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Connecting the Dots on Climate Change Environmental scholar Robert Bullard charts a path to a more equitable future — if America can avoid repeating past mistakes  

By Les Dunseith

Robert Bullard has been called professor, dean, author, policy influencer, important thinker, movement starter and the father of environmental justice. But that’s not how he chose to describe himself during a May 12 talk at UCLA.

“I do what’s scientifically called kick-ass sociology,” Bullard said playfully in his opening remarks to a roomful of students, faculty, staff and other interested parties, plus an online audience. “And what I’ve tried to do is to make it simple, make it plain, make it real and connect the dots.”

The renowned scholar from Texas Southern University has written 17 books. “But it’s really just one book — don’t tell anybody,” Bullard said slyly. “The central glue that connects all of those volumes? Fairness, justice and equity.”

He often blended humor into his discussion of serious topics such as America’s history of racial discrimination and the growing global climate crisis. Titled “The Quest for Environmental and Climate Justice,” Bullard spoke and took audience questions for more than an hour in the Bruin Viewpoint Room of Ackerman Union as part of the UCLA Luskin Lecture series. It was presented in conjunction with the Harvey S. Perloff Environmental Thinkers Series and UCLA Urban Planning’s 50th anniversary celebration.

In his introductory remarks, Dean Gary Segura of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs said, “At the Luskin School, we try to have conversations about things that actually matter — climate degradation, environmental degradation and its impact on working class and poor people of color — and for which there is a desperate need for solutions.”

Bullard is known for his courage and “his insights into how questions of race figure into environmental justice,” said the evening’s emcee, Susanna Hecht, a geographer and professor of urban planning who also serves as director of the Brazilian Studies Center at UCLA.

“He is a person who has a broad perspective and broad horizons,” Hecht said. “His work has expanded to embrace a range of topics that evolved at the center of environmental, civil rights, human rights and the question of race and vulnerability under climate change, as well as patterns of pollution in both urban and industrial landscapes.”

So, what is environmental justice?

Bullard sees it as an essential notion that all people and communities are entitled to equal protection to ensure they have adequate housing, quality health care, and access to the energy and transportation they need in their daily lives. Civil rights and human rights.

The reality rarely matches the ideal, however. He cited as an example a study that showed government relief after a natural disaster going primarily to wealthier, predominantly white communities rather than to poorer, predominantly Black areas.

“We know that all communities are not created equal,” Bullard said. “There are some that are more equal than others.”

Without action, disparities are likely to grow as industrial pollution further degrades our planet, he said.

“Climate change will make it worse on the populations that are already suffering,” Bullard said. “Those who have contributed the least to the problem will suffer the most. That’s the inequity that we’re talking about. You can’t have your basic human rights if even the right to breathe has been taken away from you.”

Despite decades of experience documenting human nature at its worst, Bullard has not given in to despair.

“I’m hopeful and optimistic that we can get this right. I’ve been working on this for 40 years, but we don’t have another 40 years. We only have, maybe, a dozen to get this right,” Bullard said.

He cited California as a leader in environmental equity and climate change responses and noted the state’s history of finding out-of-the-box solutions in technology and government, as well as its highly regarded universities.

“Let California be California. That’s my answer. Push the envelope as far as you can,” Bullard said.

“And so, I’m looking to young people. I’m looking at your faces,” he told his audience of mostly young scholars. “You are the majority now. I’m a boomer and proud of it. But millennials, zoomers, Gen X, Y and Z — you outnumber my generation. Take the power.”

View photos from the event on Flickr.

Robert Bullard Luskin Lecture

Ong on Lack of Socioeconomic Mobility in South L.A.

Director of the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge Paul Ong was featured in a Los Angeles Times article about long-standing barriers to socioeconomic mobility in South Los Angeles. For decades, residents of South Los Angeles have faced lack of employment opportunities, housing and labor discrimination, and subpar education access. “If you look overall and compare it over a half-century, it’s rather depressing that we have not made the progress that people have hoped for,” Ong said, noting a particular lack of significant improvements in public education. Now, an influx of new commercial and residential development is threatening to displace current residents of the area. Ong’s research found that the racial disparities in income among South L.A. households are even more stark than in the rest of L.A. County. White households in South L.A. had a median income of $84,000, compared with $48,000 for Latino households and $36,000 for Black households.


Ong Reflects on Lack of Progress Since L.A. Riots

Director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge Paul Ong spoke to the Christian Science Monitor about race relations and criminal justice reform in the 30 years since the police beating of Rodney King and the resulting L.A. riots. For many people, economic and social conditions have stayed the same or gotten worse in the last three decades. In the report “South Los Angeles Since the Sixties,” Ong and his colleagues found that many of the area’s residents were disenchanted over justice delayed and persistent discrimination, racism and unequal access to economic opportunity. Ong noted that racial segregation continues in South Los Angeles today and many African Americans are migrating to the exurbs in search of better schools, jobs and more affordable housing. He also pointed out that the Latino population is growing but remains on the bottom rung of the economic ladder, while white and Asian people are moving in, along with gentrification.


