Black Lives for a Green Environment: A lecture with the father of environmental justice

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1979, Dr. Robert Bullard came home to find out that his wife, an attorney, was suing the state based on moral principle, due to the fact that a landfill was strategically constructed in Black Neighborhoods. The two worked together, him as an expert witness in the case, as a means to provide environmental justice for black communities affected by environmental racism. Photo courtesy of Dr. Robert Bullard website.

In the eve of 1979, a young assistant professor of sociology at a state university returned home from work to find that his wife, an attorney, had sued the state that employed him. With the basis of the lawsuit being that a landfill was to be strategically constructed in Black neighborhoods, the attorney sued the state on moral principle. The conflict of interest did little to dissuade the assistant professor’s fascination with the case. He soon joined forces with his wife by acting as an expert witness. No one could have predicted the extent of the impact their alliance would have on history. 

“No one could have predicted the extent of the impact their alliance would have on history.”

From this lawsuit known as Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp, then assistant professor Dr. Robert Bullard would later emerge as the “father of environmental justice.” Bullard, hosted by UConn’s Center for Environmental Sciences and Engineering as part of its Edwin Way Teale Lecture Series “Nature and the Environment” Thursday, detailed the roots of environmental injustice activism as well as his corresponding canonization in the field. 

Bullard explained how Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corp case was pioneering; not only was it the first ever American lawsuit to draw attention to environmental injustice, but the research conducted at Texas Southern University in support of the people made several key findings. One such finding, for example, was that 75% of Houston’s waste was dumped in Black neighborhoods despite Black people accounting for little more than 25% of Houston’s population.  

“75% of Houston’s waste was dumped in Black neighborhoods despite Black people accounting for little more than 25% of Houston’s population.”

Texas Southern University Research

Not long after these findings, inspired North Carolinian youth in Warren County took to the streets to protest the placement of a hazardous polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) laced landfill in their Black neighborhood. 500 young people, including middle schoolers, were arrested as they lied on the ground in defiance. Their laying on the ground laid the groundwork for environmental injustice activism, for in 1982, the phrase “environmental racism” was coined. 1990 saw the publication of Bullard’s first book “Dumping in Dixie,” which was also the first book to document the links between dumping, pollution and socioeconomic status. A thousand people marched to the White House in 1991 waving the flag of the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. These events solidified the coinage of the phrase “environmental racism” into the public lexicon. 

Environmental racism refers to the constant pollution and lack of consideration for the air surrounding Black and Latino communities, that is well imposed by local and federal governments and mass corporations. Photo courtesy of City University of New York.

In 1993, the federal Environmental Protection Agency commissioned its first report on environmental equity; and in 1994, Bullard was called by the White House. 

“I thought it was a prank … it was not a prank,” Bullard recollected. “It was a call from the White House, because there was an important event that we needed to witness: the signing of the executive order on environmental justice.” 

“It was a call from the White House, because there was an important event that we needed to witness: the signing of the executive order on environmental justice.”

The official recognition of environmental inequity led to a proliferation of research compiled and disseminated by Bullard during his lecture. Bullard’s eidetic expertise in the field has yielded his conclusion that, “Poverty is not the most predictable kind of factor that determines who gets polluted; race is the most potent.” 

Some statistics supporting Bullard’s conclusion displayed the high rates of pollution faced by the Black middle class in comparison to the White lower class that suffers little pollution. Additionally, despite the White population producing the greatest amount of air pollution, it is the Black and Latinx demographics that bear the brunt of its production. Both Black and Latinx populaces are disadvantageously exposed to around 60% more pollution than is caused by them, whereas the White population enjoys a defined “pollution advantage” in breathing 17% less air pollution than they caused.  

“Both Black and Latinx populaces are disadvantageously exposed to around 60% more pollution than is caused by them, whereas the White population enjoys a defined “pollution advantage” in breathing 17% less air pollution than they caused.”

The modern sustainability movement that is the cornerstone of environmental activist culture confronts issues that surfaced from Bullard’s environmental injustice movement such as dumping and pollution. Still, Bullard described the sustainability movement as having distinctly emerged with disregard for its originating issues that environmental injustice activists sought to ameliorate. Therefore, though incremental steps have been made toward generalized justice, historically disadvantaged communities still face the sustainability movement’s neglect. Bullard said the resolution of this neglect lies, yet again, in the youth — not much unlike the laying of the youths of Warren County that catapulted the environmental injustice movement. 

“Students right now have huge voices,” Bullard said. “Every social movement that has been successful in this country has had a strong youth and student component. Don’t think that your voice is not powerful.” 

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