Key White House offices are being charged with tackling discrimination and racial equality under an executive order the Biden administration unveiled Thursday, another step in its push to steer federal attention to disadvantaged communities struggling for economic opportunity and racial justice.
President Joe Biden’s order launches a White House Steering Committee on Equity to raise the profile of racial discrimination and other issues of inequity. The order also directs the Office of Management and Budget to consider updating governmentwide guidance, directives, and other internal processes to move agencies toward more equitable decisions “wherever possible.”
The president’s action builds on his January 2021 order on advancing racial equity that called for a “whole of government” approach to respond to economic, health, and climate change impacts, which it said have only worsened historic inequities.
But the new order is broader in focusing agencies on efforts to “combat discrimination and advance equal opportunity” and address disparities and remove barriers to government programs and services for all.
Achieving racial equity and support for underserved communities “must be a multi-generational commitment, and it must remain the responsibility of agencies across” the federal government, according to the order issued Thursday.
It directs each agency to expand their annual Equity Action Plans to assess efforts to removed barriers underserved communities face in getting access to and benefiting from various policies, programs, and activities. Those equity efforts extend to “consistent and systematic” treatment of communities of color but also other marginalized groups including LGBTQ+ persons, religious minorities, women and girls, and individuals with disabilities.
Catherine Flowers, founder of the Alabama-based Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, welcomed the executive order given underserved communities “have borne and still bear the brunt of limited opportunities, exposure to pollution, underinvestment and inadequate infrastructure.”
“I commend the administration for this executive order advancing racial equity and support” for those communities, said Flowers, also a co-vice chair for the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “Acknowledgment and commitment of resources is a step toward reconciling past neglect.”
Dana Johnson, senior director of strategy and federal policy for WE Act for Environmental Justice said advocates welcome the more explicit coordination of racial equity efforts within the White House. “Any additional opportunity to talk about equity and racial justice in this country is always welcomed,” she said.
Biden’s order on further advancing racial equity comes as his administration is continuing to work on other key promises including a scorecard to measure agencies’ progress on environmental justice and a promised strengthening of a 1994 executive order from President Bill Clinton that first focused agencies on inequitable exposure to pollution in marginalized communities.
That update is still underway and is expected soon.
Agency Equity Teams
The advancing racial equity order directs all key agencies and departments from the Environmental Protection Agency to the Defense Department to establish new Agency Equity Teams within 30 days to coordinate efforts and ensure they’re delivering “equitable outcomes” across programs.
Those teams are to include senior officials from each secretary or agency administrator, along with representatives from key offices overseeing policy, civil rights, regulatory, budget, financial assistance and grants, and other responsibilities.
The White House Steering Committee on Equity is to be chaired by the assistant to the president for domestic policy. The Domestic Policy Council is currently led by Susan Rice, who served in the Obama administration as national security adviser and US representative to the United Nations.
Biden’s new order directs agencies to ensure rural communities aren’t overlooked in their efforts to tackle environmental inequities, including programs that provide or support technical assistance and help in creating “good, high-paying union jobs in rural areas.” It also calls for a similar focus on urban challenges and a policy memorandum on actions agencies can take to accelerate more equitable development in urban areas.
The executive order also instructs agencies to consider opportunities to bolster capacity of their civil rights offices and study whether information technology and the use of artificial intelligence and automated systems do or do not advance equity.
The focus on racial equity comes as the environmental justice movement has been scored big wins from Congress over the last two years, including billions of dollars in funding in the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure package (Public Law 117-58) and last year’s climate measure (Public Law 117-169), as well as more equity funding in the EPA’s annual budget.
Hundreds of programs overseen by the Energy Department, the EPA, and other agencies are now considered covered by Biden’s Justice40 effort, which pledges to steer 40% of the overall benefits of clean energy, climate change, affordable housing, and certain other federal funding toward poorer and marginalized populations disproportionately affected by pollution.
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