Robert Bullard Essay

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Robert Bullard i s an activist and academic who has been one of the leading voices of the environmental justice movement. While working as an environmental sociologist in the 1970s, Bullard wrote a study called “Solid Waste Sites and the Black Houston Community” that identified a systematic pattern of siting garbage dumps in black neighborhoods. His research documenting the unjust connection between toxic siting and communities of color led to the first lawsuit (Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management) that used civil rights law to challenge environmental discrimination.

Bullard documented this research in Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality (1990), which is widely regarded as the first book to fully articulate the concept of environmental justice. In Dumping in Dixie, Bullard reports that African Americans in the South bear a disproportionate burden in the siting of hazardous-waste landfills and incinerators, lead smelters, petrochemical plants, and many other toxic facilities. Bullard’s study, in conjunction with a 1987 report issued by the Commission for Racial Justice of the United Church of Christ, proved to be crucial documents for establishing the momentum of the environmental justice movement. His later research extends to include all people of color, as well as working-class and lowincome communities that are disproportionately affected by garbage and pollution, going beyond individual cases to demonstrate the institutional racism that propels this type of inequality.

Bullard was an instrumental planner of the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, which brought together a network of grassroots activists concerned with environment justice. This summit not only drafted organizing principles of the modern environmental justice movement, but also identified a new kind of environmental politics that challenged environmentalism to become more than a white, upper-middleclass movement. Later, Bullard was influential in working with the Clinton Administration to enact an executive order that required all federal agencies to consider environmental justice in their programs. In Bullard’s 2003 book, Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World, he argues that social equity must be addressed in all decisions of economics and environment for any true sustainability to be achieved.

Current Research

Bullard’s current research focuses on how U.S. government response to emergencies (including flood, drought, hurricane, and accidents) has consistently endangered the health and welfare of African Americans. He states, for example, that the inadequate response to Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana fits a historical pattern of institutional racism. He argues that the response to Hurricane Katrina was not an aberration, nor was it solely due to the incompetence on the part of a particular agency or administration. Rather, natural disasters are made worse by the way society differentiates between race and class. He also extends this logic globally, suggesting that the framework of the environmental justice movement can resonate across many environmental and social issues facing developing countries.

For the past 25 years, Bullard has maintained a leading role in advocating for environmental justice. His academic research and dedicated activism have significantly influenced the environmental movement by introducing class and race into the analysis of how environment and society interact. Bullard is currently the director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.


  1. Robert Bullard, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality, 3rd (Westview Press, 2000);
  2. Robert Bullard, Just Sustainabilities: Development in an Unequal World (MIT Press, 2003);
  3. Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring: The Transformation of the American Environmental Movement (Island Press, 1993);
  4. Richard Hofrichter, , Toxic Struggles: The Theory and Practice of Environmental Justice (New Society Publishers, 1993).

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