The Segregation of Pollution

How to support environmental justice for Black neighborhoods.

Racism is an unfortunate reality that’s ingrained within society, nationally and internationally. There are layers to racism—and one of those layers is how Black communities are intentionally put in hazardous environmental conditions. What we tend to think is something that happens “elsewhere in the world” is literally happening in our neighborhoods

Years after water conditions in Flint Michigan were a major talking point around the United States, residents are still dealing with poor conditions, or are less trusting of public water utilities across the city. And statistically, it’s happening in dramatically higher levels to those in poverty and Black and Brown populations. More than half of people who live next to hazardous waste are people of color. Of the seven zip codes most affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, 4 of them were 75% black. In our own backyard, the area most devastated from Hurricane Harvey in 2017 was 49% non-white.

Now a year removed from the 2021 Texas snow storm, which killed nearly 250 Texans (and an estimated 500 more), it’s worth noting that minority communities—whose communities typically have worse infrastructure than their more affluent white counterparts—were more than 4 times as likely to experience a black-out compared to predominantly white communities. The disparity in infrastructure means that, of course, they’re more likely to lose power, but also that it’s more difficult to restore power and other infrastructure once disaster strikes. 

We got to chat with Dr. Robert Bullard—a sociologist and Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. On his website, he defines environmental justice as:

“Environmental justice embraces the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. America is segregated and so is pollution. Race and class still matter and map closely with pollution, unequal protection, and vulnerability.”

Dr. Bullard has held the torch and carried a legacy of advocating for Black health and wellness since 1978. After four decades of advocacy and research—he’s known as the father of environmental justice and is a founder of the environmental justice movement. With 18 published books on environmental policy and justice, his book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class and Environmental Quality, published in 1990, was the very first book released about environmental racism. And if that weren’t impressive enough, he was given the U.N. Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020.

So we hopped on a Zoom call with Dr. Bullard to pick his brain on environmental racism, how the pandemic has affected environmental justice, and what we can do to advocate for safer and healthier Black neighborhoods.

Q: Tell us a bit about your background. What were some personal ties that made you want to pursue advocacy in environmental justice?

A: I’m a sociologist by training and an environmentalist. I’ve worked in a lot of sectors—but my passion is in racial justice and how that cuts across so many areas. I grew up in a small town south of Alabama during Jim Crow, so my elementary, middle and high school were segregated. But at the same time, there was a sense of community, solidarity and trust amongst the Black community. So coming from that all-Black experience in that environment gave me confidence that I could do anything I put my mind to. I went to Alabama A&M University for undergrad and Atlanta University for my masters in the Department of Sociology that was founded by W. E. B. Du Bois. I wanted to be a kick-ass sociologist just like Du Bois—he was a researcher, scholar, writer and activist. So from there, I went to Iowa State University and got my PhD.

In 1976, three years out of graduate school, my wife came home one day and said, “I just sued the City of Houston because this company wants to put a “sanitary” landfill in the middle of a predominately Black, northeastern community. I need someone to do a study, collect data and map out the landfills, solid waste sites and dumps in Houston from the 1930s until now.” And I said, “Hmm, you need a sociologist!” So that’s how I became an “accidental” environmentalist. In 1979, my first job out of graduate school was at Texas Southern University—I had 10 students in my Research Methods Class, so I gave them a research project. We didn’t have Google, GIS maps, iPhones, laptops, etc.—we had to do the research by hand, using old archival records and documents and go out into communities. We had students find that 5 out of 5 of the city owned landfill, 6 out of 8 of the city owned incinerators and 3 out of 4 of the privately-owned landfills in Houston were located in Black neighborhoods. 82% of the garbage dump at that time were dumped in Black neighborhoods even though Blacks only made up 25% of the population in the city. 

So that was my ah-ha moment. We put it all on a map and my wife had a lawyer background to be able to take this to court and say that this was a form of racism. The judge had to be a 150-year-old white man (laughs), and he didn’t believe us even though we had all the research. But that didn’t stop me, because I wanted to know if this was just happening in Houston. So I expanded the study to look at the Southern United States, and that’s what informed my book Dumping in Dixie. So it was all accidental—not something I planned, but sometimes you have to realize that you’re called into duty to do something even though you hadn’t planned it that way. In sociology, we call that serendipitous.

Q: What was the most difficult part, for you, as a Black male disrupting the environmental space in the 80s? What kept you motivated to focus on the cause?

A: Well, I came out of civil rights in Alabama with the idea that there’s a short game and a long game. The long game for a movement means raising and building more awareness. We presented our findings and data to white environmental groups and got responses like, “Well, isn’t that where the trash is supposed to be?” That response would be shocking if it were said today. We even went to the NAACP in 1979 and they said, “We don’t work with environmental topics. We work with housing discrimination, voting discrimination, etc.” It took almost a decade for the environmental and civil rights community to converge into environmental justice. 

