In the late fifteenth century, when the first European ships landed on the shores of the American continent, colonizers exploited and claimed the land held sacred by the Native Americans. This colonization set a pattern that continues to this day —that of people of color being displaced to less desirable areas and bearing the brunt of environmental impacts.
In the 1970s, Dr. Robert Bullard, known as the “Father of Environmental Justice” and his wife, Linda McKeever Bullard, an attorney focused on environmental issues, began gathering data on the racial makeup of the neighborhoods surrounding Houston landfills. They found that one hundred percent of city-owned landfills were in Black neighborhoods, while only 25% of Houston’s population was Black. In a follow-up study twenty years later, they found that people of color were even more concentrated in communities near hazardous waste.
In 1991, the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit brought together leaders of communities of color, including Dr. Bullard, to address the issues at the intersection of environmental and racial injustice. The summit developed seventeen principles for environmental justice; the end of their preamble states that’ “to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples, do affirm and adopt these Principles of Environmental Justice.”
Today, Dr. Bullard is Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. He encourages people to expand their view on the issues of the environment beyond climate change and to see that all social, political and environmental issues intersect in more ways than one. According to Dr. Bullard, “It’s tied together in the way our social systems are set up, the way that some communities get dumped on and populated, where people can’t breathe, or people can’t carry out their lives in a healthy way.” It’s a domino effect: once communities of color are boxed out of desirable land, it leads to adverse environmental consequences that damage the health of the residents, which in turn causes neurological and social disadvantages.
This sort of segregation of land is called redlining. Redlining has many forms, such as high real estate prices, not giving out loans and placing landfills, hazardous materials, or contaminated water in or near communities of color. Taylor Morton, environmental health and education manager for WE ACT for Environmental Justice, emphasizes the implication of redlining; “The practice of redlining [aims] to keep communities separate, it not only works from the social perspective, but it also works from the environmental perspective…It puts into play where we put our landfill, marine transfer stations, and our highways…Understanding redlining as the separation of communities by race [entails] understanding that it was intentional.”
Redlining was banned under The Fair Housing Act as well as under Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968. Despite laws being passed, additional change is needed. Thirty years after the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, Dr. Bullard says there are still several issues that need to be addressed. A study conducted in North Carolina found that waste facilities are disproportionately located near communities of color.
Furthermore, while the Flint Water Crisis in Flint, Michigan may have left the social consciousness, the lead has not left the water. In numerous cities across the country, households are being poisoned by their old lead pipes. The lead in the water affects the development of the children in those communities. Lead poisoning not only has neurological consequences but also has adverse social and behavioral effects.
In New York City, Morton highlights the dangers of the Heat Island Effect, or how urban areas are 1-5 degrees hotter than surrounding areas, as EPA defines it. For homeless and lower income communities that may not have A/C in their home, New York City usually provides cooling centers. This year due to COVID-19, the City is unable to provide this much-needed relief which may lead to heat exposure and overall unsafe conditions in the community.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the disparity in the government’s favorable care for white citizens as opposed to black and brown citizens. In April, Harvard conducted a study linking areas with higher long term exposure to air pollution, known as PM2.5 shows a direct link to higher COVID-19 deaths. In fact, the study found that longtime citizens of county’s with high levels of pollution are 8% more likely to die from Coronavirus, than someone who lives in a county without pollution. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health found at African-American women are 20% more likely to have Asthma than white people. Consequently, as the pandemic rages on, Black communities continue to die at a higher rate.
The systemic racism that allows the lead to remain in Flint’s water, also allows the murders of Breonna Taylor and many more victims of police murders to walk free. According to Dr. Bullard, “Since 1619 when the first Africans were brought to these shores and enslaved, the economic, political, and social systems as well as the wealth of this country were built off that original sin of slavery.”
Morton continued, “We certainly believe that folks have the right to a long and healthy and prosperous life, that we all have a right to that. Looking around some of the outlooks and issues around race that have been going on over the past 400 years but certainly in these past couple of months, a lot of our work is at the intersection of climate justice and understanding that racial justice plays a critical role in the work that we do.”
Bullard also referred to the recent Black Lives Matter movement as providing a wake up call in terms of how systemic racism has directly created the vulnerability and disadvantage that communities of color face. “Links are now being made with policing and the impact of police violence and the televised lynching of black people.”
As we move forward you may ask yourself where to go next. Ten years from now Dr. Bullard hopes, “That we embrace justice and diversity and embrace equal protection, embrace the constitution of the United States which talks about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and have that be the north star that we all should be shooting toward for all Americans.” He remains optimistic about the future, after four decades of work. “We’ve made progress but it has not been sufficient to move it into hyperspace — we you a job to do.” So let’s get to work.
Taylor Morton’s suggestions on how to take action:
Call and Email: your elective officials and advocate for equitable policies (find your local representative)
Read: Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States by Carl A. Zimring and The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein
Watch: Peggy Shepard TED TALK
Do: WEACT Environmental Health and Justice Leadership Training