The Color of Climate Change

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. With endless wildfires and epic floods becoming routine, we’re seeing the devastating consequences of climate change unfold in real time. And while America’s Green Movement has traditionally had a white face, many black Americans have been grassroots leaders from the start.

S2: Most people don’t think about pollution cutting across their neighborhoods, but for some people, it’s an everyday situation.

S1: The fight for environmental justice coming up on a word with me. Jason Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. I can’t breathe. That phrase has become synonymous with the fight against police violence, but it also applies to another important civil rights issue. Environmental justice, historically, black communities from big cities to rural enclaves have suffered disproportionately from the consequences of environmental abuse and neglect. And climate change is making the situation worse. Many African-Americans have dedicated their lives to helping communities of color protect themselves from environmental racism. One of the leaders of that movement is Robert Bullard, known as the father of environmental justice. He literally wrote the book on the issue, actually, several books, including Unequal Protection, Environmental Justice and Communities of Color. He’s collaborated with lawmakers, including Maxine Waters, Al Gore and the late John Lewis on environmental justice and earned a lifetime achievement award from the United Nations Environment Program. Robert Bullard is currently co-chair of the National Black Environmental Justice Network and the distinguished professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. And Robert Bullard joins us now. Welcome to a word.

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S2: Thanks a lot.

S1: You’re quoted as saying the United States of America is segregated and so is pollution. What does that even mean? What does that mean to the average person?

S2: Most people don’t think about pollution cutting across their neighborhoods or criss crossing their parks and schools. But for some people, it’s an everyday situation and it’s ingrained in the way that our industrial policies have allowed pollution and threats from built environment to be concentrated in black communities and communities of color. And so if you look at who gets what, when, where and why, it is not by accident and your zip code is probably the best predictor of health and well-being and where you live can impact your health. Systemic racism that drives pollution to communities of color. It’s the same system that drive unequal protection when it comes to policing, when it comes to health care, when it comes to parks and green space. So, yes, America is segregated and so is pollution.

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S1: So if you look around a black neighborhood where you are in Texas, where I work in Baltimore, D.C., or, you know, Los Angeles, Chicago, whatever it is. What are the visible signs of environmental racism? Like if you’re taking a tour people through a neighborhood and saying that’s environmental racism, that’s environmental racism, what kinds of things would you point to in a black neighborhood?

S2: This is a work Jason. If we could fast forward back or back to the future. A hundred years ago in the 20s, when racial redlining basically drew a red markers around which communities would get nothing when it comes to housing, green space parks, street paintings, sewer lines, etc. And then you could fast forward to right now we’re talking in the 1920s and the twenty twenties, the communities that were redlined a hundred years ago and were pushed into low-Lying areas with all industrial facilities. These are the areas this the hottest in the city where there’s urban heat islands, meaning it’s 10 to 15 degrees hotter. If you look at the fact that very few parks, green space, green canopy, very few are full service grocery stores, you have schools across the street or across the fence from polluting facilities. Even when you have places that have zoning locally, unwanted land uses. And this is what planners call lulus is basically saying black people, people call you go and get the nasty stuff and white people and the more affluent folks, they’re going to get the parks, green space walk trail, nature trails, all the things that we know make communities healthy. You can see the visible footprint of that racial redlining that was stamped into the DNA of our cities. You can see that just up close and personal today. And COVID 19 really just took the scab off and it just made it raw. And with the technology, with GIs mapping, spatial mapping, we can do it on a cell phone, on on an iPad and just bring up all of the things that we know will make our communities unhealthy and will create those environmental disparities, those health disparities, those economic disparities, theft of black wealth by stealing the home values. It’s more than just, you know, not having trees is about the theft of transformative wealth that a family can’t pass down to that next generation after they bought that home and is stealing health and wealth. That’s the injustice that’s that you can see visibly and feel.

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S1: I think back to growing up as a kid and watching Fat Albert and thinking about the fact that those kids didn’t have a park, that they were playing in a junkyard. Now, we were supposed to think it was cute, but it was because they were all basically forced into the ghetto. They didn’t have a clean, open space to play. They couldn’t play stickball. They’re hanging around rusted pieces of metal and garbage and trash and things like that. And so what you’re saying to me basically is, is that some of what we’re seeing, that everything from not being able to get clean groceries to having to play in a junkyard because that was the safest place to be. Are examples of not only black wealth being stolen, but also black people being victimized by racism.

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S2: You hit it on the head. We’re talking about infrastructure and whether it’s a park, a school or a landfill or a highway, all infrastructure is not created equal. And infrastructure has been a way of passing out the goods and passing out the bad. And we call it infrastructure redlining. Highways have literally just run through black communities and have destroyed homeowners and business corridors. You know, they say that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but highways don’t go in straight lines. Oftentimes, they detour around affluent communities. They don’t cut through those welted communities, but they rip through our communities. That is a form of transportation, racism.