When I sent my manuscript for Dumping in Dixie to publishers in 1989, I received nasty letters saying that I should be ashamed for inferring that the environment is racist—that the environment is neutral and that what I’m saying doesn’t conform to reality. So going to these environmental groups and getting the response, “Hey Black folks, you deserve to get dumped on,” was incredibly disheartening and a bit of a surprise. Because if we’re talking about the environmental groups that have been around for over 100 years—they should already know better. But because structural racism is so engrained in America’s DNA, even progressive environmental groups still were looking at our communities as the best place to put garbage. So we had to break that paradigm—we generated studies, organized communities and mobilized institutions. It’s not coincidental that HBCUs lead the struggle in doing the foundational research, having young people involved and leading that charge. It was an extension of the Civil Rights Movement. We built our movement from the bottom up and had to breakdown what environmentalism was so that more people of color would want to participate.

Q: When you think about environmental justice in the 80s versus now, what’s changed? What still needs work?

A: We’ve made a lot of progress in that we’ve gotten environmental justice from being a footnote to a headline. These days, you can’t go into universities or organizations without environmental justice being recognized. We have more institutions putting money behind research and data collection. The first environmental centers in universities started showing up in the 90s—with the first five centers being at HBCUs. We needed Black universities to collect the data because it was impacting Black people the most. So, in current day, there’s more money being put into these programs, but we have to make sure that the money is following the need and not the power and political clout. Nothing is better than educating, organizing and understanding. We have to remember that those who have the least means are the ones who should be in the front of the line—and that’s the equity and justice question that we’ve been dealing with from the 80s and are still dealing with today.

Q: How has the pandemic brought more attention to environmental inequities?

A: If we look at the built environment in connection with all the health disparities that affect Black communities like asthma, diabetes and cardiovascular issues—there are clear links between industrial pollution and underlying conditions even well before COVID. Black children have an asthma death rate that’s 8 times more than white children. Black adults have an asthma hospitalization rate that’s 3-4 times more than white adults. People of color have always been more likely to be in nonattainment areas when it comes to clean air quality. 

So when COVID hit in 2020, it zeroed in to the most vulnerable communities who had already been in higher levels of pollution, and those communities had a higher percentage of hospitalization and death in comparison to whites by an 8% increase. That same inequality is shown through access to COVID test centers, treatment centers, transportation and technology—all of those were existing disparities in Black communities that have been amplified. It was like when Hurricane Katrina hit in New Orleans in 2005—that disaster unpeeled so many layers of inequality. People were on their rooftops and were dying because they didn’t have transportation to evacuate or money to help get them to safety. We have so many disparities that are overlaid with one another—and it’s rooted in racism. People of color knew this all along, it just took science to back us up. Black people who are living it every single day don’t have PhDs from universities, but from living.

Q: Can you explain the correlation between climate change and environmental justice?

A: Climate change will exacerbate health and economic inequities in our society. It will create hotter days—and that means economic impacts on the people who work outside…and you don’t have to be a rocket science to know who mostly works outside. So when it gets too hot, it’s a disruption to work. It even impacts when our kids go to school. A lot of our urban schools don’t have the infrastructure to deal with increased heat nor do they have proper ventilation to deal with COVID health and safety. When we talk about the issue of health impacts, racism has made many of our neighborhoods hotter than our counterpart communities. 

In the 1920s, redlining was a practice. Loans were made to center white communities and infrastructure was put in place for homeowners that got mortgages. They built levees, parks, green spaces, green canopies, etc. in white neighborhoods, but not for ours. Black neighborhoods were considered “risky,” so we didn’t get the same treatment. Because of this, those same neighborhoods that were redlined 100 years ago are hotter, more prone to flooding and have a higher concentration of pollution. On top of that, when you combine heat and pollution, that has a health impact that will disproportionately impact pregnant women—and pregnant Black women and their children are hit the hardest. So this is a reproductive justice issue, climate issue and a housing issue. It’s an endless cycle. As of current, 74% of people of color live in a nature-deprived neighborhood—no green spaces, trees, parks etc., compared to 23% of whites. Wealthy Americans are 50% more likely to have more greenery than poor Americans. So when we talk about the impact of climate change, it will increase these urban heat islands and hot spots where it’s a big problem in terms of breathing and adapting. Climate change is a health and justice issue.

Q: How can higher-income individuals be better allies in protecting and advocating for environmental equity in lower-income BIPOC communities? What can everyone of all incomes do?

A: That’s a very good question and an important one. Climate change, as you probably know, will impact all of us. Not just poor people, but everyone. Rich people will not be spared, and when we talk about the equity frame—those who have the most must share and give up some luxuries they have that are creating problems for those who do not. There was a study done that shows how Blacks and Latinos are exposed to more pollution caused by white buying and consumption power, with whites experiencing 70% less pollution than they cause. So people of color are being impacted by white people’s pollution, and we need to talk about that. We need to make sure what’s being consumed does not add to the burden of others. More people are starting to understand that on the topic of fossil fuels. We need to talk about making sure privileged communities are not further marginalizing other communities, and be real about it. We can’t sugar coat it. We must see things through a racial equity and justice lens.

Robert Bullard 2020 Champion of the Earth - Lifetime Achievement

Follow Dr. Robert Bullard to get updates on environmental racism, justice and policy.

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Torey Brown