On April 14, the White House announced what is probably the most comprehensive effort ever to advance equity within government and throughout US society. In a coordinated effort, more than 90 federal agencies, including all cabinet-level agencies, released more than 300 concrete plans to incorporate equity.
These equity-focused commitments include a number of things to celebrate. Some of the commitments, for instance, tackle issues such as overcoming systemic barriers that block the public’s access to federal programs; others propose strategies to embed equity into the day-to-day functioning of agencies, or deliver concrete results to communities that have been historically underserved by the federal government; still others identify and enact accountability measures and metrics of success for this whole-of-government approach to advancing equity.
This initiative follows through on an executive order President Biden issued on his first day in office to advance racial equity and support underserved communities. In the executive order, President Biden directed federal agencies to deliver plans to identify and address ways people from historically marginalized groups could overcome systemic barriers when accessing governmental programs, goods, services, and benefits.
The plans represent an honestly impressive achievement. They emphasize the importance of equity at all levels of the government, including in science policy processes that we at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) often watchdog, such as implementing protections from toxic chemicals, pollution, and climate change impacts.
The devil will be in the details
Like all things related to equity and environmental justice policy, the Biden administration’s success at changing the legacy of discrimination inherent in US policy will hinge primarily on the details of its implementation plans and how well they are codified to prevent future administrations from undercutting important gains.
For instance, while reviewing the various materials related to these actions plans, I could not figure out to what degree agencies are pushing back on a “race-neutral” approach in research and decisionmaking, an inequitable process that fails to examine potential disproportionate effects by race/ethnicity. While implementing the Justice40 Initiative, for example, the White House was recently criticized for failing to include race as a factor when identifying communities facing environmental justice concerns. The best available science suggests that by not directly using race/ethnicity as a demographic factor in how we examine environmental and health disparities, we miss and disenfranchise communities of color. While the White House does highlight the importance of so-called disaggregated data – including data related to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and disability status – it is unclear the extent to which federal agencies will press hard to ensure that these racial data will be robustly collected, analyzed, and incorporated into decisionmaking processes to the full extent allowed under the law.
We are also watching how the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) will carry out its equity action plan. The EPA’s equity action plan includes recommendations that we at UCS have long advocated for, such as developing a comprehensive framework for considering cumulative impacts in EPA decisionmaking, engaging meaningfully with underserved communities, incorporating community perspectives into agency decisionmaking, and incorporating community science into EPA research and decisionmaking. But we are also worried that the EPA may fail to deliver on these promises for reasons we have often seen in the past, such as EPA offices failing to work together to tackle equity issues, or committing to fixing one environmental hazard at time rather than carrying out a holistic look at the various environmental hazards affecting fenceline communities, or failing to have enough staff or willpower to properly implement or enforce these measures.
The administration seems serious in its commitment
The White House honored the occasion by livestreaming a virtual convening on equity in which prominent members of the Biden administration spoke passionately about their intention to carry out a whole-of-government approach to incorporating equity.
For instance, President Biden described these commitments as a generational commitment that will require sustained leadership and partnership with communities, a talking point that is also highlighted in bold on the White House’s Advancing Equity website. This type of sustained, long-term thinking is exactly the mindset the government needs to tackle the numerous and often insidious ways policies can disenfranchise underserved communities.
Other promising signs:
- A shift at agencies toward proactive strategies for advancing equity, including using a data-centric approach to identify potential disparities in how government serves the public.
- A commitment to tackle both well-known issues of racial injustice, such as the unacceptably high mortality rates among Black and Indigenous individuals who are pregnant, and lesser-known issues of racial injustice, such as increasing access to national parks and other green spaces for underserved communities.
- Promises that many of these equity measures will be spearheaded by independent experts on task forces, commissions, and advisory committees.
- An open acknowledgment of the legacy of past harms to underserved communities by the federal government, and that it is incumbent on the federal government to dismantle the structures and practices that continue to disenfranchise communities.
- An effort to connect equity with the need for agencies to build capacity so that they can better serve the public, including by diversifying agency leadership and hiring staff from historically marginalized groups.
We need to hold the government accountable
Perhaps my favorite remark during the virtual event came from Shalanda Young, director of the Office of Management and Budget, who said, “We need you; we want to learn from you… thank you for holding us accountable.”
Because that is ultimately what it comes down to. The Biden administration’s effort certainly demonstrates the federal government’s commitment to equity. And we at UCS will continue to monitor this issue because we take it as a tenet of scientific integrity that all communities in the United States—not just richer and whiter communities—need and deserve strong science-based protections from pollution, toxic chemicals, and other environmental hazards.
But ultimately it is up to all of us to continue to watchdog the government, pressing to make sure these commitments to equity and justice are upheld and that these issues continue to be prioritized by elected leaders regardless of political affiliation.