After years of campaigning against climate issues and environmental justice, a slate of Democratic candidates in this general election cycle are centering their platforms on the issue area that speaks to economic and social justice. Marquita Bradshaw, candidate for U.S. Senate in Tennessee, is one candidate running on a platform of environmental justice, going up against a Republican in a red state.
The dominant ideology about what it takes to win a political campaign holds that environmental justice is not what’s called a “winnable issue,” but Bradshaw’s candidacy might be evidence that political platforms rooted in environmental justice are winnable and those least served by political systems can change them.
“People should be able to shape policy. Politics has gotten away from representing the people that it serves,” Bradshaw said.
On Aug. 6, Bradshaw bested four other candidates for the Democratic nomination, including James Mackler, a former military officer backed by the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. To those in the political world, Bradshaw’s win was an upset. She raised $8,420 for the primary, a fraction of the $2.1 million behind Mackler’s effort, and most of her campaign staff were volunteers. In a political system where money is power, where Black women continue to face racist and sexist attacks from the media and political opponents, and where elected Democrats continue to equivocate on climate action, Bradshaw’s win bucks the conventional wisdom that talking about the environment won’t resonate with voters.
Bradshaw grew up in east Memphis, Tennessee. She had a good childhood; she did “kid things” and tended to fruit trees in the summertime. Then at 21 years old she became a mother and began to recognize that there was hidden danger in the community: a superfund site known as the Memphis Defense Depot, a national priorities list wasteland where military-grade chemicals leached neurotoxins and carcinogens into her community’s water, ground, and air. Bradshaw explained how often people don’t find out their neighborhood houses a superfund site until it’s closed down, and they don’t see the pollution until it’s too late.
There are thousands of superfund sites across the country, largely located in poor neighborhoods where adults have at most a high school education. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), 21% of non-white people in the U.S. live within three miles of a superfund site. In fact, race is the single largest factor in predicting where superfund sites are located. And that’s not by accident: Policy-makers and industry leaders intentionally placed hazardous materials near Black and brown communities.
An analysis of 30 years of demographic data supports this, finding that “Racial discrimination in zoning and the housing market, along with siting decisions based on following the path of least resistance, may best explain present-day inequities.” Conversely, 30 years of policy decisions will take generations to undo, because even after a superfund site is discovered and cleanup starts, it can take literally hundreds of years to make sure that natural resources like water, soil, and air, are safe and chemical free. This also isn’t a problem of the past: Even in 2020, hazardous waste is shipped out from wealthy neighborhoods and dumped into poor communities.
As she campaigned for the Democratic nomination for Senate, Bradshaw—who worked on environmental justice efforts for the Sierra Club—encountered a number of stories like her own; working people, people of color, and poor people who also discovered too late the source for their health problems.
“There are people all over Tennessee that want a voice that actually represents hardworking families, and people see themselves in me—in my story,” Bradshaw said.
Black women face challenges running for office for a number of reasons, one of which is that there are comparatively fewer Black women who hold elected office. Out of the 127 women in Congress, just 48 are women of color. Of that number, just 22 are Black. Overall, just 22% of federal law makers are people of color. Moreover, it’s unlikely there are any poor members of Congress, with the median net worth of legislators being around $511,000.
Those numbers will shift when the next Congress is sworn in, in January of 2021. One of the likely members of Congress includes Cori Bush, a community activist and registered nurse who beat out a 10-term congressman in August. She ran on a platform of economic justice and environmental justice, illustrating the policy connections between issue areas of accessible health care, air quality, and neighborhood placement.
Bush’s approach is not so different from Bradshaw’s. In her campaign, Bradshaw is appealing to the everyday needs of voters, which are at their core issues of environmental health. “I think all people are interested in the environment because we all have to have clean air and clean water,” said Rita Harris, who spent 20 years as an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club and served for five years on the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
Bradshaw’s environmental justice organizing in Memphis turned candidacy for statewide office reifies that the environmental justice movement has been a localized one, said Dr. Andrea Y. Simpson, an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond. Simpson, a scholar of environmental justice and Black politics, said that Black women—like Bradshaw and Bradshaw’s mother, Doris—have been core to the environmental justice movement. Black women also occupy marginalized, racialized, and politicized identities, and Simpson said that Black women movement leaders know how to leverage their position or identity to lift up policy solutions and ideas.
Perhaps the most well-known woman of color who ran on an environmental justice platform is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who won her June reelection primary handily, just a year after she introduced the landmark Green New Deal legislation. Another New Yorker is expected to join her this coming January, Jamaal Bowman, who’s environmental justice platform included calls for worker and union protections, as well as funding for public housing.
The momentum of Democratic candidates pushing the broader platform toward a centering of environmental justice is co-evolving with the further-right movement of Republicans. Bradshaw’s opponent, Bill Hagerty, is Trump-endorsed and served on the president’s 2016 transition team. Hagerty doesn’t mention climate change or the environment in his platform at all. With Hagerty, policy positions come from the very top-down, contradicting the winning strategies of environmental justice candidates, which heavily rely on localized organizing.
Harris said that Bradshaw used her organizing skills to build a political campaign that roughly mirrors an issue-based one; environmental organizing, like that in St. Louis or the Bronx, is about building relationships with constituents and learning about what concerns them.
“You get your greatest success from talking to people,” Harris said. “You don’t rule anybody out.”
In other words, Bradshaw isn’t focused on sowing divisions between the electorate, as is common in negative campaigning tactics, but listening to people’s stories and finding common ground. “The principle of organizing has always been bringing people together,” Bradshaw said.