S1: We’re going to take a short break and we come back more on environmental justice with the father of that movement, Professor Robert Bullard. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear, please subscribe rate and review. Wherever you listen to a podcast and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate dot com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about environmental justice. Well, the founder of the movement, Professor Robert Bullard, I understand that your origin story is you were an environmentalist. You began in Houston back in the late 70s. You said you were kind of drafted into the movement. Now, I know we haven’t had a draft since Vietnam. So how exactly did you get drafted into the environmental racism environmental justice movement,

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S2: 1978, 79? I was drafted by my wife to help her fight an environmental racism lawsuit. She filed a case in Houston, the first civil rights case charging environmental racism being versus Southwest and waste management cooperation. And this is a case where this company tried to get a permit for a sanitary landfill. And we know there’s nothing sanitary by the landfill in this predominantly black middle class suburban community. This is not a poverty pocket. This is not a ghetto that was not Low-Income Middle-Class Black suburban neighborhood. And that’s not there except houses, homeowner’s trees and black people. And my wife filed a lawsuit and she needed someone to collect data for her lawsuit to do a study. I had 10 students in my research methods class at Texas Southern University where I am now. I designed the study. We ran the data. And what I found is that five out of five of the city owned landfills when black neighborhoods, six out of eight of the city owned incinerator in black neighborhoods and three out of four, the privately owned landfills were in black neighborhoods. So from the 1930s, all the way up to 1978, 82 percent of all the garbage dumped in Houston was dumped in black neighborhoods, even though blacks made up only twenty five percent of the population when it went to court, the judge, the federal judge, the all white man must have been a hundred and fifty years old calling us Negroes. This is nineteen eighty five. Now, if you are from the South and you were in court when the judge call you Negril, you know, that’s the N-word, kind of like cleaned up. We lost the case, but we were able to get incremental changes in Houston because Houston doesn’t have zoning, didn’t have zoning. There is the fourth largest city. But it’s the no zoning city. We were able to get some changes made in terms of this landfill was located. Thirteen hundred feet from a school, and within that two mile radius, there were at least a half dozen schools. This was just in-your-face racism. Never mind the fact that, you know, 85 percent of the residents in that neighborhood were middle class homeowners. There was no industry out there. So it was just the ultimate disrespect. You brought your home, your American dream. And now in your face, black people, you’re going to get a garbage dump. That opened my eyes and it started me on this quest for justice. And that’s when I started writing, expanding, you know, the Houston study to to look at what was happening in the southern United States.

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S1: I want to continue with that. I want to talk about policy. What are the policies that were in place in Houston and in Texas in general that led to Hurricane Harvey being as much of a disaster as it was? Because, look, we can’t control the sun, the moon, the stars and the oceans, but our governments can have policies in place to keep people prepared or take care of them after disaster. And that didn’t seem to happen. So whether the policy failures and some of your personal experiences with that after Hurricane Harvey in 2017,

S2: a lot of the the damage that occurred in black and brown communities in Houston after Harvey were manmade. They were not natural. And when you talk about the disparities in which the kinds of risks and vulnerabilities in terms of people being able to evacuate or people being able to somehow be protective in terms of of having resources. So it’s only natural just to say the most vulnerable community will be further marginalized when disasters hit the communities that was most impacted in the previous 500 year flood tax day flood, Memorial Day flood. They got hit even harder during Harvey. The disasters will make the inequalities that we know in our society even more visible. And climate change will create more marginalized communities and more vulnerable communities. And you can see that in terms of policy, and you can see it in terms of how recovery dollars get shipped to communities, who gets the money and who will get promises or who get left out.

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S1: What is disaster capitalism and how does that also show us what environmental racism can do to this country?

S2: OK, let me give you an example. When a storm Yurie that happened in February of this year, we used to prepare in the Gulf Coast for disasters. June through November. That’s hurricane season. But climate change is making us have to prepare year round. And so the communities that got hit the hardest in Harvey in terms of 2017, those Esack communities, those communities that were further marginalized, you’re talking, you know, Fifth Ward. You start going up that corridor where you have just nothing but high concentration of people of color, working class folks and folks who are who are very vulnerable when it when it when it rains a lot. Then you look at this ice storm that happened in February, the same communities got hit the hardest and having more problems trying to bounce back because the way that it works is disaster capitalism. You asked me to find it. Money follows money. Money follows power. Money follows whites’. After billions and billions of dollars that go in for recovery, why communities end up better off after the recovery dollars go in. Whereas communities of color end up worse off.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. We come back more on environmental justice with academic and author Robert Bullard. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today, we’re talking about environmental racism and how to fight it with sociologist and author Robert Bullard. Dr Bullard, we’re going to talk a little bit about gentrification. My first question is, how is gentrification connected to environmental racism? Because I think a lot of people just see it as a money issue, but there’s an environmental racism element to this. So can you sort of add that to the gentrification puzzle?

