Robert Bullard, “father of environmental justice,” reflects on Trump’s environmental rollbacks, a “convergence” of issues after George Floyd’s death, and his hopes for the future. Second of a two-part interview.
Robert Bullard of Houston is a sociologist and a civil rights and environmental activist, often called “the father of environmental justice.” He earned that recognition because of the crucial role he played over decades in researching and calling attention to racial and economic inequities that contribute to disproportionate pollution and climate-change impacts.
This second part of Texas Climate News’ recent interview with Bullard features his reflections on the Trump administration’s impacts on preceding actions to advance environmental improvement and environmental justice, the “convergence”of various issues that he sees in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, and his hopes for what the 2020 election could bring. The first part of the interview presented his thoughts on the enormous movement that has arisen from Floyd’s death, his recounting of the history of the environmental justice movement, and how the two movements relate to one another.
Since 2016 Bullard has been the distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, a public, historically black university in Houston. Previously, his numerous academic positions included service as dean of Texas Southern’s Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs from 2011-2016 and as Ware distinguished professor of sociology and director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University from 1994-2011.
Bullard’s 1990 book, Dumping In Dixie: Race, Class, And Environmental Quality, was a seminal examination of five African-American communities in Houston, Dallas, West Virginia, Louisiana and Alabama that were inspired by the civil rights movement to link environmentalism with appeals for racial and social justice.
Expressing a theme that ran through his later work as scholar and activist, Bullard wrote in that book:
Ineffective land-use regulations have created a nightmare for many of Houston’s neighborhoods – especially the ones that are ill equipped to fend off industrial encroachment. Black Houston, for example, has had to contend with a disproportionately large share of garbage dumps, landfills, salvage yards, automobile ‘chop’ shops, and a host of other locally unwanted land uses. The siting of nonresidential facilities has heightened animosities between the black community and the local government. This is especially true in the case of solid-waste disposal siting.
Bullard talked with TCN editor Bill Dawson on June 10, one week after 60,000 people marched in Houston to protest the killing by Minneapolis police of Floyd, a Houston native whose childhood home in the city’s historic Third Ward community was an apartment in a public housing complex across the street from the Texas Southern campus. The interview has been edited for clarity.
I’d like to move from the longer historical arc and reflect on the trend line of environmental and climate justice over just the last three and a half years, the Trump administration. There have been dozens of rollbacks of environmental regulations pertaining to climate change and greenhouse gases and other kinds of pollution that don’t have anything directly to do with climate change. Have environmental justice efforts at the federal level and elsewhere been directly affected by these rollbacks? Have you seen changes in EPA‘s specific focus on environmental justice? They have an environmental justice office and their attention to environmental justice concerns has grown over a number of administrations. Is that part of the rollback?
The damage that the Trump administration is doing to environmental protection is much broader than environmental justice. The programmatic thrusts of integrating [environmental justice into federal programs] were made under the first Bush administration, George Herbert. The first environmental justice office was created under the Republicans – the Office of Environmental Equity was created under William Reilly, who was the [first President Bush’s] EPA administrator.
“Environmental Equity: Reducing Risk for All Communities,” the first environmental justice report to come out of EPA, came out in the first Bush administration. Then Clinton came in and changed it from the Office of Environment Equity to the Office of Environmental Justice. He signed an executive order on environmental justice, and we started to make plans and strategies. Then, George W. came in. He did not dismantle the Office of Environmental Justice. Basically environmental justice kind of went on a hiatus and was more like treading water. There were no major breakthroughs under President George W.
Obama came in, and Obama and the important appointment of Lisa Jackson [as EPA administrator] was kind of like a shot of adrenaline in the arm to move environmental justice throughout the EPA. The interagency working group was reactivated – 12, 13 federal agencies to start looking at strategic plans to address environmental justice programmatically. And there was lot of work around issues – water issues, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Power Plan, climate action plans, permitting. A lot of that stuff had environmental justice integrated throughout.
[In the Trump administration] everything that seemed to have President Obama’s stamp on it – automobile standards, pollution standards, coal ash, rivers, dealing with water quality and American rivers – were the first targets that they attempted to push back.
Because President Obama had integrated environmental justice inside a lot of the regulations in the program areas within EPA, there was no specific targeting of environmental justice, because you can’t target environment justice, per se, because it’s in the clean air [rules] and it’s in the regulations for water issues. So by this present administration dismantling, streamlining, in some cases providing waivers, in other cases fast-tracking, all those things have had the effect of erasing decades – I’m talking decades, going back to the 1970s, when Richard Nixon created the EPA – decades of precedent and strengthening of environmental regulations.
