Robert Bullard (1946-- )

No other community, rich or poor, urban or suburban, black, brown, red, white, or yellow should be allowed to become an environmental "sacrifice zone."
Robert Bullard (People of Color Environmental Groups Directory, p. 12)

Robert Bullard is the founder of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta, Georgia. The center was established in 1994 after Bullard moved from California, where he served as a full professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside. In a short period of time, he has built the center into a nationally recognized powerhouse for environmental policy, analysis, community-driven research, education, and training. He established a world-class media archive of videos, photographs, slides, tapes, and other multimedia materials that document the history and accomplishments of the environmental justice movement. He supervised the development of a comprehensive Web site that serves as information clearing house, database, reference, and curriculum resource guidebook on environmental justice, environmental racism, healthy communities, transportation equity, and suburban sprawl.

Bullard's environmental justice career began in 1979 when his wife, attorney Linda McKeever Bullard, represented a group of African American Houston homeowners opposed to a plan that would locate a municipal landfill in the middle of their backyards. Only a couple of years out of graduate school at Iowa State University, where he received his Ph.D. in sociology, Bullard was asked to conduct a study to document the spatial location of municipal waste disposal facilities in Houston. He was also asked to serve as an expert witness on the case. At the time, he was an untenured assistant professor at Texas Southern University, a predominately black state-run institution in Houston. The request was part of a class-action lawsuit his wife filed against the city of Houston, the State of Texas, and the locally-headquartered Browning Ferris Industries, the nation's second largest waste disposal company. The 1979 lawsuit, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc., was the first of its kind in the United States that charged environmental discrimination in waste facility siting under the civil rights laws. Houston's middle-class, suburban Northwood Manor neighborhood was an unlikely location for a garbage dump except that it was over 82 percent black.

In order to obtain the history of waste disposal facility siting in Houston---the only major U.S. city that does not have zoning---government records (city, county, and state documents) had to be manually retrieved because the files were not yet computerized. On site visits, windshield surveys, and informal interviews, done in a sort of "researcher as detective" role---were conducted as a reliability check. He completed the Houston garbage study in 1979. It was later published as an article in a 1983 issue of Sociological Inquiry. Bullard's research eventually documented Houston's history of placing waste facilities in predominately African American, though not always low-income communities. All five city-owned garbage dumps, six of the eight city-owned garbage incinerators, and three of the four privately-owned landfills were sited in black neighborhoods. In the case of landfills in Houston, the task was made easier because of the city's flat terrain. Whenever a "mountain" was encountered---and quite a few were scattered across the urban landscape---he and his students suspected an old dump site.

After poring over sixty years worth of "musty files and archives" and collecting the data for Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management and interviewing citizens from other African American neighborhoods, Bullard realized that the siting of local waste facilities was not random. He also discovered that this was not a chicken or egg (which came first) problem. In all cases, the residential character of the neighborhoods had been established long before the waste facilities invaded the neighborhoods. Many residents came to understand the research he was conducting and to recognize the noble profession of sociology as a field in which grandiose theories are developed, hypotheses formulated, and data collected that result in the verification of the obvious: Most residents of Houston's segregated neighborhoods not only knew which days the garbage was collected but also knew the addresses of the existing and abandoned landfills and incinerators. Many of these same residents had spent much of their lives escaping from waste sites only to find waste facility disputes following them to their new neighborhoods.

Bullard was curious to know whether the Houston case was typical of other African American communities in the South---a region where over half of all African Americans reside. He extended his research focus to include four additional African American communities. He decided to explore the thesis that African American communities in the South---the nation's Third World---because of their economic and political vulnerabilities, have been routinely targeted for the siting of noxious facilities; locally unwanted land uses, or LULUs; and environmental hazards. The subjects were drawn from an array of mostly black areas, including neighborhoods in Houston and Dallas, Texas, and communities of Alsen, Louisiana, Institute, West Virginia, and Emelle, Alabama. He hypothesized that residents in these communities, in turn, are likely to suffer greater environmental and health risks than in the general population.

In 1990, Bullard authored Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. The same year, the National Wildlife Federation presented Bullard with its Conservation Achievement Award in science for this groundbreaking work. In the South, African Americans make up the region's largest racial minority group. Bullard's analysis could have easily focused on Latino Americans in the Southwest or Native Americans in the West. People of color in all regions of the country bear a disproportionate share of the nation's environmental problems. Racism knows no geographic bounds. However, he sought to identify the major economic, social, and psychological impacts associated with the siting of noxious facilities (municipal landfills, hazardous-waste facilities, lead smelters, chemical plants) and their significance in mobilizing the African American communities in the South, the region where he currently resided. Bullard's Dumping in Dixie demonstrated that limited housing and residential options, combined with discriminatory facility siting practices contributed to the imposition of all types of hazards on African American communities. This included garbage dumps, hazardous-waste landfills, incinerators, lead smelter operations, paper mills, chemical plants, and a host of other polluting industries. These industries have generally followed the path of least resistance, which has been to locate in economically poor and politically powerless African American communities.

