Robert D. Bullard

American sociologist known as the father of environmental justice

Robert Doyle Bullard (born December 21, 1946), formerly Ware Professor of Sociology and Director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, is an American academic known as the "father of environmental justice" for his work beginning in the 1970s to extend civil rights thinking to issues of environmental inequality.

Any time our society says that a powerful chemical company has the same right as a low income family that’s living next door, that playing field is not level, is not fair.
Eighty-two percent of all the waste garbage dumped in Houston, from 1930s up 'til 1978, were dumped in black neighborhoods. And blacks only made up 25 percent of the population. For me, that was eye-opening.


  • It was very clear that people who were making decisions — county commissioners or industrial boards or city councils — were not the same people who were “hosting” these facilities in their communities. Without a doubt, it was a form of apartheid where whites were making decisions and black people and brown people and people of color, including Native Americans on reservations, had no seat at the table.

Interview with PBS (2020)

  • we look at which communities are actually at greatest risk from disasters and floods like this, historically, it’s been low-income communities and communities of color, communities that live in low-lying areas that are areas that are very prone to flooding. And it’s very difficult to get insurance, not just flood insurance, but regular insurance, because of redlining. So, what (Hurricane) Harvey has done is to expose those inequalities that existed before the storm.
  • disasters like this widen and exacerbate inequality. And so, the communities that are most at risk from not having, you know, the kinds of infrastructure in those areas, in terms of flood protection, in terms of trying to get out, in terms of transportation, etc., I mean, it played out
  • not only will they get washed out in terms of their homes, they’ll get washed out in terms of their income.
  • Invisible Houston, that I wrote 30 years ago, there’s a huge population that is still invisible. Houston’s demographics, you know, a lot of people like to say we are one of the most diverse, ethnically and racially, cities in the country. We’re the fourth-largest city in the country. We are racially and ethnically diverse. But when it comes to economics and when it comes to power and decision-making, it stops.
  • we have to have strong community-based organizations on the ground with the capacity to assist and support families and households that can get things right, that can pressure and apply the points of saying, “Well, we need to make sure that just because you don’t have a car, just because you don’t have a big bank account doesn’t mean that you should not be safe, that your community should not come back and that you should not have the same level of protection and the same level of importance as if you were a middle-class white neighborhood.” That is—that’s what we have to ensure.
  • Houston is very segregated along racial and economic lines. And this flood has really shown that. If you look at ZIP codes, you can map where that vulnerability is. You can also map how resources have been allocated and distributed over the last 50 years.
  • those populations that lived, for example, on those fencelines with those chemical companies, people say, “Well, what’s happening at the chemical company that burnt and exploded? They say it’s safe. The chemical company says it’s safe. The EPA says it’s safe. But I’d like to know: Where does the CEO of that company live? If it’s so safe—you know what I’m saying?—how about him pack up and camp out next door?” The problem is, individuals making decisions oftentimes don’t have to deal with the kinds of issues that fenceline communities have to deal with, even when we’re not talking about flooding. We’re talking about the flooding of pollution and chemicals on communities. And people don’t ask for—to be polluted. It’s without their consent.
  • We have to talk about environmental racism and call it out when it exists. We can’t just run from it
  • the whole idea of rebuilding, needs to be democratized. Those communities, people need to decide what it is that they want and what they can live with.
