of color, we see this all the time. We know that these disparities exist. We know that there are so many dialysis clinics in our neighborhood, we know that asthma is the number one reason why our kids lose days in school. We know these facts to be true.  It's no surprise to many of us who have been working on these issues on for so long that social determinants of health, the underlying factors that's, that's creating many of the excess deaths of African-Americans that's contributing to, you know, the, the, this, these high numbers like here in Houston, you know, black people in Houston represent 23% of the population.

Yet still we almost 60% of the deaths. Or, you go to, you know, Detroit 70% New Orleans, 70%. And so when you talk about these, the disproportional impact of this pandemic, the fact that before this virus, the numbers of deaths and illnesses across the board for African-Americans was shamedly high. You know, African American children are 10 times more likely to die from asthma than white children. And African-American adults are three to five times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma. When you talk about these issues, the fact that if you have sick people in a city and if a virus comes through that will attack sick people and that black people are disproportionately represented among sick people, we know who's going to die.

I mean, this is not like you need a, a predictive model and a, and a, a supercomputer to figure this out. What we're saying in the environmental justice community and those who work, those of us who work on health equity is that we should take those lessons that we've learned from dealing with health disparities, social determinants of health, environmental justice, environmental racism, and capture all of that knowledge that we have, have accumulated over these many decades and apply this to this current virus.

And so what we have to do is to marshall the forces to say we have to change the paradigm. And when it does involve race and the issues around racialism or racism, we have to call it for what it is. We can't back away and somehow say, well, we're going to use class and poverty as a proxy. No. In many cases middle income African Americans who make 50 to $60,000 a year, are more likely to live in neighborhoods that are more polluted than whites who make $10,000. In other words, middle-income black folks live in neighborhoods that are more polluted than white folks. And a Harvard study just came out showing that there's a relationship between high deaths and pollution, and air pollution. So we have been saying this for many years, that air pollution is killing black folks and people of color and poor people. But it's good that Harvard is saying it because well, maybe they'll believe it.

We have enough information right now to act on these issues and start targeting the resources toward need. That should be the priority. No one, no community should somehow be designated as a sacrifice zone. No community should somehow be designated as compatible with a garbage dump, a refinery, or a landfill or a smelter or having a freeway run through your community. And the, and the mere fact that the, the, the community that, that, that's being destroyed, most of the people don't even own cars. So the freeway is not even built for the community that's, that's being destroyed. So, these kinds of inequities and disparities and kinds of paradoxes, that's what our movement has lifted up and brought to the forefront.

Cheraine Stanford

If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm Cheraine Stanford. Our guest is Robert Bullard, author, educator and environmental justice advocate.

Why is climate change an environmental justice issue? How will it impact vulnerable communities?

Robert Bullard

Climate change is the number one environmental justice issue of the 21st Century. It is the number one. Climate change will exacerbate all of the vulnerabilities and the disparities and the preexisting conditions that make low income communities and communities of color and frontline communities unhealthy. And so when we talk about climate change whether we talk about sea level rise or we talk about, you know, flooding and severe weather events, we talk about droughts, wildfires. These catastrophic climate impacts is a justice question because the populations in the communities and the nations that have contributed least to the problem feel the pain first, worst and longest. If you are in, for example, where I live, the Gulf coast, African-American and other people of color have the smallest carbon footprint of any group in the region. But yet and still we are hit the hardest when it comes to these issues in terms of these the flooding, the hurricanes that occur or the, or the idea that, that somehow we lose everything when it comes to these events. And the fact that our communities, African-American communities, for example, have lower wealth and lower incomes than white communities. And so, most of our wealth in terms of African-Americans, 90% is in our, in our homes. However, whites are on average, middle-income, their wealth is spread. Their homes, their stocks, their bonds, their businesses. And so, when they're, when these severe weather events, climate events hit them they have more of a cushion. But when it hits African-Americans, we lose everything when our houses go down or are flooded up to the rooftops, we lose our equity, that transformative wealth.

