Biden officials find racism throughout government, plan ways to promote 'equity'


Just hours after taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, President Biden ordered all federal agencies to examine whether their policies discriminate against minorities and deliver a report within 200 days outlining the “structural racism” they found.

Nine months later — more than two months past Mr. Biden’s deadline — the White House won’t say how many reports it has received or what was in the reports it did get.

But a survey by The Washington Times of a dozen departments and agencies revealed widespread concerns about the government shortchanging people of color, including in farm aid, visits to national parks and the disbursement of unemployment benefits.

The president’s order also gave agencies until Jan. 20 to recommend ways to undo the disparities.

Mr. Biden’s focus on complaints about systemic racism has already spurred some changes. The Department of Homeland Security , for instance, has ordered its agents to stop referring to illegal immigrants as “aliens” and instead call them “non-citizens” to “ensure individuals are treated humanely,” according to the department. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and other agencies have created commissions to examine how to incorporate racial equity into how they do business.

The Interior Department last week held the first in a series of “listening sessions” on racial equity, and was prodded by activists to examine why only a quarter of the people who escape “nature deprivation” by going to national parks are minorities, despite minority groups making up 40% of the population.

The Labor Department said it wants to figure out why Blacks who were out of work during the pandemic were less likely than Whites to get unemployment benefits.

Mr. Biden’s vow to promote racial equity in every aspect of government set off alarms for critics who warned that steering billions of taxpayer dollars toward minorities would potentially discriminate against White people.

“There’s going to be just an avalanche of racial and ethnic preference programs to achieve equity of outcomes,” said Devon Westhill, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank. “Obviously, some of this is going to be illegal.”

Mr. Westhill noted that Mr. Biden instructed agencies in June to figure out how to make sure that minority-owned small businesses get more of the billions of dollars a year in federal contracts. Mr. Biden said that instead of getting 10% of the government dollars, he wants the businesses to get half in a few years, steering $100 billion more to minorities. 

Several agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Education Department refused to discuss with The Times what they are considering under Mr. Biden’s order.

Environment and Education officials previously announced some of their efforts on the equity front.

The EPA has launched an “Environmental Justice & Systemic Racism Speaker Series” with a total of four speakers so far. The last presentation was on March 4 and highlighted the EPA’s “Mapping Inequality Project,” which includes publicly accessible digitized versions of its redlining maps for about 200 cities.

The EPA does not have more sessions in the series planned at this time.

The Education Department this year announced that it would use historic levels of school funding in the COVID-19 aid package as “drivers of equity and opportunity.” It included telling poor school districts how to keep funding levels from being reduced from pre-pandemic levels.

The department also has hosted an “Equity Summit Series” for school officials to examine strategies to benefit minorities. The first summit, held in June, explored “how schools and communities can reimagine our school systems so that every student has a voice in their school and classroom, particularly students from underserved communities, including communities of color, students with disabilities, and multilingual learners.”

Some attempts at equity already have run into problems of being discriminatory.

Mr. Biden’s American Rescue Plan attempted to forgive $4 billion in federal farm loans for “socially disadvantaged” farmers, which was an effort to make up for the Agriculture Department allegedly denying grants to Black farmers for years. A federal court blocked the program for being discriminatory against White farmers.

The Agriculture Department then announced a new program to award $16 billion in grants to community groups and colleges that help veterans and people from “socially disadvantaged” groups who operate farms.

“Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, and our diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths. But for too many, the American Dream remains out of reach,” Mr. Biden said in his Inauguration Day executive order. “It is, therefore, the policy of my Administration that the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”

The few agencies that are willing to discuss their racial equity efforts pointed to policy shifts from the Trump administration.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, is prioritizing socially disadvantaged farmers in handing out COVID-19 stimulus payments. Only 4% of aid for farms and other agricultural interests went to minorities during the Trump administration. Since April, 21% of the aid has gone to socially disadvantaged farmers, according to USDA.

The department said it did not change the eligibility requirements for the program but instead increased outreach to the minority farmers.

Mr. Biden’s emphasis on “systemic racism” also extended to public health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky declared in April that racism is a public health problem.

Noting that minorities have disproportionately contracted coronavirus, the CDC gave $2.25 billion to state, county and municipal health agencies to improve testing and contact tracing in minority communities. In April, the CDC gave local governments $3 billion to increase vaccinations, with three-fourths of the money required to go to minority communities.

The gap in vaccinations between White people and people of color has narrowed, said Samantha Artiga, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and director of racial equity and health policy.

In April, 38% of White people were vaccinated compared to 24% of Black people, a 14 percentage point difference. In October the racial gap was down to 8 percentage points, 54% to 46%, according to a recent Kaiser report.

The Education Department, which declined to participate in this report, drew criticism earlier this year when it cited critical race theory as an example of what should be taught in U.S. history. The department backtracked, saying it didn’t want to require teaching that America remains racist as a requirement to get federal funding.

Mr. Biden on Tuesday issued another executive order that directed the Education Department to launch an examination of racial disparities in education. The order also created a special advisory commission on the issue.

“They’re going to come up with a lot of schemes,” Mr. Westhill said.

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