  • I started—my first job out of graduate school in 1976 was at Texas Southern University in 1976. I was a young, untenured professor in sociology in 1976. And two years out of graduate school, I was asked to collect data for a lawsuit, by my wife, who had filed a lawsuit suing the city of Houston, Harris County and the state of Texas. And I worked for a state university, so my wife actually sued my employer. And so I had 10 students in my graduate class. We collected data for a lawsuit, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Corporation. That was the first lawsuit in the country that was challenging environmental discrimination using a civil rights law. And it was basically challenging the location of a municipal landfill that was being proposed in a black, middle-class, suburban neighborhood in Houston. Nothing out in that northeast Houston neighborhood except trees, houses and black people—not a likely place for a landfill. And I collected data for that lawsuit, and we wrote studies. And that’s how I, you know, started working on this. And five out of five of the city-owned landfills were located in black neighborhoods. Six out of eight of the city-owed incinerators were located in black neighborhoods. And three out of four of the privately owned landfills were located in black neighborhoods. Eighty-two percent of all the waste garbage dumped in Houston, from 1930s up 'til 1978, were dumped in black neighborhoods. And blacks only made up 25 percent of the population. For me, that was eye-opening. That's what sent me on my way.
  • when you talk about all of the potential health threats and the potential damage not just damage to property and the tax base in terms of people’s houses, lowering the property values, but you’re also talking about schools and playgrounds that are located so close, you would say, “Who would do this?” And the idea of environmental justice and environmental racism and the fact that communities of color are disproportionately impacted by these things, not just in Houston, but that’s a national trend—and what we say—people are saying no. Communities have a right to say no, and they have a right to equal protection under the law, and they have a right not to have their children go to school or play on playgrounds that’s not impacted by pollution.
  • we have environmental segregation, we have what I call “outdoor apartheid.” This is basically that those areas, those geographic and spacial neighborhoods, that somehow are considered compatible with these types of facilities. And we know that the impacts of living close to, with these emissions or with explosion or accidents or releases that may come from flooding, like Harvey—I mean, we know which communities are impacted. And that’s the justice question.
  • what you’re seeing in that kind of analysis is basically certain neighborhoods are unofficially zoned for it, even though we don’t have zoning, unofficially zoned for the things that other people don’t want.
  • The communities that have been suffering for all of these years really don’t have a voice. They are still invisible, and they are still underprotected. And as I said before, the most vulnerable population that we’re talking about is children. And if people don’t get angry or somehow concerned about children going to school or playing on playgrounds that’s on the fenceline with companies that’s pumping out dangerous chemicals and creating lots of environmental hazards—you know, you have to understand what kind of person would somehow just turn the other way, or governmental entity that would turn the other way, and say, “Oh, it’s about regulation. We need fewer regulations. And because the companies have to be competitive globally, and therefore the community that’s on the fenceline basically is a sacrifice zone.” And what we say in the environmental justice community, we say no to our communities being sacrifice zones.
  • what we’re saying is that our communities, communities of color, want to be sustainable, want to be resilient. They want to be healthy and livable. And it should not somehow be something that’s relegated to white middle-class suburban or urban core.
  • The gentrification that oftentimes occurs in many of our communities, it occurs at the—I guess, the detriment of communities that have historically lived in those areas...we have to say that we want to make sure that we redevelop and we develop our communities in a way that minimizes displacement of incumbent residents, and also ensure that those residents who want to remain in those older neighborhoods that are undergoing transformation, that they can. And those who want to leave, by choice, can leave.
  • billions come flowing in (after a disaster), and then you have all kinds of organizations and individuals parachuting in, raking up the money, I mean, when the local groups that have been working on these issues for years and years and years somehow get bypassed, get left behind.
  • community organizations, institutions, that have been doing this work in the city for many, many years, they need to be funded. They need to have—they need capacity to staff up and to start doing the kind of work, because they have the trust and because they have the experience and because they are here, they are local.
  • we will have more hurricanes. We will have more floods. But the thing is, how do we—how do we build, rebuild in a way that will make our city more resilient?

