HOUSTON – He’s known as the father of environmental justice, but more than half a century ago, he was just Bob Bullard from Elba, a flytrap town deep in Alabama that didn’t pave roads, install sewers or build street lights in areas where black families are located. as his veins. His grandmother had a sixth grade education. His father was an electrician and plumber who couldn’t get a license for years because of his race.
Now, more than four decades after Robert Bullard’s unplanned conversion to environmentalism and civil rights, the movement he helped found is scoring one of its biggest wins yet. Roughly $60 billion $370 billion in climate spending Congress passed last month was earmarked for environmental justice, which calls for equal environmental protection for all, which Dr. Bullard dedicated his life.
Some environmentalists have criticized the new legislation for allowing more oil and gas extraction, which generally affects disadvantaged communities the most. For Dr. Bullard, the new law is cause for celebration, but also cause for caution. Too often, he said, federal money and aid funds are given away unfairly by state and local governments, and away from people of color and poor communities who are most affected by pollution and most threatened by climate change. This may be an important moment for environmental justice, he said, but never before has so much been at stake.
“We need government watchdogs to ensure that money follows need,” said Dr. Bullard in a recent interview. “Climate change will exacerbate inequalities and disparities and widen this gap. That’s why we have to fix it this time.”
Dr. Bullard, 75, is one of the world’s leading experts on environmental justice. His seminal 1990 book, “Dumping in Dixie,” about toxic facilities in communities of color, has been cited more than 5,600 times in scholarly articles. He doesn’t remember exactly when he began to be called “the father of environmental justice,” and although he is conspicuously Websitehe didn’t figure it out on his own (there are other vaunted elders in the industry), and he seems somewhat humble when asked.
“It is better to be called ‘father’ than ‘son,'” said Dr. Bullard during an interview at Texas Southern University this spring. “It’s a compliment really, but then again I’ve been called worse.”
Especially in recent years, when environmental justice has come to the fore, the visibility of Dr. Bullarda has grown. Interview requests and interviews pour daily, in no small part because of his style: He can deliver a blizzard of alarming facts while remaining upbeat and serving up unvarnished honesty with a smile. Of the roughly two dozen awards and prestigious appointments that Dr. Bullard has racked up his career total, with nearly half coming in the past four years. In 2021, he became a White House adviser, and with $1.25 million from the Houston Endowment and later $4 million from the Bezos Earth Fund, Texas Southern University opened the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice.
“I don’t know of a single person on the planet who has done more to advocate and raise awareness about this issue,” said Dr. Paul Mohai, a professor at the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, who knows Dr. Bullard for over 30 years. “It’s impossible not to get an adrenaline rush when he speaks.”
Dr. Bullard was born in 1946 into a family that defied the odds. In 1875, 10 years after the official abolition of slavery, his great-grandparents acquired several hundred acres of forest land on Elba. “We don’t know how they got it,” said Dr. Bullard. “We don’t ask.”
Earth changed the game. As property holders, his parents and grandmother could vote under Jim Crow laws. On election days, they dressed in their Sunday best and headed to the ballot box, even if it meant paying poll taxes and passing literacy tests. The timber harvested from the land also allowed the family to send Bob and his four siblings to college, a rarity for blacks at the time.
After graduating from Alabama A&M University, young Bob Bullard had another stroke of luck. It was the height of the Vietnam War and he was drafted into the Marine Corps, but somehow he was not deployed and escaped the harrowing fate that befell others in his platoon. Funded by the GI Bill, he earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in sociology and proved determined to model his career after that of his hero, author and civil rights activist WEB DuBois.
The Biden Administration’s Environmental Agenda
- Inflation Reduction Act: The new lawwhich invests billions for climate and energy programsrepresents America’s largest investment in the fight against climate change.
- Changes to the climate team: John Podestawho led the Obama White House on climate strategy, will oversee $370 billion in clean energy funds Gina McCarthyPresident Biden’s top climate adviser, is set to step down.
- Executive action: After signing the climate bill, Mr. Biden plans to a a series of measures to further reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
“He wasn’t doing dead white man’s sociology, he was doing what I call kicking sociology,” said Dr. Bullard. “You can be a scholar and an activist and you can make a difference.”
The environment was not on Dr.’s radar. Bullard until 1979, when he was teaching sociology at Texas Southern University and his wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, an attorney, asked him for help. She filed a class-action lawsuit to prevent the dump from reaching Houston’s middle-class black community and tapped her husband to find out where the city’s other landfills were. He enlisted his students, and after careful research, they discovered that although blacks made up only a quarter of Houston’s population, all five of the city’s garbage cans, six of eight incinerators, and three of four private landfills were Black neighborhoods.