Poor African American communities are not the only victims of environmental discrimination, however. Middle-income African American communities are confronted with many of the same land-use disputes and environmental threats as their lower-income counterparts. Increased income has enabled few African Americans to escape the threat of unwanted land uses and potentially harmful environmental pollutants. In the real world, racial segregation is the dominant residential pattern, and racial discrimination is the leading cause of segregated housing in America.

Bullard's work made it clear that middle-class people of color are not immune to environmental racism. For those making environmental and industrial decisions, African American communities---regardless of their income or class status---were considered to be "throw-away" communities where residential land use is compatible with garbage dumps, transfer stations, incinerators, and other waste disposal facilities.

African American grassroots activists and those of other people of color have challenged public policies and industrial practices that threaten the residential integrity of their neighborhoods. Activists began to demand environmental justice and equal protection. The demands are reminiscent of those voiced during the civil rights era---they were for an end to discrimination in housing, education, employment, and the political arena. Many exhibited a growing militancy against industrial polluters and government regulatory agencies that provided these companies with permits and licenses to pollute. Bullard was the lead author of the position paper that created the Washington Office on Environmental Justice, a people of color think tank based in the nation's capital.

Bullard's work also shattered the myth that poor people and people of color are not concerned about the environment or involved in environmental issues. In 1990, he began with a list of about 30 people of color groups he know of who were working on environmental problems. With a small grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, he and his students called the grassroots leaders and asked them about their issues tactics and whether they knew of other grassroots environmental justice groups. His initial list grew to over 300 people of color groups. This list formed the basis for the invitation roster to the First National People of Color Environmental Summit held in October, 1991. The expanded list later became the first edition of the People of Color Environmental Groups Directory, published in 1992 by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. In 1994 and 2000, Bullard expanded the People of Color Directory to include groups in the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico. Because of its popularity, the Mott Foundation distributed over 10,000 copies of the directory free of charge to grassroots groups, researchers, students, academic institutions, and governmental officials. The directory is also available via the Internet.

Bullard has spent more than two decades of intense study and targeted research documenting the intersection of race, class, gender, power, and environmental protection. He has attended and participated in hundreds of public hearings and community strategy meetings. Professor Bullard has prepared written testimony, testified, and served as an expert witness on dozens of environmental racism cases. It was Bullard's environmental justice analysis and expert testimony that provided the margin of victory in the Citizens Against Nuclear Trash (CANT) v. Louisiana Energy Services (LES) lawsuit, the first major environmental justice lawsuit that was favorably decided by a federal court. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission Licensing Board in October 1997 ended a nine-year struggle by CANT members to block the construction of the nation's first privately-owned uranium enrichment plant planned for the mostly black Forest Grove and Center Springs, Louisiana communities. In April 1998, the NRC upheld its decision to deny the permit after an appeal by the company.

Bullard has worked with grassroots community groups from West Dallas to West Harlem and from Southside Chicago to South-Central Los Angeles. He makes it crystal clear that he does not speak for anyone, but offers his expertise to disenfranchised groups who are demanding an end to environmental and economic injustice at home and around the world. For him, environmental justice does not stop at the US borders.

Bullard was a key organizer of a delegation of environmental leaders that traveled to the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. He was a co-sponsor of an Environmental Justice Exchange Study Tour that took 12 environmental justice leaders to South Africa in 1996. He was a member of the Washington Office on Environmental Justice delegation that participated in the United Nation's 1996 Habitat II Summit in Istanbul, Turkey. In 1999, he assisted in preparation of the environmental racism documents that were presented by environmental justice leaders at the United Nation's Human Rights Commission in Geneva, Switzerland.

The decade of the 1990s was a different era from the late 1970s. Some progress was made in mainstreaming environmental protection as a civil rights and social justice issue. Bullard has taken the environmental justice message to numerous radio, television, and news programs. He have given keynote addresses at major international environmental conferences in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Chile, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and South Africa. When he started in the late 1970s., few environmentalists, civil rights advocates, or government policy makers understood or were willing to challenge the regressive and disparate impact of this country's environmental and industrial policies. In the end, lower-income and people of color communities paid a heavy price in terms of their health, lowered property values, and overall diminished quality of life.

Today, groups like the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law, Center for Constitutional Rights, National Lawyers Guild's Sugar Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, and Legal Aid Society are teaming up on environmental justice and health issues that differentially affect poor people and people of color. Environmental racism and environmental justice panels have become "hot" topics at conferences sponsored by law schools, bar associations, public health groups, scientific societies, and social science meetings.

Bullard's work has had a profound impact on public policy, industry practices, national conferences, funding from private foundations, and academic research. Environmental justice courses and curricula can be found at nearly every university in the country. He has proven that it is now possible to build an academic career—and get tenure, promotion, and merit raises---studying environmental justice issues. A dozen environmental justice centers and legal clinics have sprung up across the nation. Four of these centers are located at historically black colleges and universities or HBCUs: Environmental Justice Resource Center (Clark Atlanta University-Atlanta, Georgia), Deep South Center on Environmental Justice (Xavier University of Louisiana-New Orleans, Louisiana), Thurgood Marshall Environmental Justice Legal Clinic (Texas Southern University-Houston, Texas), and Environmental Justice and Equity Institute (Florida A&M University-Tallahassee, Florida).

