In 1978, Robert Bullard was a sociologist living in Houston, researching at Texas Southern University, when his wife, an attorney, came home one day and told him she had sued the State of Texas. 

“I said, ‘You did what?’” recounted Bullard, now considered the father of the environmental justice movement, at a Thursday talk at Trinity University as part of its DreamWeek lecture series. 

Bullard’s wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, had taken a case representing homeowners fighting a proposed landfill near their homes. She had sued the state, the federal government, and the company proposing to build the landfill. His wife’s lawsuit would inspire Bullard to quantify the effects of pollution in majority-black neighborhoods across Houston.

With deadlines in the case looming, Bullard had to work quickly to finding sociological evidence to show that Houston’s black neighborhoods were bearing more than their share of pollution. He enlisted a team of graduate students to do a study. 

They found that all five of Houston’s City-owned landfills were in black neighborhoods, Bullard said. So were six out of eight of the City’s incinerators and three out of four of its privately-owned landfills. Even though black residents made up only 25 percent of the population, 82 percent of all garbage dumped in Houston over the preceding 40 years had been dumped in majority-black neighborhoods. 

That study would launch Bullard into a four-decade career in which he would be at the center of criticizing environmental racism in the United States. Over the decades, the movement went global. Nowadays, people all over the world talk about climate justice – the idea that poor and marginalized countries should not bear the brunt of the impact of climate change mostly caused by wealthier nations. 

As a writer and researcher, Bullard has never been afraid to point out the inequities all around us. Take the Houston area, where even today, a disproportionate share of blacks and Latinos live near refineries and chemical plants. During his talk, Bullard showed a photo of a refinery flare looming in the background of a sports field at Cesar Chavez High School.

“We know who goes to Cesar Chavez High School,” Bullard said. “This isn’t rocket science.”

As a speaker, Bullard uses plain language and humor to engage his audience. One of his many laugh lines at his Thursday talk was his description of Boulder, Colorado, where a university press in 1990 published his influential book Dumping In Dixie

“Mountain-high air, bean sprouts, tofu, marijuana,” Bullard said. “Boulder’s different.”

Bullard has written 18 books on environmental justice and racial inequities in the U.S. Most have eye-catching titles. For example: The Wrong Complexion For Protection, a dive into the racial disparities in the government response to Hurricane Katrina. 

“It’s just one book,” Bullard joked about his many works. “Don’t tell anybody.”

Robert Bullard

At the core of all of Bullard’s writing is “fairness, justice, and equity,” he said. Bullard advocates for reversing “spatial inequity,” in which a person’s zip code is the most likely factor in determining health and economic opportunities. 

During his talk, Bullard overlaid maps of majority-black and Latino populations in the U.S. with maps of pollution sources and negative health outcomes, showing that all three converge on the southern half of the U.S. The same is true at the state or city level, he said. 

“If you are physically located on the other side of the tracks, you will receive less of the good stuff and more than your fair share of the bad stuff,” Bullard said. 

During his talk, Bullard shared a series of milestones over the decades as the school of thought he fostered became more accepted among government and academia.

After a 1982 outcry over a toxic landfill in a majority-black North Carolina county, Bullard and allies successfully pushed the next year for a Government Accountability Office study on a disproportionate share of hazardous facilities in black and Latino communities across the South. 

In 1991, a first-of-its-kind environmental justice summit convened in Washington, D.C., where delegates adopted 17 principles that define environmental justice. The following year, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency created its Office of Environmental Justice. 

In 1994, Bullard said he received a call from then Vice President Al Gore inviting him to the White House. In the Oval Office, Bullard stood beside President Bill Clinton as he signed an executive order committing federal agencies to adopt environmental justice plans. (Some federal agencies still haven’t fulfilled the order’s requirements, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.) Bullard gave his commemorative pen from the event to his wife.

But after decades of what many saw as slow but steady progress, environmentalists now lament the backsliding of the Trump administration’s Environmental Protection Agency. Currently run by a former coal industry lobbyist, the agency has focused on rolling back Obama-era regulations. The latest repeal of a 2015 water regulation was finalized Thursday. 

Bullard speaks bluntly about the current situation. The administration is “dismantling the Clean Air Act, weakening the National Environmental Policy Act, streamlining and fast-tracking permitting,” he said.  

“It’s a fight,” Bullard said in an interview before his lecture. “It’s a fight to get back what we had fought for.” 

At the same time, Bullard maintains his optimistic view that what’s going on now is a “bump in the road” that will eventually be left behind. He compares the race for environmental justice to a “marathon relay,” where one generation runs its 26 miles before passing the baton to the next. 

“We all have work to do,” Bullard said. “We all have a part to play in this. And just because you don’t live next to a refinery doesn’t mean somehow that you can’t get involved in these issues.” 

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.