Dr. Robert Bullard: Some People Don't Have 'The Complexion for Protection.'(environmental racism)(Interview)

By Motavalli, Jim | E Magazine, July-August 1998 | Go to article overview
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Dr. Robert Bullard: Some People Don't Have 'The Complexion for Protection.'(environmental racism)(Interview)

Motavalli, Jim, E Magazine

When, in 1979, Dr. Robert Bullard wrote a study called Solid Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community, nobody had heard of environmental racism (see the special report in this issue). It would be three more years before anyone used that phrase, but Dr. Bullard had plainly made the connection between toxic siting and communities of color, leading to the first lawsuit, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, (filed by his wife) that used civil rights law to challenge environmental discrimination. By 1991, when Bullard helped plan the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., the fight for environmental justice was well-established, with activists from around the country making common cause with each other.

Dr. Bullard is the author or editor of three landmark texts, Confronting Environmental Racism (1993), Dumping on Dixie (1994) and Unequal Protection (1996). He serves on the Environmental Protection Agency's National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology, offering direction on complaints filed under the anti-discriminatory Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Dr. Bullard, who teaches sociology and heads the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, has become the country's leading authority on toxic discrimination. His most recent book is Just Transportation, a look at barriers to mobility in minority communities. Dr. Bullard says he's heartened by recent decisions showing the federal government taking an increasingly activist role against do-nothing state environmental agencies that collaborate with polluters. Environmental racism isn't going away, he says, but communities are banding together to fight it and, in many cases, winning.

E: Maybe we can start with the general concept of environmental racism, where the term originated and how it has come into broad acceptance.

BULLARD: The phrase "environmental racism" was coined back in 1982 by Reverend Ben Chavis, then the director of the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice (CRJ). He was talking about Warren County, North Carolina and the siting of a toxic waste landfill in that predominantly black county. People saw that the only reason Warren County was selected was because it was poor and black. The process by which that happens has now been codified and defined in all kinds of reports and books. Basically, environmental racism is another form of institutionalized discrimination.

In 1987, CRJ published a report entitled Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States, which looked at the siting of hazardous waste sites by race and income. It concluded that the most important factor in locating these facilities was race.

Before that time, was there very little awareness of this as an issue?

There was a lot of awareness in terms of local communities. As a matter of fact, in 1979 my wife filed a lawsuit in Houston, Texas charging the city and one of the largest national waste companies, Browning Ferris Industries, with environmental discrimination in siting its facilities. And that was the first environmental justice lawsuit filed under the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But most of the awareness was local. There was no pulling together of the fact that African-American children are poisoned with lead in their homes and on the playgrounds at a greater rate than any other group. And this is one of the reasons why kids are dropping out of school, put in classes for the retarded, and told they're slow learners.

Where the freeways go, where the landfills and the bus barns are, that's where you'll find environmental injustice. And it wasn't until people started to meet and talk and share their notes that we saw this national pattern. And we began to see that environmental racism is more than where the garbage dump is, it's all those other things, too.

In Convent, Louisiana, there is an incredible concentration of plants in a very small black community.

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Dr. Robert Bullard: Some People Don't Have 'The Complexion for Protection.'(environmental racism)(Interview)


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