He is known as the father of environmental justice, but more than half a century ago he was just a flyspeck town deep in Alabama that didn't pave roads, install sewer or put up streetlights for Black families. His grandmother had a high school degree. For a long time, his father couldn't get a license because of his race.
The movement he helped found is one of its biggest wins to date. $60 billion of the $370 billion in climate spending passed by Congress last month has been earmarked for environmental justice, which calls for equal environmental protections for all.
The new legislation that allows more oil and gas drilling has been slammed by some environmentalists. The new law is a reason for celebration, but also cautions. He said that federal money and relief funds are doled out in a way that ignores people of color and poor people who are most vulnerable to climate change. This could be a big moment for environmental justice, but never before has so much been at stake.Sign up for the Climate Forward newsletter, for Times subscribers only. Your must-read guide to the climate crisis.
Government watchdogs are needed to make sure the money follows need. Climate change will make the disparity worse. We need to get this right.
Dr. Bullard is an expert on environmental justice. His book "Dumping in Dixie" about toxic facilities in communities of color has been cited thousands of times. He doesn't remember when he first became known as the "Father of Environmental Justice", and he didn't come up with the sobriquet himself, but he affects a degree of humility when he says "Father of Environmental Justice."
In an interview with Texas Southern University in the spring, Dr. Bullard said it was better to be called the father of the generation than the son. It's a compliment, but again, I've been called worse.
As environmental justice has come to the forefront, Dr. Bullard's visibility has increased. He can deliver a lot of alarming facts while remaining upbeat, and serve up unvarnished honesty with a smile, which is why he gets a lot of requests for talks. Roughly two dozen awards and prestigious appointments have been collected by Dr. Bullard over the course of his career. The Houston Endowment gave him $1.25 million and the Bezos Earth Fund gave him $4 million in order to open the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice.
Paul Mohai is a professor at the University of Michigan and has known Dr. Bullard for more than 30 years. When he speaks, it is impossible to not have a boost of excitement.
There was a family that overcame the odds. Ten years after the abolition of slavery, his great-grandparents acquired hundreds of acres of timberland. They don't know how they got it. "We don't inquire."
The land made a big difference. His parents and grandmother were able to vote. Even though they had to pay poll taxes and pass literacy tests, they wore their Sunday best and went to the polls. Bob and his siblings were able to attend college because of the timber that was harvest from the land.
Bob had another chance after graduating from A&M. It was the height of the Vietnam War, and he was drafted to the Marines, but didn't get deployed, escaping the harrowing fate that befell his platoon. Funded by the G.I. Bill, he went on to get a master's degree and doctorate in sociology and was determined to model his career after W.E.B. DuBois.
He didn't do dead white man sociology, but he did what he called kick-ass sociology. It's possible to be a scholar and an activist.
The environment wasn't on Dr. Bullard's radar until 1979 when he was teaching Sociology at Texas Southern University. She was going to file a class-action lawsuit to stop a landfill from going into a middle class black community in Houston. Although Black people make up just 25% of Houston's population, all five of the city's garbage dumps, six of its eight incinerators, and three out of its four privately owned landfills are in Black neighborhoods.
After eight years in court, the decision was made to allow the landfill to go ahead. The doctor was shocked. The data and research was solid. It wasn't enough to overcome the legacy of racism.
The community of Black-owned homes was the site of the landfill. He called it theft of wealth. He wanted to uncover more examples of how communities of color were disproportionately affected by pollution.
environmentalism and civil rights were both on different tracks in the 1980s, and Dr. Bullard had a hard time getting support from either side. He asked if he was breathing social after the major environmental groups told him they didn't work on social issues. The doctor said that. Civil rights organizations focused on discrimination in housing, voting, employment and education. The "Dumping in Dixie" manuscript was rejected many times because the environment couldn't be racist. The publisher who finally bought it made it into a textbook, which angered Dr. Bullard until he realized it was being used by universities nationwide.
"Dumping in Dixie" is the environmental justice bible according to Na'Taki Jelks, an environmental health scientist who studied under Dr. Bullard as an undergrad. He created a road map for people who wanted to combine scholarship with activism.
The rise of environmental justice is attributed in large part to the Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd. Ms. Shepard said that she had never seen so much interest. She said that they had been fighting the fight with slingshot.
The environmental organizations that ignored race 15 years ago are now trying to get people of color. The majority of green groups are white. A few weeks after the Sierra Club said it had to confront the white supremacism of its founder, a Black staff member resigned from the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Beverly Wright said that the exclusion of people of color came at a cost. Eighty percent of Latino and 75 percent of Black people were worried about climate change, compared with 59 percent of whites, according to a survey taken in 2020.
The major environmental groups need us in the room to get anything done, because they can't do it by themselves. When we are in the room, everything works better.
Theirs is still a challenge. The Democrats made concessions in order to get the support of Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who holds a crucial swing vote in the Senate. Some environmental justice advocates said marginalized communities were being made scapegoats.
There are questions about whether the Democrats underestimated the amount of money earmarked for environmental justice. According to Sylvia Chi, a strategist with the Just Solutions Collective, the White House appeared to be including the value of entire programs rather than smaller amounts targeted to disadvantaged communities, or possibly programs that don't target those communities at all.
The bill was hailed by Dr. Bullard as historic and included funding for pollution monitoring near industrial facilities.
He and his colleagues are worried about oversight and the money getting to disadvantaged communities as intended. The fight is the implementation.
An investigation by the Department of Housing and Urban Development found that a Texas state agency discriminated against people of color after Hurricane Harvey. White disaster victims have been helped more by FEMA than people of color, even when the damage is the same, according to research. The states of the South had a long history of giving preferential treatment to certain groups. He stated that the devil is in the details.
The administration is committed to allocating the funding in line with the statute, according to a spokesman.
White-Newsome is the senior director for Environmental Justice at the White House's Council on Environmental Quality. The Biden administration has announced a new framework for allocating funds. The formula omitted race and raised hackles.
Dr. Wright said they recently shared a laugh over how busy they were since the law was enacted.
I said, "Bob, it's coming in so fast we can't get to it." and he said, "That's amazing!" The doctor recalled. When you finally have resources, why are you slowing down? He's never stopped. Why would he do that right now?