When we talk about the attacks on the National Environmental Policy Act and not having to do [environmental impact] assessments anymore, when these companies aren’t fined for pollution violations and you’re using the Covid pandemic as the ruse for saying we’re going to do that, or looking at clean water issues, or looking at air pollution from power plants in terms of mercury rules, and you start seeing all these things rolled back, things that in many cases were not even asked for by the manufacturing companies – these were attempts to somehow erase Obama’s legacy.
I guess the most publicized one was to tear up [U.S. participation in the] Paris Climate Agreement. That was probably the biggest one. So it was a frontal assault. This is the first time we’ve had this type of frontal assault – not under Daddy Bush, not under Bill Clinton, not under George W. Bush and not under Obama. This is the first administration that has actually just been hostile.
What’s going on now is raised to the level that’s unprecedented. There’s no parallel or no companion administration where it has been this cruel. And it’s not just environmental where the attacks are being made. When it comes to civil rights within the Justice Department, in terms of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, voting rights enforcement, or even looking at the consent decrees with police in these cities’ departments that had bad apples – all that stuff has been wiped out. It’s almost like wiping out Obama. If you see Obama and you see his fingerprint, zero in and wipe it out – that, to me, has been the pattern.
But ultimately it doesn’t just hurt environmental justice communities when you talk about dismantling the Clean Air Act and allowing more and more pollution to hit the air and more and more cars to be less efficient, or allowing our rivers and streams to be polluted and more effluents to get dumped in there or our drinking water. There’s no white air, no Hispanic air, no black air. There’s air that we breathe. And so you think you might be hurting Obama’s constituents, but you’re hurting the nation, and it places everybody at risk. That, to me, is the lesson to be learned from this kind of concerted effort to try to erase one previous president’s legacy.
At the start of this year it sure seemed to me that climate issues would have an unprecedentedly large place in the 2020 election. The Democratic candidates were all talking about it. And then came the pandemic, and then came George Floyd‘s death, and everything looks different in terms of politics. Maybe not different, but less certain as to what course the election is going to take. What do you think are the prospects now for climate concerns, including climate justice, to have a large role in this election – and expand that to environmental issues if you care to. Associated with that, do you think the political energy that’s been ignited by Mr. Floyd‘s death will affect political outcomes in ways that might advance environmental justice and climate justice arguments?
Well, I think there is a convergence happening right now. And the idea that climate change and climate justice have dropped off the radar – it may have dropped off of the media screen, but it has not dropped off the radar when it comes to people who have concerns about climate impacts and the issues around flooding.
We’re in hurricane season, so people are very much aware of both hurricanes and the potential for these dangerous storms. And the fact that we’re in a pandemic. Also, that the Trump administration is basically giving guidance to the point where FEMA is not going to show up – you’ve got to shelter in place.
So people are very much concerned about the pandemic. They’re very much concerned about hurricanes and flooding and climate. They’re very much concerned about the economic conditions and jobs and unemployment and Covid and essential workers and making sure they have enough protection so they can go out and get those jobs. Because the vast majority of people don’t have jobs that you could telework. Most of the jobs that are out there, you’ve got to go to work at a physical place.
When you start looking at the convergence and you start looking at the call for racial justice – that runs throughout all of these issues that I talked about. Because if you talk about the people that are most impacted by Covid, by climate change, that’s where we get the climate justice. And by the economics, in terms of an economic recession, who’s being hired back and who’s not going to get hired back, and whose job is going to disappear, whose businesses. The small businesses have not gotten the loans or whatever. That’s a justice issue.
And then you look at the police violence issue and the brutality of racism in policing. You look at all of that. All of this has been colorized. It’s been colorized to the point where people are seeing the connections. And the short answer is, I think people will be more mobilized and energized to vote.
That’s where there’s so much intensity, on the Democratic side, about trying to get vote-by-mail, and there’s so much resistance and intensity for not. That’s the voter suppression part. The fear of a real democracy is a fear of the transitioning from minority to majority, from fear of another blue wave. There was a real blue wave in 2018. And there were people who braved and voted.
This pandemic will still be around, you know, five months from now. It means that the electorate has to understand what it means if they don’t vote, what it means if they do vote. And the conditions are out there where they don’t have enough protections that will make it safe for them to vote.
Look at what just happened in Georgia with the mess that’s going on with the elections, That’s almost like a prelude to the confusion that some people are saying is organized confusion to suppress the vote and to somehow keep the numbers down. People are energized and young people are energized to vote. And to make change.
And I think the George Floyd murder has brought a lot of people together, and that energy now is being directed to political mobilization. That’s a threat to Republicans, that’s a threat to the status quo of these legislatures that are dominated by these rural places, while our states of becoming more and more urban. So you get this intense pressure, not to get things upgraded so that we can have modern voting systems in place to minimize error, and to create public safety as we go through an election process in the era of Covid. That’s real.
