Kamala Harris understands how to fight systemic racism through environmental justice

Kamala Harris understands how to fight systemic racism through environmental justice

Since its founding, environmental justice has been grounded in dismantling systemic racism. Those who have experienced environmental racism, social and racial inequities, an overburden of climate change consequences and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19, understand that what will help move the United States forward — whether from the coronavirus, economic and climate crises — is an administration that lifts them up and act in their best interest. Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisElla Emhoff, inauguration designer join forces on knitwear collaboration Who is the Senate parliamentarian and why is she important? In America, women are frontliners of change MORE (D-Calif.), who is now the Democratic Party vice presidential nominee, has the opportunity to propel the fight for environmental and climate justice into a broader conversation. 

Her actions on climate justice, like introducing the Climate Equity Act with progressive Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), are focused on elevating environmental justice through a policy framework and go hand-in-hand with former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenIntercept bureau chief: minimum wage was not 'high priority' for Biden in COVID-19 relief South Carolina Senate adds firing squad as alternative execution method Obama alum Seth Harris to serve as Biden labor adviser: report MORE’s climate plan. His climate agenda, which he unveiled last month, is arguably one of the strongest plans because it puts environmental justice at its core. Both of their plans are in alignment with the environmental justice community goals of holding the government accountable to frontline communities when it comes to policy, regulation and investment. 

Their plans call for creating policies that address environment and climate change, transportation, health, housing, infrastructure, jobs and workforce development by using an environmental justice and equity lens. It is promising that Biden and Harris are in agreement on much of what we want to see become effective policy. 


In order to make the strides needed to dismantle systemic racism, environmental policy must advance public health and economic opportunity, recognize Black and other communities of color, as well as low-income communities, who have faced disproportionate harmful impacts from climate change and environmental contaminants for far too long. If Harris's record, rhetoric and climate policy stance hold firm, polluters will no longer get a pass, especially because of the enforcement measures that her plan will establish. For instance, opening a Climate and Environmental Equity Office within the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) to analyze qualitative and quantitative impacts of proposed legislation to frontline communities. This process would be an effective way to evaluate the regulations that have been in place and to keep them in check, it would also be useful in reinstating regulations that have been rolled back and are key to enforcement.  

The overwhelming feeling is that we have a fighter in Harris, which is a necessary quality for getting climate legislation and regulations that would affect Black communities and other minority and low-income communities, who are on the frontlines of climate change during a Biden administration and beyond. Should they win in November, there will be many opportunities for environmental justice to actually have success from a Biden-Harris agenda: elevating environmental justice in the Council on Environmental Quality; nominating the next Environmental Protection Agency administrator; establishing an Environmental Justice Office; and tapping the right people to be play key leadership roles within the administration. 

The environmental justice movement has been fighting for the “soul of America” for decades. The renewed focus on environmental justice as a linchpin on how to transform America has its roots in the work that resulted in the Environmental Justice Executive Order 12898, signed by President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBill introduced to create RBG monument on Capitol Hill Clintons remember former adviser Vernon Jordan Vernon Jordan: an American legend, and a good friend MORE in 1994. It laid the groundwork for political leadership to move, not incrementally, but in bold strong steps towards the promise of fairness, equity and justice.  

Environmental justice is a holistic approach that is focused on how to address the impacts of systemic racism, climate change, socio-economic disparities, economic growth and includes COVID-19 recovery. It should not — and cannot — be relegated to a status of “only a single issue” area, but rather, it should be an issue that profoundly impacts the core of every policy. The work ahead requires an environmental justice warrior. 

Should Biden come away victorious in November, Harris’s role will be instrumental in his administration to deliver on what the environmental justice movement, more recently the broader environmental community, has been fighting for — environmental policy change that is rooted in justice and equity that will lead to a transformative political and social change. Environmental justice is the connective tissue to ending systemic racism. The past few months of social pressure on the federal government, local governments and political leaders to act has made clear that the status quo is not wanted, will not suffice and cannot be allowed.  

Sen. Harris has all the ingredients to be an environmental justice warrior. Keeping a Biden administration committed and focused on accomplishing a bold and transformative environmental justice agenda, and pushing for bold and effective legislation to dismantle systemic racism, will be essential. Her understanding of environmental justice is apparent — she gets that the “soul of America” cries out for justice, equity and fairness.

Tina Johnson is the principal at Johnson Strategy and Development and the director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. Follow her on Twitter @TinaJ2013.