2020 Trailblazer: Robert Bullard, PhD

photo of robert bullard

In 1979, when Robert Bullard, PhD, was a young sociologist and assistant professor at Texas Southern University, he was called in to collect data for a class action lawsuit. His wife, attorney Linda McKeever Bullard, was suing a waste management company to stop a landfill from being built in a middle-class African-American community in the Houston suburbs. By Bullard’s calculations, 82% of all the garbage dumped in Houston from the 1930s to 1978 was in black neighborhoods, even though African Americans made up only 25% of the city’s population.

Bullard lost the case, but it became a major catalyst for the environmental justice movement. “Environmental justice embraces the principle that all communities and all people are entitled to equal protection under our environmental laws,” he says. “And no community should be differentially impacted because of their race, income, and where they live.”

He says violence has been misunderstood and misclassified, much in the same way we used to treat leprosy and the plague in the past. “We saw these people as bad, and they were punished.”

Bullard has earned the title “father of environmental justice” for his more than 40 years of studying, writing about, and pushing for policy changes to reduce the burden of pollution on poor and minority communities. He’s authored 18 books that address issues like climate justice, environmental racism, and community reinvestment and resilience. In 2011, Bullard, along with environmental justice scholar Beverly Wright, PhD, co-founded the Historically Black College and University Climate Change Consortium, which works to raise awareness about the disproportionate impact of climate change on marginalized communities. And, he’s currently the distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University.

Bullard’s work has exposed a disturbing pattern of environmental injustice across the United States and throughout the world. “The people who are least likely to generate the most waste are also the people who suffer the most from where it’s disposed,” he says.

Those health effects are well documented. People who live near coal-fired power plants, for example, are more susceptible to lung cancer, heart disease, and premature death. Mental health is a consequence as well. People “see the negative impacts of their community being basically thrown away and not counted as having value,” Bullard says. “Somehow, we don’t count. Our health doesn’t matter. Our lives don’t matter.”

Bullard says his greatest accomplishment has been informing, through his research and writings, future generations of environmental justice activists. “To start from an idea and grow into a movement, that’s something I can look to with pride,” he says.