There’s a number of areas that are converging that I think will work in favor of political mobilization and voting and awareness. I guess the word for the day is change. And the urgency of that change. At the same time, there will be more pressure to counter that kind of urgency and to counter that kind of enthusiasm on the other side, to try to suppress that and give the impression somehow that these folks are Antifa or these folks are somehow anarchists or somehow terrorists or somehow a threat.
If you look at this as a potential for more of this craziness, of this meanness, it has turned a lot of people off. Voters that would ordinarily go one way are saying no, they can’t do this any more, they can’t do this for four more years. The callousness with which coronavirus testing been done – or not – and the vulnerability of those populations who are more at risk because of their underlying conditions, the comorbidity – those older people vote. That’s the largest voting bloc and the most consistent voting bloc. And basically Trump is kind of telling them to go somewhere.
Looking ahead, and pragmatically speaking because you’re a student of history and a keen observer of how slowly things can change, what if your best-case scenario happens – and I assume that would mean a Biden victory and the Democrats seizing control of both houses of Congress? What do you think are the best legislative or administrative outcomes from a Biden administration that you hope this election might produce regarding environmental justice and climate justice concerns? A rollback of the rollbacks? More than that?
Yeah, I think definitely the rollback of the rollbacks and strengthening a number of our environmental laws that we have on the books in terms of dealing with some Clean Air Act provisions and looking at the issues around climate. Rejoining Paris. Putting in a framework to put some meat on the bones of a Green New Deal – because it’s just a concept – to work through legislation that would deal with infrastructure and climate in a way that we’re talking about a clean energy economy, green jobs.
Dealing with transportation issues in terms of making accessible, affordable, green transportation in our cities, connecting our cities, using some type of green transportation, preferably some type of rail or whatever. Looking at legislation trying to fix Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, that the Supreme Court basically knocked out so you’ve got to show intent to prove it’s discrimination. Looking at education funding in terms of colleges and universities, and school funding and reform. Definitely healthcare has to be a big one coming out of the chute in terms of undoing the dismantling.
Also dealing with issues around affordable housing and dealing with the issues that we know are tied together in terms of energy – housing, transportation, issues around urban land use and planning, providing resources and guidance that local jurisdictions can use in a way that will be incentives to talk about addressing disaster issues and issues around sustainability and community resilience around those areas. When we talk about how we make our cities and metropolitan regions more climate-resilient and how do we go forward with federal guidance that can really be useful for local jurisdictions to develop their own unique plans and strategies.
Those are the kinds of things I think we definitely need to be working on as policy priorities. Environmental justice and climate justice and health equity and issues around employment and housing – those are major priority areas.
And there has to be something done to address voter suppression. These are civil rights. There’s this whole bucket of civil rights stuff that needs to get done. A lot of it has to be putting back in place those departments within the Office of Civil Rights, within the U.S. Justice Department, that could actually start suing a bunch of people – corporations for lack of environmental standards, etc., as opposed to giving waivers so they can pollute as much as they want.
There are a number of initiatives that the Biden campaign team has pushed out that include task forces and initiatives on climate change. “Lift Every Voice: The Biden Plan for Black America” [a Biden campaign document] has some of that also, with environment justice as one of those priority areas. So the stuff is there. You’ve got to win to get them in place though.
Finally, what lessons do you think you should be drawn from this historic moment in the wake of George Floyd’s death?
I think that the lesson we can all learn from this tragic murder, this tragic death, is that we have to take this horrific tragedy and turn it into something good. That something good can be the acknowledgement that what happened was the result of one man with his knee on the neck of another man and just a violation of humanity, but it’s also a result of something much larger, which is a systemic racism that has historically allowed those kinds of acts to occur.
This outpouring of grief and the outpouring of anger and the outpouring of the sense of urgency that something needs to change and that we need to tackle systemic racism and we need to fight for racial justice, and the mere fact that there are so many organizations, institutions or groups that are now putting out statements on racial justice and statements on addressing systemic racism – this is a watershed moment.
Many cities and county governments, right now, are not waiting for federal action. They’re not waiting to the November election. They’re starting to implement changes and plans inside of their police departments right now. I think the fact that these initiatives are being undertaken right now gives a sense of urgency to what we’re talking about. Understanding that, because of that sense of urgency, people are willing to come together, even during this pandemic, in a way that says we can get things done, we can still work.
I think that we have to see it as an emergency, see it as a crisis. It’s not by accident that in this last poll that came out over 80 percent of Americans said they thought the U.S. is in crisis. I agree with that sentiment, and if we are in crisis right now, then we need to be in crisis-solution-oriented mode.
If you’re in a crisis, you don’t try to think about what you’re going to do over the next three years. Crisis means that we’re in a crisis right now, so we need to start working on things that have put us in a crisis. Now that gives me hope right there.
Bill Dawson is the founding editor of Texas Climate News.