Dr. Robert Bullard: ‘We Don’t Have 40 Years’ to Fight for Climate Justice

A recent study of industrial farming’s impact on climate change confirm what nearby communities have known for decades: The air pollution from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) is killing 16,000 people in the U.S. every year.

But this fact comes as no surprise to Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University, also known as the “father of environmental justice,” who has long been tracing the way that Black people in the South, in particular, have long had to contend with pollution from CAFOs. Bullard’s work has been integral in connecting the dots between environmental outputs and their impacts on communities of color, and he was one of the first researchers to prove that neighborhood composition, food waste, food production, education, and quality of life are all linked.

But when Bullard began his work in the late 1970s, the environmental justice movement had no name and no academic or widespread sociocultural legitimacy. “In 1979, environmental justice was a footnote,” he says. “In 2021, it’s a headline.”

Dr. Robert Bullard in his office at TSU Houston.

Dr. Robert Bullard in his office at TSU Houston.

Civil Eats spoke with Bullard about the legacy of his work, how societal structures make the injustices faced by Black and brown communities invisible, and what brings him hope in this moment.

You started your work in the ‘70s before environmental justice even had a name. This year, Texas Southern University is opening a Center for Environmental and Climate Justice in your name. What does this mean to you?

Well, these are strange times we’re living in. When I started collecting data in 1979 for a lawsuit that my wife filed challenging the location of landfills and waste facilities, arguing that this was environmental discrimination and racism, it was very difficult to get the larger society in Houston, Texas, and the country to realize that this was another civil rights issue. The results were just so overwhelming: Five out of five of the city-owned landfills, six out of eight of the city-owned incinerators, and three out of the four private landfills were located in Black neighborhoods. Black people made up only 25 percent of the population but received 82 percent of the garbage dumped over 50 years in a city that doesn’t have zoning.

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In 1979, environmental justice was a footnote. In 2021, it’s a headline. It’s amazing to see the changes that have taken place over the last four decades, even though it’s not very long in terms of how racism impacts public policy or in terms of the environment. Public investment in tending to these issues was not always commonplace or accepted.

For instance, in 1989, when I expanded the Houston study into a book called Dumping in Dixie, it took a whole year to get it published, because I sent the manuscript around to different publishers and I got back nasty rejection letters. The letters said that there was no such thing as environmental discrimination, environmental racism, or environmental injustice, because the environment is neutral and objective. Ultimately, the publisher made it a textbook, and universities across the country adopted Dumping in Dixie. For two years, that was the only book on environmental justice.

It’s amazing to think that racism in the publishing industry almost prevented the public from learning about environmental racism.

Yes, and there are other background stories. It was difficult to get the green groups to assist us in that lawsuit my wife was pursuing. My wife and I went to some of the large environmental groups and showed them the 1979 study that I conducted, and they said, “Oh, isn’t that where the landfill is supposed to be?” I was shocked. Then we went to the civil rights organizations, like the NAACP, and showed them the study, and they said, “We don’t work on the environment. We work on housing, education, employment, and voting discrimination.”

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We were hanging out by ourselves, and for almost two decades, it took almost a miracle for the environmental community and the civil rights community to converge around this issue of environmental justice. That’s what we have: the idea of the environment and the issue of civil rights basically saying that no community should be overpolluted and targeted because of the race, color, or national origin of the residents.

It was really Ben Chavis’ work in Warren County, North Carolina, that brought attention to the issue. There were isolated struggles across the country, but Warren County brought it into the fold because of the demonstrations and the fact that 500 people, including middle and high school kids, were putting their lives on the line. That’s what it has taken to get environmental justice, economic justice, energy justice, food and water justice, and health justice to become headline issues. That’s what it took to push these issues forward and assert that you cannot have climate justice and environmental justice without racial justice.

That’s a reality that has not been a reality for long. Forty years—in the lifespan of the struggle for justice—is just a blip. Those of us who were there from the beginning can see a lot of change, in terms of people understanding, connecting the dots, and saying we should follow the data and we should follow the facts, which should follow the science. But for decades, the only science that would drive who gets what, when, where, and why, in terms of environmental protection and pollution, was political science.

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New research provides a smoking gun on air pollution deaths caused by factory farm air pollution. Why do you think it took so long for that evidence to become available?

You have to understand how media and information gets communicated through the press. CAFO pollution—like air and water pollution—is nothing new for Black people in the South.

In 1998, PBS filmed a documentary about environmental racism and pollution in North Carolina because of the hog farms. The people who were impacted were mostly poor, Black, and rural. That’s like a triple whammy of not getting any publicity or justice. The health impacts, the lowering of property values, the impact on the community—all those factors were brought out decades ago.

Steve Wing, a professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, conducted studies about 30 years ago on the impact of these large corporate farms in North Carolina on the land and public health. Corporate hog farmers attacked him viciously because of this research.

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