The case spent eight years in court, ending in 1987 with a decision to allow the landfill to proceed. Dr. Bullard was impressed. “The data and the research were solid,” said Dr. Bullard. “But it wasn’t enough to overcome the legacy of racism in the county system.”
After the landfill was built in a community of tree-lined homes, Dr. Bullard said other industrial sites followed, driving property values down. “That’s stealing wealth,” he said. Outraged, he was determined to uncover more examples of how communities of color were disproportionately afflicted by poisoned water, soil and air.
In the 1980s, environmentalism and civil rights were generally on two different tracks, and Dr. Bullard tried to get support from both camps. Major environmental groups told him they weren’t working on what they characterized as a social problem — “my response was, ‘Is breathing social?'” said Dr. Bullard. Meanwhile, human rights organizations have often reported targeting discrimination in housing, voting, employment and education. The “Dumping in Dixie” manuscript was rejected a dozen times for similar reasons; Dr. Bullard was told that the words “environment” and “racism” do not belong together because the environment cannot be racist. The publisher who eventually bought it turned it into a textbook, which initially Dr. She angered Bullard until he realized she was being accepted by universities across the country and planting his knowledge into young minds.
“‘Dumping in Dixie’ is the bible of environmental justice,” said Na’Taki Osborne Jelks, an environmental health scientist who studied under Dr. Bullard and now teaches at Spelman College. “He put together a road map for others who wanted to combine scholarship with activism and advocacy.”
Today, after decades of organizing and mobilizing, environmental justice is a central concern of climate activists, a rise that Peggy Shepard, executive director of We ACT for environmental justice, in Harlem, attributed in large part to the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd. Ms Shepard added that she had never seen so much media interest or offers of funding. “We fought a David and Goliath battle with a slingshot,” she said.
And environmental organizations that ignored race 15 years ago are now “scrambling over each other” to win over people of color, said Dr. Bullard. The the largest green groups they remain overwhelmingly white and have faced their own racial reckoning. In 2020, a black staff member resigned from the Union of Concerned Scientists, publicly criticizing what she described as its entrenched tokenism; a few weeks later The Sierra Club said they have to face the white supremacism of its founder John Muir.
Dr. Beverly Wright, founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice in New Orleans and longtime collaborator with Dr. Bullard, she said the exclusion of people of color comes at a cost. Surveys conducted in 2020, Yale University and George Mason University showed that 80 percent of Latinos and 75 percent of blacks were concerned about climate change, compared to 59 percent of whites.
“They realized they couldn’t do it alone, and they needed us in the room to do something or walk through,” said Dr. Wright with reference to large environmental groups. “All things work better for all of us when we’re in the room.”
However, their struggle still remains difficult. In August, Democrats made concessions to allow more fossil fuel expansion to secure support for a climate bill from Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who holds the swing vote in the evenly divided Senate. This ienraged some environmental justice advocates who argued that marginalized communities, particularly the Gulf Coast petrochemical plants, were being scapegoated.
There are also questions about whether Democrats are recalculating the $60 billion earmarked for environmental justice in the new climate law. Sylvia Chi, a strategist at Just Solutions Collective, calculated a figure closer to $40 billion; according to her analysis, the White House appeared to include the value of entire programs rather than smaller amounts targeted at disadvantaged communities, or programs that did not target those communities at all.
Dr. For his part, Bullard touted the bill as historic, praising the inclusion of community block grants and funding for pollution monitoring near industrial facilities.
But he and his colleagues are concerned about oversight and money reaching disadvantaged communities as intended, and worry that enforceable targets aren’t explicitly set. “Implementation is a struggle,” said Dr. Wright.
Dr. Bullard pointed to a Department of Housing and Urban Development investigation earlier this year that found a Texas state agency discriminated against people of color when it distributed relief funds after Hurricane Harvey. Research also shows this FEMAthe government agency responsible for helping Americans recover from disasters he often helped white victims of disasters more than people of coloreven with the same amount of damage. Southern states in particular had a long history of unequal treatment of communities and lax enforcement of civil rights laws, noted Dr. Bullard. “The devil is in the details,” he said.
A spokesman for the Office of Management and Budget said the administration was “committed to allocating funds in accordance with statute.”
Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome, senior director for environmental justice at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said a new environmental scorecard is being developed to hold federal agencies accountable. Funds are also to be allocated using a new framework the Biden administration announced earlier this year. Still, the formula has caused some problems because it omits race.
Since the law was enacted, Dr. Bullard never more wanted and Dr. Wright, who is also 70, said they were laughing recently about how busy they were.
“I said, ‘Bob, it’s coming so fast we can’t get to it,’ and he said, ‘Isn’t that amazing?'” recalled Dr. Wright. “It would be better at 40, but why slow down when you finally have the resources?” she continued. “He never slowed down. Why would he do it now?”