And so when we talk about climate change and as an environmental justice issue, we're talking about the fact that climate change will make for more bad air days. And if you talk about, ground level ozone and the the, the fact that the health impacts of bad air and who is most likely to suffer the greatest we're talking African-Americans in terms of asthma, respiratory, and we're talking about who's going to be sent to the hospital, who's most likely to die. I gave you those statistics. Climate change is a health issue. Climate change is a health justice issue. Is a health equity issue. Climate change is an economic issue. The fact that climate will make it difficult to work outside because of the rising heat levels. So, the jobs that are for workers outside it's going to be more difficult. So, it's going to impact those populations. So that's an economic issue. Climate change will make it make energy bills go up. And for those populations that don't have a lot of discretionary income, it's going to hit them hard. So when we tick through all these things, we talk about urban heat islands, climate change will make the fact that many of our communities of color in urban areas live in areas where they're not a lot of trees, not a lot of green canopy, not a lot of parks. And so if you have a lot of paved over, a lot of areas barren of trees and green space, that means when climate change hits in an urban heat islands you know take effect, we are going to suffer the greatest. We’re going to be sent to the hospital because of heat stroke. So that when we talk about climate change, we say climate change is more than greenhouse gases and parts per million.

You have to talk about the justice implications, the vulnerability issues and talk about arraying our policies so that we don't just say, well we got one policy and it's going to somehow address based on affluence, assuming all communities are created equal and not address those vulnerable communities. And those vulnerable populations that tend to be poor, low, low wealth, people of color and have a higher concentration of sick people, people with those health disparities that make them more vulnerable. That's what we're talking about. These are issues that when we make it real, make it plain, most folks on the ground say, yeah, I'm with you, Dr. Bullard. I am for working on climate justice. But, you can't just say climate justice. You’ve got to make it plain to show how these disparate impacts will be hitting those populations that don't have a lot of cushion that don't have a lot of resilience to fend back.

The climate movement must address these issues from the standpoint of addressing justice and it's not by accident or that many of the climate justice organizations and young people have adopted our principles of environmental justice that we developed in 1991 at the first national people of color environmental leadership summit. Those principles laid out the concept of what we need to do to move forward to address those racial, economic, social, gender, spatial inequalities. And, and I think that's a, the the fastest growing part of the climate change movement is the climate justice movement here in the U.S. as well as abroad. Any, and I say this all along, while the, you know, the prejudicial race was up, you know, fast and furious that any of the presidential candidates, the Democrats, candidates that did not have a solid environmental justice and climate justice and economic justice platform was inadequate.

And that the idea that this has to be advocated at the highest level and it must be implemented even at the lowest level going up.

Cheraine Stanford

What place do you think environmental justice should have in the upcoming presidential election?

Robert Bullard

Well, I think environmental justice has to be centerpiece. And the whole is... Environmental justice embraces that whole concept in terms of health equity, in terms of economic justice, in terms of racial justice, in terms of gender justice. And so when we, when we bring those pieces together, that has to be centerpiece. It can't be just a, a one liner or a throw away line. It has to be centerpiece. If we are to address these 21st century challenges, the candidates... And right now it looks for the Democrats, looks like it is Vice President Joe Biden, has to understand the intersectionality of these issues and to, and to have a program and plan to bring those pieces together and bring those organizations, those institutions and those networks and collaboratives together.

Well, example, you know, I'm, I'm part of the HBCU climate change consortium, a consortium of, of 3 dozen black colleges and universities that work on environmental justice, climate change, that work on health equity, that work on families and children, that work on issues around economic justice, food security, those issues resonate across our communities. And the people that we work with vote. And the people that we work with understand how these things are connected. And they’re going be holding all of the candidates, whether it's a Republican or Democrat feet to the fire to say you just can't be talking a good game. You’ve got to have some plan to talk about implementing because our communities are hurting. We are suffering from major disasters that have hit in the last five years and that, that we have to make communities whole. It can't just be talk. It has to be action. We have to combine and marry research with action because having the facts and having you know findings and having evidence, that's not enough. That's never been enough to get action. We have to marry those facts with action and get our elected officials to understand, from the president all the way down ballot, to understand how environmental justice and, and, and economic justice and health justice and climate justice these things are in the best interest of our country. It's in the best interest of national security. It's in the best interest of building a healthy, sustainable, resilient, just society and a just nation.

Cheraine Stanford

Dr. Bullard, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Robert Bullard

My pleasure.

Cheraine Stanford

Robert Bullard is an environmental advocate and sociologist who has spent his career shining a light on issues of environmental racism and fighting for environmental justice. He's the distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. Among his many accolades, he was the first African-American to receive the Sierra Club's highest honor, the John Muir award. He's been called the Father of Environmental Justice.

Hear more Take Note interviews on our website at wpsu.org/takenote. I'm Cheraine Stanford. WPSU.