The sociologist discusses the significance and ramifications of the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Environmental Activist Robert D. Bullard
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Dr. Robert Bullard is known as the father of environmental justice. He is the author of more than a dozen texts that address environmental, racism, climate, justice and regional equity. He’s currently a distinguished professor at Texas Southern University. He joins us now from Houston, Texas.
Professor Bullard, good to have you on this program, sir. Let me start by asking how are you and how is your family?
Dr. Robert Bullard: Well, I’m fine and the family’s fine. We had to evacuate on Tuesday, but, thank goodness, I’m back in my home. We didn’t get water. The flood only came up to the street and nothing in the house. Thank goodness, I’m okay.
Tavis: I’m glad you are well. Our hearts, of course, go out to all those who’ve been damaged in any way, certainly those who’ve lost lives or loved ones in this storm as Hurricane Irma, we are told, is making its way now toward Florida. We start praying in advance for those families in Florida.
Let me ask a couple of uncomfortable, perhaps politically inconvenient, questions. But I want to ask them anyway because this is what you do. Give me your sense of what happened in Houston and whether or not what happened there was avoidable, preventable.
Bullard: Well, I think the idea that the flood and the rain was so intense that, given this was a flood of biblical proportions, a lot of the design of the city and the way that our flood protection infrastructure is set up, it has been exacerbated by not being prepared to address with this amount of water.
The fact that the entire city is flooded and the communities that historically flooded in the past also flooded, but there are some places that generally don’t flood. So I think we have to plan for making this city when we rebuild and recover to make the entire region and the area much more resilient to these kinds of disasters.
Tavis: Tell me more about what that means more expressly about how that could have been avoided or what ought to happen in the future to make sure that we don’t have the same kind of result.
Bullard: Well, what we have to do is we have to make sure that when we design and rebuild that we don’t rebuild on inequity.
If we talk about the city actually not having the same level of protection to avoid not just the flooding, but also the environmental disaster, there are communities right now that not only have to deal with the floodwaters, but also have to deal with the contamination and the bad air quality and the sediments and residue that’s left from all of the vetting of pollution from the industries and fires and explosions and also the contamination and the chemicals that’s left in the water and left in the sediments.
Those kinds of contaminations have to be cleaned up and we have to make sure that we do a better job of not placing certain communities at risk.
Tavis: You said certain communities at risk. I want to give the title. You’ve written so many books, but one of them comes to mind immediately. It was entitled “The Wrong Complexion for Protection: How Government Responds to Disasters Endangers African American Communities”.
Tell me what you were trying to get across in that book and whether or not Houston is going to be the next exhibit when you put out the next version of this text.
Bullard: Well, that book was published in 2012 and what we did is to track government response to disasters dating back to the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and brought disasters all the way up to the BP spill. The idea that all communities are created equal, we know that’s not true. There are some that are more equal than others, particularly when it comes to being in the pathways of natural and manmade disasters.
And the idea of how well will government respond to, how well will resources that flow to disaster areas be spent in a way that will make communities whole and not just follow the power or follow the money, we have to make sure that government does not exacerbate pre-existing inequalities by rebuilding on an inequality.
Now that’s what that book dealt with and those are the lessons in that book, I think, including some of the examples from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, that we have not learned. I’m hoping that we can do it right this time.
Tavis: Give me your sense of how hopeful you are that it can be done right this time.
Bullard: Well, I think the fact if you look at the television screens, you see all kinds of people being evacuated. You see all parts of the city and the county and the region being impacted by this flood.
I think the message is that there has to be concern for ensuring that we build a healthy, livable, sustainable and resilient community that’s just and not just allow the money to flow to where the power is and money following money.
We have to make sure that those communities that were experiencing economic and environmental inequality before the storm are also rebuilt in a way that can make them whole and make them better than the pre-storm conditions that Harvey unpacked.
Now that’s going to be a challenge, particularly when you have state officials and federal officials somehow denying the conditions that may have contributed to the worsening condition of the flooding, namely climate change.
