“I can’t breathe”—sharpied on NBA players’ sneakers, graffitied on highway underpasses, and repeated among the last words of police brutality victims—has become one of the most recognizable slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement. But those three words don’t just point to police violence. They also speak to other silent and often unseen killers, like pollution and poverty.
Across the country, pollution and poverty are disproportionately killing Black people, Indigenous peoples, and people of color. In recent months, many Americans have begun to come to terms with racism in law enforcement agencies. Far fewer have learned about how racism affects the air we breathe, the water we drink, the land we live upon, and the perils we face on a warming planet.
Most passive observers of environmental pollution and racial injustice might not be accustomed to seeing those two ideas together. However, “environmental justice”—the idea that environmental benefits and burdens are distributed unequally throughout society, often along racial, gender, and class lines—deeply shapes communities across the country. This concept has its own movement, the environmental justice movement, which primarily emerged out of the struggle for civil rights and the research of Dr. Robert Bullard, whose pioneering work showed how pollution maps onto racial divisions.
A self-described “accidental environmentalist,” Bullard is now focused on preparing the next generation of Black leaders. Here he talks to VICE World News about how his wife drafted him into the movement, how far the movement’s come and where he sees it going, and what environmental justice activists should demand from the Biden administration.
VICE WORLD NEWS: How did you get involved in the environmental justice movement?
Robert Bullard: I was in Houston, working as a sociologist and my wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, was an attorney. One day she came home and said, ‘Bob, I just sued the state of Texas’—the state was considering giving a permit for a landfill to be built in this Black neighborhood in Houston. I said, ‘Technically you sued my employer,’ because I worked for a state university.
She needed someone to collect data for the lawsuit. I recruited students in my research methods class and I designed and conducted a study. This was before GIS mapping, before Google, before laptops—and long before there was a concept called ‘environmental justice’—in 1979.
The study showed that from the 1920s up to 1978, 82 percent of all the garbage dumped in Houston was dumped in Black neighborhoods even though Black people made up only 25 percent of the population.
That was an aha moment. We went to court and lost, but the data was so overwhelming. It was happening all over, but it had never been legally challenged in terms of civil rights. My wife developed a legal theory that this was a form of discrimination based on Jim Crow segregation.
I expanded the study to include other communities in the South and in 1990 I published the first environmental justice book in the United States, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality.
So, I would consider myself an accidental environmentalist. It wasn’t something I planned. I tell people I was drafted two times in my life—the first when I was drafted to the Marine Corps and later when my wife drafted me to do this case.