“For many of us who came out of civil rights, we didn’t separate the right to live in a clean environment or the right to breathe, or the right to not be dumped on as a strictly environmental issue. And so the justice part was at the core, the equity part was at the core. Theft of wealth and theft of health, these are basic civil rights and human rights. African Americans and other people of color made that connection and still make that connection even today.” - Dr. Robert Bullard
This episode of the Mother Earth Podcast features a deep conversation on environmental racism with the father of environmental justice, Dr. Robert Bullard.
Dr. Bullard is a distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, a historically black university. He shares his knowledge and expertise as to how and why race maps closely with air and water pollution, toxic waste sites, garbage dumps and significant health problems for people of color. He focuses on the built environment as a key driver of inequality in America.
We recorded our conversation with Dr. Bullard in April, before the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the recent demonstrations, protests and intense national discussion over racial inequality that permeate our society. We now contribute as best we can to this discussion by bringing you Dr. Bullard’s message on environmental justice.
This issue is now gaining attention in our national discussion of race. Did you know, for example, that Minneapolis became segregated through the use of racially restrictive covenants in deeds that pushed African Americans into a few small areas of the city? According to the New York Times, "The intersection where George Floyd died — East 38th Street and Chicago Avenue South — had an invisible barrier designed to keep out African-Americans," namely, the ongoing legacy of these deed restrictions, which created neighborhoods that "remain among the whitest in the city." This segregation creates the condition for environmental injustice because polluting facilities can be located in predominantly black and brown neighborhoods only if there are such neighborhoods.
Interstate highway construction also has targeted black neighborhoods, with devastating consequences. Twin City planners devastated the historically black Rondo neighborhood in the 1950s and 60s by building Interstate 94 down its main thoroughfare. According to the Minnesota Historical Society, “one in every eight African Americans in St. Paul lost a home to I-94,” and “many businesses never reopened.” A similar pattern has repeated itself across the country, including a particularly shocking example in New Orleans.
We need not despair. Dr. Bullard, who edited the book Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice and Regional Equity, points to smart growth as one of the key solutions to healing our racial divide. In this conversation, he reminds us that we can build and reclaim open spaces and parks, walkable neighborhoods, affordable housing, and mixed income developments; we can eliminate food deserts by building grocery stores that sell healthy foods in neighborhoods of color. We can remove highways that have acted for decades as a giant knee on the necks of black neighborhoods and that degrade the quality of life for everyone. These solutions will not only reduce environmental racism but bring us together physically and create liveable, healthy cities and towns for everyone. And by adopting renewable energy and getting off of fossil fuels, we can greatly reduce air and water pollution and mitigate the climate crisis, all of which disproportionately affects people of color.
You can learn more about Dr. Bullard and his vital work by visiting our website at https://www.motherearthpod.com/ and checking out the show notes for this ep