And even if we don’t, you know, call it climate change, but the fact is that we have to make our cities more climate-resilient. We have to make them much more equal in terms of being able to bounce back.
I think this is a great opportunity to do the right thing and to be inclusive as opposed to allowing those communities that are still in shelters, those residents that are still in shelters, somehow to fall further behind because of lack of resources.
Tavis: There are two questions that come to mind. Let me ask them in this order. The first question, I suspect, Professor Bullard, is how I should respond tomorrow when I start getting nasty emails that Tavis Smiley did it again last night.
He had a guest on his show, some guy named Bullard from Houston, and they were turning this disaster into an issue of race once again. These Negros just cannot resist the temptation to turn everything into something about race. Now I know that you’re much brighter than I am. So when I get hit with that tomorrow, how should I respond to that criticism?
Bullard: Well, I think you have to tell your detractors that what we’re talking about is real. And if you’re on the ground, you can see how communities that are impacted are struggling to rebuild and come back. And, historically, they are communities that were struggling to rebuild and come back before the storm.
You know, I wrote a book called “Invisible Houston: The Black Experience in Boom and Bust” that this month is 30 years old. And there are so many invisible communities right now that are still trying to make themselves visible and heard so that government officials will listen to them and to ensure that their communities are able to bounce back, rebuild, and to enjoy some of the kinds of new birth that will come with Houston coming back and the other cities in Texas coming back and Louisiana coming back.
This is real. This is not made up by some radical sociologist.
Tavis: How can we hope for the best outcomes when, as you said earlier, there are folk on the front side who continue to deny climate change, continue to deny global warming? I’m trying to square those two things. Warning them to do the right thing, wanting the best outcome, the best result of a bad situation. but knowing full well that they don’t believe that these factors contributed to it in the first place.
Bullard: What we have to do is we have to work hard. We have to be determined that this is not a sprint. This is a marathon. The issues in Houston and Texas and Louisiana impacted by Harvey will not be something that we will resolve next year or maybe in the next four years. So that we have to commit ourselves.
We have to get young people involved. We have to make sure that people historically that have not been in the room when decisions are made, we have to make sure that they’re in the room. So we are a very diverse city when it comes to our demographics. We have to make sure that we are diverse when it comes to policy and decision making.
That’s how I think we can make what happens in Houston work and not have to look back and say, “What were the mistakes we made?” and how we should learn from those mistakes. I think there’s a great opportunity for us to do it right.
Tavis: Not to make you political, but Houston has an African American mayor named Sylvester Turner, not that Katrina didn’t have an African American mayor when they were hit in New Orleans — New Orleans, rather, didn’t have an African American mayor when Katrina hit them. But since you talked so much about politics, can having the right people in the right positions make a difference on these issues?
Bullard: It makes a world of difference. Having someone that’s out front, having an individual that takes charge and takes leadership, and the communication information that’s being disseminated in terms of daily eight briefings, in some cases, every two hours, we’re getting information, it makes a difference. When people are in the dark, they don’t know what’s going on.
I think the fact that having individuals that’s in positions to take responsibility and to share the responsibility of working with all kinds of organizations and groups and stakeholders, and respecting the wishes and the desires and the priorities of communities, the community leaders and organization leaders have a great responsibility of ensuring that this experiment that we’re embarking on will work.
So it doesn’t need to be top down. It needs to be involved. It needs to have a bottom up. It needs to have lots of individuals in the room and the people that are most impacted need to definitely be in the room when decisions are being made as to how we rebuild and where we concentrate resources and those kind of important decisions in terms of planning.
Tavis: Dr. Robert Bullard of Texas Southern is known and respected by many of us across this country and around the world as the father of environmental justice. And we are honored tonight to have had him as a guest on this program from Houston. Professor, good to have you on. All the best to you, sir. You stay strong.
Bullard: Thank you very much for having me.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. Goodnight from Los Angeles and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
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