S2: Jason, this is how we define environment. The environment is where we live, work, play, learn, worship, as well as the physical, the natural world. So where we live, that’s a neighborhood where we work, where we play. We talk about housing, schools, parks. We’re talking about workers. We’re talking about our natural area where we have all those things that make up community and is in fact, disinvestment has occurred in a certain area because of racism in the housing market and in the job market when that’s lifted. And you say, OK, the prices have been driven down to the point where, OK, you have a close knit neighborhood and now it’s being rediscovered. And let’s say let’s let the market forces drive the new investments, whereas before it was not market force and driving the disinvestments, it was public policies and disinvestments in terms of infrastructure being starved by city governments and county governments. And so the racial dynamics is when you start overlaying communities that are now basically allowed to redevelop and to revitalize by just using market forces and in some cases allowing infrastructure dollars to go in to subsidize that revitalization. And public dollars are being used to subsidize that. And what our justice movement says is that no federal dollars, no tax dollars should be used in a discriminatory way. We have laws against that. And any time it occurs, infrastructure is another one of those issues where the infrastructure investments, those are tax dollars. And oftentimes they’re being used to block people from investments in those neighborhoods and they’re pushed out. And then investments come back in. And we see that happening in every major city in this country. And it’s very predictable who’s most likely to gain by investments

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S1: when it comes to fighting back. This is a big question. I think black people are faced with a lot, which is do I join the pre-existing organizations? Right. Do I join the Sierra Club? Do I join, you know, Greenpeace? Are they focused enough on the needs of the black community or do I need to do this locally? In your experience, which is more effective?

S2: Well, Jason, there is no substitute for having your own organization that’s loyal to you, your community and to your leadership. And that will be there 24/7 and not parachute in one week, and they’re gone the next. We have to build strong black organizations that can see and connect these dots who are there dealing with housing, transportation, energy, food and water security, health, criminal justice. All these things are link. And I think the the best infrastructure in terms of our soft infrastructure, in terms of human infrastructure, is having organizations that are closer to the ground, closer to community, and having those organizations link up with in terms of black people now link up with our BCUZ. We have an BCU Climate Change Consortium. We started with five schools in the Gulf Coast states, and we up to 35 schools all the way up to Baltimore. And so the idea is that we have to make sure that we have our organizations capitalize. We have to get them funded in a way that’s commensurate with the urgency of the problem. We can’t depend on Greenpeace in our DC, EDF, Sierra Club, those organizations, to save us. We work with them. We partner with them, but we do not let them lead our movement and our communities that are working on this stuff on the ground. That’s who’s going to deliver. And that’s what we’ve been delivering for all these decades.

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S1: How have you seen the attitudes of young black people change about the importance of Environmentalism? Because 15 years ago it used to be. Yeah, I guess I should be concerned about clean water, but I’m more worried about the cops nowadays. I hear people almost put those on the same level.

S2: You know, in nineteen seventy nine when we did Houston study, I had ten black students in my research class. It wasn’t predominately black, that it was all black class. We had some issues in the Houston case. We couldn’t get any help from the the the green groups or the white environmental groups. Neither could we get any help from the one of the oldest civil rights organizations. Not going to call your name, but we all know the initials NAACP. That was 1970, not. It took almost two decades for the environmental groups and our civil rights groups to move this to the top of the agenda. It was a footnote in 1979. Today, it’s it’s a headline. And so the idea of the quest for justice, it is a race, but it’s not a sprint. It’s more like a marathon relay. You run your twenty six point two miles and then you pass the baton to the next generation to run that twenty six point two. And that passes the baton right now. It was a big passing the baton in the summer of twenty twenty. And with the awakening on racial justice, criminal justice, environmental justice, economic justice, climate justice, energy justice, food and water justice, justice basically became the central theme cutting across. And young people get it. I’m a boomer, but Gen Xers are millennials and younger. They represent the majority of this country. And these young black people are fearless. That’s what we have to get back to, understanding the intergenerational connection that when we come together, we can work this thing through because we got one playbook. And that playbook has just this on the cover, one word justice.

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S1: Professor Robert Bullard is the co-chair of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. Thank you so much for joining us on a work. Thanks a lot. And that’s a word for this week. The show’s e-mail is a word at Slate dot com. This episode was produced by Ahyiana Angel & Jasmine Ellis. Arcia Solutia is the managing producer of a podcast at Slate. Gabriel Roth is Slate’s editorial director for audio. Alicia Montgomery is the executive producer of podcast at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for word.