Posted on February 18, 2022

White House Takes Aim at Environmental Racism, but Won’t Mention Race

Lisa Friedman, New York Times, February 15, 2022

As a candidate and then as president, Joseph R. Biden promised to address the unequal burden that people of color carry from exposure to environmental hazards.

But the White House’s new environmental strategy to tackle this problem will be colorblind: Race will not be a factor in deciding where to focus efforts.

Worried that using race to identify and help disadvantaged communities could trigger legal challenges that would stymie their efforts, administration officials said they were designing a system to help communities of color even without defining them as such.

“We are trying to set up a framework and a tool that will survive, and one that still connects to what the on-the-ground impacts are that people are experiencing,” said Brenda Mallory, chairwoman of the White House Council of Environmental Quality, which is designing the system. “I feel that we can do that based on race-neutral criteria.”

That approach comes during a decades-long fight over what role race should play in public policy, and what is permitted under the Constitution.

The Supreme Court, with its new conservative supermajority, is poised to hear a case this term that could turn back 40 years of precedent that said race could be used as one factor in determining college admissions.

Lower courts, meanwhile, have rejected the Biden administration’s efforts to forgive loans for minority farmers as part of a $4 billion program intended to address a long history of racial injustice in farming. A separate, pending legal challenge accuses the Biden administration of pushing white men “to the back of the line,” claiming that it is giving preference for Covid relief funds to restaurant owners who are women and minorities.

Using race as a factor in decision-making could also create political problems for Democrats during an election year when some Republicans appear to be trying to tap into white grievance. For example, President Biden’s recent announcement that he would nominate the first Black woman to the Supreme Court prompted Senator Ted Cruz of Texas to remark, “He’s saying, ‘If you’re a white guy, tough luck.’”

To step away from race, the Biden administration intends to identify towns and neighborhoods that need environmental help based on dozens of data points like household income, unemployment rates, air pollution levels and proximity to Superfund sites, incinerators and other hazards. Just not racial or ethnic demographics.

Under the plan, known as Justice40, at least 40 percent of the benefits of federal investments in environmental cleanup, clean energy and climate mitigation would be felt in disadvantaged communities.

Ms. Mallory said she believed the strategy would lead the government to the same places as a race-based approach: communities of color.

Some legal experts agree with the administration’s strategy, calling it a pragmatic approach that will achieve the desired results.

But some advocates bristle at that assumption.

“When you look at the most powerful predictor of where the most industrial pollution is, race is the most potent predictor,” said Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University and a pioneer in the environmental justice movement. “Not income, not property values, but race. If you’re leaving race out, how are you going to fix this?”

Decades of research has shown that the people most affected by environmental hazards are largely nonwhite and poor.

New studies have also suggested that when it comes to one of the most pernicious types of air pollution — fine particulate matter, or soot — Black Americans carry a higher burden than non-Hispanic whites or Asians, regardless of income levels.


Some studies suggest that Black Americans have lacked political power to block polluting facilities. One example took place in Michigan in 1992, when the state’s pollution control board approved a power plant in Genesee Township, next to a predominantly Black community. The power plant burned demolition wood waste, sometimes coated in lead paint, along with other fuel.

The Environmental Protection Agency found that decisions made by Michigan agencies responsible for permitting the power plant “resulted in African Americans being treated differently and less favorably than whites,” making it harder for them to oppose the project. The E.P.A. cited the example of a pollution control board that allowed white residents to testify before the public comment period while denying Black residents the same opportunity, and stationing armed guards at one hearing in a predominantly Black area, which ran counter to its usual protocol.

“You can be a person of color in a middle-income community and still be disproportionately impacted,” said Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation.

Dr. Bullard said an honest discussion of environmental justice must recognize that race is a factor. Anything else is “disingenuous,” he said.


The Biden administration shouldn’t let the fear of lawsuits stop it from explicitly trying to correct racial disparity, said Dorothy A. Brown, a professor of law at the Emory University School of Law.

“They’re going to get sued whether or not they take race into account,” she said. “If you want to address environmental racism, there is no colorblind way to do that. The best defense would be to say this is remedial work based on past governmental discrimination. In 2022, if you want to help Black people, you’re going to get sued. So either you’re with the effort to help Black people or you’re not. But you can’t be timid about it.”