This is something Bullard, who serves on the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and teaches at Texas Southern University, has been saying for years. In a 2018 interview with The Guardian about environmental justice, Bullard traced the movement’s roots to civil rights that include battling voter suppression tactics. Bullard connected segregation to which communities typically bear the brunt of pollution from manufacturing and fossil fuel plants. He also noted that “the most vulnerable are the least politically connected.”
“If you keep people of color off boards deciding the permits [for polluters] and if you have voter suppression, the outcomes are very predictable. You get this pattern that continues for decades. The only way to reverse that is to change the idea that communities of color are dumping grounds for pollution. Just because they are poor or a community of color, they shouldn’t suffer this injustice,” Bullard said. He considers voting to be a key tool in fighting for environmental justice.
There is no better way to ensure that disadvantaged communities get their voices heard than by ensuring they are able to participate in the democratic process. It’s almost too ironic that the filibuster—a tool used by racist lawmakers to block civil rights legislation that included anti-lynching bills and even threatened the Civil Rights Act of 1964—is being deployed to block the passage of the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act and the Freedom to Vote Act.
As Bullard so eloquently noted in his Guardian interview, the key to empowering communities and achieving environmental justice lies in giving power to the people, especially when it comes to their ability to cast their ballots. “Communities should realize they have collective power when they vote,” Bullard said. “Our elected officials need to understand our laws and need to apply them equally across the board. No community should be seen as compatible with pollution and poison.” During the 2020 election, Bullard played a key role in encouraging voter turnout by relaunching the Black Environmental Justice Network, which he co-founded with Damu Smith. The organization disbanded following Smith’s death in 2006 but since its reformation, it continues to honor Smith’s legacy and push for not just environmental justice but also for civil and human rights, of which voting is essential. Its platform includes promises to expand voter registration by advocating for “universal voter registration, pre-registration for 16-year-olds, same day and automatic voter registration.”
The U.S. could move much closer to reaching those goals were voting rights bills to pass. Call on lawmakers to pass voting rights legislation. It’s essential if we want a more equitable world, especially in the face of climate change.