Student Debt Is a Policy Failure, Appel Says

In a recent Marketplace interview, Hannah Appel, associate faculty director of the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy, said that “canceling student debt is the quickest way to narrow the racial wealth gap.” The Department of Education announced a plan to change the federal student loan system to make it easier for lower-income student loan borrowers to have their debt forgiven, prompting discussions about canceling all student loan debt. The vast majority of student loans are “simply uncollectable,” Appel said, adding that the impact of student loan debt falls disproportionately on people of color. She explained that student loan debt is unique because it’s held 95%-plus by the federal government. “We’ve seen the most progress and we’ve been able to build the most power around student debt, because it plainly is a policy failure for which we can hold the government accountable, and they can reverse course,” she said.


Pandemic Perpetuates Economic Inequality, Ong Finds

UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge Director Paul Ong spoke to USA Today about the impact of the pandemic on economic mobility and prosperity, particularly within communities of color. According to data from the Census Bureau, economic prospects improved for Americans across racial and ethnic demographics in the second half of the 2010s, but the pandemic halted much of that progress. Economic gains were not spread equally among income classes, and significant financial gaps still exist. “I think overall the economy became much more unequal in terms of, after you account for the business cycle, the distribution of earnings,” Ong said. “So, you have that counterforce working and quite often that increase in inequality takes on a racial dimension.” He also pointed out that the unemployment rate increased for all demographic groups during the pandemic, but the steepest increase in joblessness was experienced by Black and Hispanic workers.


Ong on Nuances of U.S. Census Count

Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge at UCLA Luskin, spoke to the Associated Press about the U.S. Census Bureau’s report that the nation’s Asian population was overcounted by 2.6% in 2020. Overcounts occur when people are counted twice, such as college students being counted on campus and at their parents’ homes. Another explanation is that biracial and multiracial residents may have identified as Asian in larger numbers than in the past. Some multiracial people who previously indicated on the census form that they were white, Black or another race may have selected Asian in 2020 amid a rise in anti-Asian attacks during the COVID-19 pandemic, Ong said. “When that happens, people who are multiracial go in two directions: They reject their minority identity or they embrace it,” he said. “With the rise of anti-Asian hostility, it forced some multiracial Asians to select a single identity.”

Report Highlights COVID’s Impact on Higher Education Goals

Inside Higher Ed and Axios highlighted the findings of a policy report from the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black and Latino students. According to the report, Black and Latino students were more likely than others to cancel or postpone their higher education plans during the COVID-19 pandemic. This trend persisted even after vaccines were made widely available. “Higher education attainment is an important pathway to social and economic mobility and has cascading effects across a person’s lifespan,” explained  Rodrigo Dominguez-Villegas, the initiative’s director of research. “Given Latinos’ position as the future workforce of America, addressing this disparity is critical to the prosperity of our nation.”


Report Highlights ‘Atmosphere of Fear’ for Asian American Employees

A KQED article featured new research from the UCLA Center for Neighborhood Knowledge on the rising incidence of anti-Asian hate crimes. The center collaborated with the California-based coalition Stop AAPI Hate to produce a report based on the findings of a national survey of Asian American and Pacific Islander employees. Those surveyed reported alarmingly high rates of hate incidents at their jobs, in addition to an overwhelming fear of being targeted at work. More than a quarter of the respondents said they experienced a hate incident at work in 2021, and more than 20% said they are reluctant to return to in-person work because they’re afraid they will be racially targeted. “It creates an atmosphere of fear when you go to work and you’re uncertain about what’s going to happen that day because you happen to be Asian American,” said Paul Ong, director of the Center for Neighborhood Knowledge and a co-author of the report.


Campus Police Presence Not Healthy for Development, Astor Says

Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor was mentioned in a Southern California News Group article about the controversial presence of armed officers on school campuses. Many school districts in Southern California have armed officers on their campuses despite opposition from parents and students. In September, 18-year-old Mona Rodriguez was fatally shot by a school safety officer in an off-campus parking lot in Long Beach. In that school district, non-sworn officers are able to carry guns, batons and pepper spray but do not have arrest powers. Other school districts have their own police departments or have contracts with police and sheriff departments. According to Astor, a heavy police presence can adversely impact the school climate. “Very heavily armed schools prime the kids in those schools to think of the place more like a prison,” Astor explained. “Militarizing and turning schools into things that look like prisons is not healthy for development. It’s not healthy for identity.”


Umemoto on Acknowledging Painful History

Urban Planning Professor Karen Umemoto spoke to NBC News about the importance of facilitating discussions about racial tensions to incorporate the histories of communities that have long been made invisible. In 1871, about 20 Chinese Americans were murdered in a race riot in Los Angeles, now regarded by many as a forgotten history. Umemoto said that we can be critical of the things that have taken place in history without necessarily blaming the ancestors of those who may have perpetrated injustices. “Remembering both the accomplishments and achievements of different groups in society is as important as remembering the tragedies,” said Umemoto, director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center. In ethnic studies, Umemoto aims to “teach about the full lives of people of color in this country and Indigenous peoples in this country so that we could develop that historical empathy for one another.”