Author: Jamil Smith Published: 12/10/2021 Vox
Robert Bullard joined Vox Conversations to discuss the global struggle to keep this world safe to live in, and how racism gets in the way.
Robert Bullard, pictured here in Washington, DC, in 2013, received the John Muir award from the Sierra Club in 2014 for his contributions to the field of environmentalism.
Robert Bullard has been trying to explain to us for more than 40 years that the word “racism” isn’t so easily defined. Long before the water crises we see in cities like Flint, Michigan, the Texas Southern University professor was warning that racism can show up in our environment, especially if we have a certain zip code or skin color.
So first things first, Dr. Bullard, what is “environmental justice”? It’s a term that I feel like people might understand instinctively, but as the father of environmental justice, I figure it’d be good to have you explain it.
Well, environmental justice embraces the principle that all people in communities are entitled to equal protection of our environmental laws; housing, transportation, energy, food, and water security and health laws. Environmental justice is nothing more than this whole principle: people have the right to a clean, healthy, sustainable environment without regard to race, color, national origin. It’s just that simple.
Indeed. It’s been 30 years since you all convened at the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit. Can you tell me a little bit about October 27, 1991, and the principles that you all discussed there?
[It] was a historic moment. Dr. Benjamin Chavis was the director of the Commission for Racial Justice at the United Church of Christ. Here is a Black civil rights organization based in the church, a white denomination [that] called together a group of us that had been working on different issues around the country and said the environmental movement mainstream somehow is leaving out, leaving behind, and not addressing our issues — and that we need to plan a conference, a summit for ourselves.
It took us a year to plan it. We raised the money and it was a four-day summit. And we said that the first two days of this summit must only be people of color. Why? It’s because people of color in this United States, people of color, Indigenous people, we have suffered the indignities of and oppression of slavery, of genocide, of imperialism, colonialism. And so African Americans, native and Indigenous people, Latinos, Hispanics, Asian and Pacific Islanders, in 1991, we didn’t know that much about each other. And so we had to get together, just ourselves, in a room and try to unpack all of that baggage of those -isms that basically created mistrust and misunderstanding.
And after we had those very painful, but enlightening two days, then we said, we have to bring everybody in. We gotta bring the white folks in, because we do not wanna be an exclusionary movement. So, over those four days we had meetings, we had sessions, we had seminars, we had trainings. We developed those 17 principles of environmental justice.
And the overarching theme of the principles is that people most impacted by environmental challenges must speak for themselves and must be in the room when decisions are being made. And that we must develop the kinds of research, the kinds of empowerment tools, so that we can speak for ourselves and not allow others to go to Washington or go wherever and speak for us.
When we got to Rio de Janeiro at the Earth Summit in June of 1991, those principles had been translated into at least a dozen languages. Our principles of environmental justice may have been developed in the US, but they traveled well. Twenty years later in Johannesburg, there were thousands of us from all over the world representing our movement that was not a US movement, but was a global movement.
One of these 17 principles that actually drew my eye in some conversations I’ve had recently with some friends is number six. You talk about environmental justice demands, the cessation of production of all toxins, hazardous waste, and radioactive materials. We think about the climate change, okay, this is the beginning of how it addresses the local concerns that people don’t necessarily associate with the climate fight. Things like lead paint, things like garbage being dumped disproportionately in neighborhoods of color. How have you, over the last 30 years, gotten people to better recognize that this is part of being an environmentalist as well?
If you look at principle six, it’s talking about the production of dangerous chemicals and waste. If you look at transboundary waste trade, where companies that produce all kinds of chemicals — not just US companies, but companies around the world — those waste products generally get shipped to where? They don’t get shipped to Europe. They get shipped to developing countries [in] Africa and Asia.
If you talk about the whole issue of production of materials for war, at the beginning of that process, you talk about radioactive waste or uranium being mined in Indian lands, and violating sovereignty, poisoning people. Then it’s made into bombs, nuclear weapons that are not just here, you talk about the global threat. That principle involves the threat to humanity, whether it is talking about war, or the production of chemicals, or the production of the kinds of pollution that creates a problem.
There’s another principle that talks about self-determination. That’s another principle that if you look at domestically, you can see that we are talking about sovereignty. We’re talking about: people have the right of self-determination and not somehow being predetermined what you will be, what your community will be, that you deserve not to be dumped on, whether it is poison, pollution, whether it’s the greenhouse gases that’s creating flooding and more, in terms of sea level rise; that self-determination principle may have started out as a domestic counter principle. When you blow it up, you’re talking international, you’re talking treaty rights. You’re talking country-to-country kinds of things. Those principles, as they got pushed out, people around the world started to see that those principles were easily translatable and informed the climate principles that came later.
It’s sort of like blues’ influence.
There you go.
I get it (laughs).
(laughs) There you go.
I want to get back to you: how you [became] this passionate, even still, about these particular issues. What was your upbringing like? What inspired you to get involved, not just in terms of conservation, but also this more specific fight later?
I grew up in Alabama, and the issues when I was coming of age were civil rights and justice. And you could see justice in almost every issue, whether it was housing; you grew up in segregated neighborhoods where the street pavement stops at your neighborhood and you got dirt roads, you don’t have sewer lines, you don’t have water hookups, and you don’t have street lights. And you can see at your segregated school, your libraries at your school, you can’t go to the main library because it’s white. You can’t go to the swimming pool because it’s white.
So, seeing the segregation of life in the South and not realizing that, later on, I would be involved in a study in a lawsuit that would challenge that separateness, understanding that America is segregated and so was pollution. I didn’t realize it growing up. I know everything was segregated, including when you’re born and even when you die and go to the cemetery, you go to a separate cemetery. But later on, if you look at the work that I was doing, teaching students and teaching another generation to make that connection between where you live and how long you live, and [how] what’s in your neighborhood can make you healthy and what’s in your neighborhood can make you sick, and how the good stuff gets somehow onto the west side of town and all of the nasty stuff gets somehow sent to the east side. Locally, “unwanted land use” is just another nice way that planners call all garbage dumps, landfills, incinerators, highways, and other things, [but in] the built environment we call infrastructure, all infrastructure is not created equal.