Environmental Justice: African-Americans, Latinos Disproportionately Affected Minorities Bear Most Pollution Burden in U.S.

Dear EarthTalk: How is it that African-Americans are said to suffer the most in the U.S. from pollution and other environmental ills?

—Jen Stein, Novato, CA

environmental justice
Credit: Toban B., FlickrCC

While conducting research upon completion of his sociology Ph.D. in Houston in 1979, Dr. Robert Bullard noticed that all the city’s garbage dumps were located in and around neighborhoods inhabited primarily by African-Americans, even though blacks only accounted for a quarter of the city’s population. Bullard hypothesized that such discriminatory siting was no coincidence, especially since Houston had no zoning laws to regulate land use. At the time, his findings helped a middle class African American community in the city prevent the building of a new dump facility in their neighborhood.

Fearful that the Houston situation was no anomaly, Bullard cast his net wider to find more examples of what he called “environmental racism.” Indeed, he found not only dumps, but also polluting factories and other industrial blemishes throughout the American Southeast—from West Virginia to Alabama to Texas to Louisiana to Florida—located where poor and sometimes middle class African Americans lived. While discriminatory decision-making was no doubt a factor, Bullard also theorized that such communities’ lack of political experience also contributed to their predicament. Such realizations gave birth to an entire new political movement, and today thousands of activists in the U.S. and elsewhere monitor policymaking, lobby for new laws and fight City Hall in the struggle for “environmental justice.”

environmental justiceIn his seminal 1990 book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, Dr. Bullard emphasizes that the kinds of problems he uncovered in black communities in the Southeast are not limited to a particular region or ethnicity. “People of color in all regions of the country bear a disproportionate share of the nation’s environmental problems,” he said. The book, now in its third edition, highlights some of the cases Bullard considered over two decades, and makes a compelling case for taking into account issues of fairness when it comes to the siting and remediation of hazardous facilities of any type.

Bullard’s pioneering work also helped shatter the myth that minority communities didn’t care about the environment. With financial help from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Bullard convened the first National People of Color Environmental Summit held in October 1991, and a year later published the first version of the People of Color Environmental Groups Directory with listings for more than 300 different groups in the U.S. alone. An expanded version of the directory released in 2000 is available free online from the website of Bullard’s Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.

These days Bullard is marshaling all the resources he can to monitor the “mother of all clean-ups” in post-Katrina New Orleans, and has been highly critical of the slow pace of federal and state efforts. Acknowledging that funds are limited, Bullard wonders, “which neighborhoods will get cleaned up and which ones will be left contaminated.” No doubt, though, residents are glad to have Dr. Bullard and the thousands of environmental justice activists he inspired on their side this time around.