Environmental justice groups are beginning to sway administrative decisions their way. They have even won a few important court victories. Groups have been successful in blocking numerous permits for new polluting facilities. They have forced the EPA to permanently relocate an African American community in Pensacola, Florida from toxic waste dump that was tagged "Mount Dioxin."

Environmental justice has trickled up to the federal government and the White House. Bullard and a hand full of environmental justice advocates convinced the US Environmental Protection Agency (under the Bush Administrations) to create an Office on Environmental Equity. The Reverend Benjamin Chavis (who at the time was Executive Director of the United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice) and professor Bullard were selected to work on President Bill Clinton's Transition Team in the Natural Resources Cluster (the EPA, and the Departments of Energy, the Interior, and Agriculture).

Bullard was part of a national coalition of environmental justice leaders who developed a Position Paper on Environmental Justice that was later submitted to the Clinton-Gore Transition Team. This position paper was instrumental in getting the Clinton Administration to establish a National Environmental Justice Advisory Council or NEJAC to advise EPA, an expanded Office of Environmental Justice at EPA, and an Environmental Justice Executive Order. On February 11, 1994, President Clinton signed the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898.

Bullard currently holds an endowed chair as Ware Professor of Sociology, and directs the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. Prior to joining the faculty at Clark Atlanta University in 1994, he served as a professor of sociology at the University of California, Riverside and visiting professor in the Center for African-American Studies at UCLA. He has worked on and conducted research in the areas of urban land use, housing, transportation, economic development, industrial facility siting, environmental quality, and community health. His scholarship has made him a leading expert and highly-sought after speaker on environmental justice.

He served on the US EPA National Environmental Justice Advisory Council (NEJAC) where he chaired the Health & Research Subcommittee. He also served on the US EPA's National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (NACEPT), Title VI Implementation Advisory Committee. He is the author of numerous articles, monographs, scholarly papers, and nine books that address environmental and economic justice concerns. His People of Color Environmental Groups Directory (1994) won a Silver Medal for publications from US foundations. His Dumping in Dixie (2000), has become a standard text in the environmental justice field. Some of his other books include In Search of the New South (University of Alabama Press, 1989), Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots (1993), Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color (1994). He co-edited with Charles Lee and J. Eugene Grigsby Residential Apartheid: The American Legacy (1994). Bullard also CO-edited with Glenn S. Johnson Just Transportation: Dismantling Race and Class Barriers to Mobility (1997). His most recent book, CO-edited with Angel O. Torres and me, Sprawl City: Race, Politics, and Planning in Atlanta (2000), addresses the impact of urban sprawl on communities of color in the mega-sprawled Atlanta metropolitan region. No other single individual, activist or academician, has done more to make the terms "environmental justice," environmental racism," and "environmental equity" household words.



Bullard, R. D. (1983). Solid waste sites and the black Houston community. Sociological Inquiry 53, pp. 273-228.

Bullard, R.D. (1987) Invisible Houston: The Black Experience in Boom and Bust. College Station Texas A&M University Press.

Bullard, RD (1989). In Search of the New South: The Black Urban Experience in the 1970s and 1980s. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.

Bullard, RD (1983). Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. Boston: South End Press.

Bullard, RD (1994). Unequal Protection: Environmental Justice and Communities of Color. San Francisco: Sierra Club.

Bullard, RD (2000a). [1990]. Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Bullard, RD (2000b). People of Color Environmental Groups Directory. Flint, MI: Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Bullard, RD, Grigsby, J.E., III, & Lee, C. (1994). Residential Apartheid: The American Legacy. Los Angeles: Center for Afro-American Studies.

Bullard, RD, & Johnson, G.S. (1997). Just Transportation: Dismantling Race and Class Barriers to Mobility. Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers.

Bullard, RD, and Johnson, G.S. (1998). Environmental and economic justice: Implications for public policy. Journal of Public Management and Social Policy 4 (4), pp. 137-148.

Bullard, RD, Johnson, G.S., & Torres, A.O. (1999, Fall). Atlanta: Megasprawl. Forum: For Applied Research and Public Policy 14 (3), pp. 17-23.

Bullard, RD, Johnson, G.S., & Torres, AO (2000, February/March). Dismantling transportation apartheid through environmental justice. Progress: Surface Transportation Policy Project 10 (1), pp. 4-5

Bullard, RD, Johnson, G.S., & Torres, AO (2000). Sprawl City: Race, Politics, and Planning in Atlanta. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Bullard, RD, Johnson, G.S., & Wright, B.H. (1997). Confronting environmental injustice: It’s the right thing to do. Environmentalism and Race, Gender, Class Issues. Race Gender and Class 5 (1), pp. 63-79.

Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.


Author: Glenn S. Johnson, Ph.D., is a Research Associate at the Environmental Justice Resource Center and assistant professor of sociology at Clark Atlanta University.