Interview with Grist (March 15, 2006)

  • I saw that 100 percent of all the city-owned landfills in Houston were in black neighborhoods, though blacks made up only 25 percent of the population. Three out of four of the privately owned landfills were located in predominantly black neighborhoods, and six out of eight of the city-owned incinerators. In a city that does not have zoning, it meant that these were decisions made by individuals in government.
  • It was very clear that people who were making decisions — county commissioners or industrial boards or city councils — were not the same people who were “hosting” these facilities in their communities. Without a doubt, it was a form of apartheid where whites were making decisions and black people and brown people and people of color, including Native Americans on reservations, had no seat at the table.
  • It’s not just the landfill, it’s not just the incinerator, it’s not just the garbage dump, it’s not just the crisscrossing freeway and highway, and the bus barns that dump all that stuff in these neighborhoods — it’s all that combined. Even if each particular facility is in compliance, there are no regulations that take into account this saturation. It may be legal, but it is immoral. Just like slavery was legal, but slavery has always been immoral.
  • This whole question of environment, economics, and equity is a three-legged stool. If the third leg of that stool is dealt with as an afterthought, that stool won’t stand. The equity components have to be given equal weight. But racial and economic and social equity can be very painful topics: people get uncomfortable when questions of poor people and race are raised.

The Quest for Environmental Justice (2005)


"Environmental Justice in the 21st Century"

  • The environmental protection apparatus is broken and must be fixed. The environmental justice movement has set out a clear goal: to fix this protection apparatus by eliminating unequal enforcement of environmental, civil rights, and public health laws.
  • Waiting for government to act is recipe for disaster.
  • No community, rich or poor, urban or suburban, black or white, should be made into a sacrifice zone or dumping ground.
  • Poor people and poor communities are given a false choice between having, on the one hand, no jobs and no development and, on the other hand, risky low-paying jobs and pollution. In reality, unemployment and poverty are also hazardous to one's health. This jobs-versus-unemployment scenario is a form of economic blackmail.
  • The (environmental justice) movement has come a long way since its humble beginnings in Warren County, North Carolina, a rural and mostly African American community, where a proposed landfill for disposing of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) ignited protests that resulted in more than five hundred arrests. These protests prompted a study by the U.S. General Accounting Office, Siting of Hazardous Waste Landfills and Their Correlation with Racial and Economic Status of Surrounding Communities. This study revealed that three of the four off-site, commercial hazardous waste landfills in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 4 (composed of eight southern states) happen to be located in predominantly African American communities, although African Americans made up only 20 percent of the region's population. The protesters of Warren County put the term "environmental racism" on the map.
  • Students and young people have fueled every social movement in the United States, including the civil rights, environmental, antiwar, women's movements.
  • In 1990, my book Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality chronicled the convergence of two social movements-the social justice and environmental movements-into one, the environmental justice movement. This book highlighted African Americans' environmental activism in the South, the same region that gave birth to the modern civil rights movement. What started out as local and often isolated community-based struggles against the siting of toxic waste and industrial facilities blossomed into a multi-issue, multiethnic, and multiregional movement."
  • The 1991 First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit was probably the single most important event in the environmental justice movement's history. The summit broadened the movement beyond its early focus against toxics to include issues of public health, worker safety, land use, transportation, housing, resource allocation, and community empowerment. The meeting also demonstrated that it is possible to build a multiracial grassroots movement around environmental and economic justice.
  • The environmental justice framework shifts the burden of proof to polluters and dischargers who do harm, who discriminate, or who do not give equal protection to racial and ethnic minorities. Under the current system, individuals who challenge polluters must prove that they have been harmed, discriminated against, or disproportionately affected. Few affected communities have the resources to hire the lawyers, expert witnesses, and doctors needed to sustain such a challenge.
  • With its bottom-up approach, this movement has re-defined the term "environment" to include the places where people live, work, play, and go to school, as well as brought attention to how these things interact with the physical and natural world.

Quotes about Robert Bullard

  • Where did this term (Environmental Racism) come from? In 1979, the Northeast Community Action Group (NECAG), a group of Black suburban homeowners in a middle-class enclave in Houston, came together to prevent the city from building a landfill near their neighborhood. The group launched a civil rights suit, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc., under the legal direction of Linda McKeever Bullard. A report produced in 1979 in support of the lawsuit found that for decades, Houston had built over 80 percent of its landfills and incinerators in predominantly Black neighborhoods. Bullard's husband, Dr. Robert Bullard, began documenting eco-racism cases throughout the city, then throughout the South, and eventually throughout the nation. Their collective actions became a breakthrough moment for fighting environmental decisions as violations of civil rights...As Dr. Bullard points out, inequities sometimes occur as a matter of class, and thus may be directly targeted at white neighborhoods. "Now all of the issues of environmental racism and environmental justice don't just deal with people of color. We are just as much concerned with inequities in Appalachia, for example, where the whites are basically dumped on because of lack of economic and political clout and lack of having a voice to say 'no," he stated in an Earth First! interview.
  • academics continue to play a crucial supporting role through such institutions as the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark-Atlanta University, founded and run by Robert Bullard, and the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University in New Orleans, run by Beverly Hendrix Wright. These centers, and others like them, provide crucial research that aids local struggles, as well as train a new generation of professionals of color.
    • Luke Cole and Sheila Foster From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement (2000)
  • what spurred and motivated a lot of people to very good organizing, starting with Bob Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie exposé of how environmental racism was encountered with impunity by these big corporations throwing lead, and you name it, various carcinogens into people’s water tables and so on and so forth.
  • Hazel M. Johnson's work helped lay the groundwork for climate justice around the world, as well as for an intersectional approach to environmentalism...Another pivotal voice in environmental justice history is its "father," as he's often dubbed, Dr. Robert Bullard... In 1979, Dr. Bullard wrote "Solid Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community," one of the first studies to demonstrate the link between toxic waste locations and race...In his own words, environmental justice can be defined as a concept that "embraces the principles that all communities, all people, are entitled to equal protection of our environmental laws, health laws, housing laws, transportation laws, and civil rights laws."
    • Leah Thomas The Intersectional Environmentalist: How to Dismantle Systems of Oppression to Protect People + Planet (2022)