Dr. Robert Bullard, Father of Environmental Justice

This profile is part of a series of stories highlighting sustainability leaders that advocate for diversity and equity within the environmental movement. George Bandy, a vice president at Interface, Inc., will speak about the built environment, nature, and issues dealing with diversity and corporate responsibility at the University of Utah on Sept. 19 at 11:30 am in the Union Saltair Room.

By Jai Bashir, Office of Sustainability

“One of the key components in environmental justice is getting people to the table to speak for themselves … they need to be in the room where policy is being made.”- Dr. Robert D. Bullard, dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

Dr. Rober Bullard

Dr. Robert Bullard speaks at the Legacy and Future of Environmental Justice conference in 2012. Photo by University of Michigan.

In the struggle against environmental racism, Dr. Robert D. Bullard is an exemplary hero whose work in the case Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc. and his book, “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality,” are seminal in the field of injustice and inequality to low-income or minority groups whose communities are often subject to environmentally hazardous environments. Often described as the “father of environmental justice,” Dr. Bullard’s work has given a voice to communities that were previously ignored. As citizens of a state that is very much entrenched in the crusade to keep harmful environmental waste out of our public and private lands, it is essential to look at the work of Dr. Bullard as evidence of how environmental waste can negatively alter the health and welfare of underrepresented citizens, and also how advocacy and making the invisible visible within our communities can cause social change.

Dr. Bullard’s rise to the forefront of the environmental racism movement occurred when he was made an expert witness in the groundbreaking Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc. case. The case dealt with the struggle of Margaret Bean and other African-American citizens of Houston who were opposed to a plan that would place a municipal landfill next to their residences. His wife, attorney Linda McKeever Bullard, represented the African-American community in the case. In his role as expert, Dr. Bullard conducted a study that recorded the locations of other waste disposal facilities in Houston. The findings were staggering, illustrating the high percentage of landfills next to neighborhoods predominately composed of people of color, although people of color represented only a small percentage of the total population.  “Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community,” the article published on Dr. Bullard’s research, was the first comprehensive study to demonstrate the correlation between race and waste dump sites.

Based on the apparent racism in Houston, Dr. Bullard expanded his places of research to other cities in the American South, including: Alsen, La., Institute, W. Va. and Emelle, Ala. Again, the research was clear – government-sanctioned waste sites were most likely to be found in the proximity of black neighborhoods and not white neighborhoods. The results led Dr. Bullard to examine how residing in the vicinity of environmental waste was having detrimental ramifications on the health of black citizens. These observations comprised Dr. Bullard’s most famous work, “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality.”

Dr. Bullard was also a key member in the Michigan Group, which later became the Office of Environmental Equity, and then later, the Office of Environmental Justice. He also played a significant role in the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, which grew from 30 participants to 300 because of Dr. Bullard calling upon leaders he knew personally from his research. In large part because of Dr. Bullard’s dedication to environmental justice, President Bill Clinton signed the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898 in 1994 after advice and research by a National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC), which included Dr. Bullard, who chaired the Health and Research Subcommittee.

Dr. Bullard persists in the fight against environmental racism and toward a vision of environmental justice and equality. When questioned in 2006 on why environmental justice is still something that drives him, he responded, “People who fight. … 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 years. 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.”

Dr. Bullard was born in Elba, Alabama in 1946. His interests led him to receive a bachelor’s degree in government at Alabama A&M University; an M.A. in sociology from Clark Atlanta University; and a doctorate in sociology from Clark Atlanta University. He currently is the dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University.

Jai Bashir is a senior in Environmental and Sustainability Studies and Gender Studies. She is a sustainability ambassador for the Office of Sustainability.

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