By Romona Taylor Williams
Within a week of his inauguration in January 2021, President Biden established the Justice40 Initiative, promising to ensure vulnerable and disadvantaged communities would see a substantial slice of federal money flowing to climate and clean energy. Environmental justice advocates greeted his presidency with cautious optimism. These days, we fear our hopes are misplaced.
We cheered the establishment of an advisory council focused on injecting the concerns of historically underrepresented people into the administration’s policies, and were enthusiastic about Justice40, which ostensibly meant 40% of government-wide climate and clean infrastructure spending would end up going to our communities, historically which happen to be among the most vulnerable to climate impacts.
But then the White House released the proposed screening tool to actually identify those communities. To our surprise, the tool omits race as one of the factors to determine the equitable access to critical funding and technical assistance.
A “race-neutral” approach would perpetuate the very injustices Justice40 claims to address. The number one predictor of whether you live perilously close to a polluting facility is race. Dr. Robert Bullard, environmental justice pioneer and professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University said it best: “When you look at the most powerful predictor of where the most industrial pollution is, race is the most potent predictor. Not income, not property values, but race. If you’re leaving race out, how are you going to fix this?”
In my work advocating on the frontlines in my Duck Hill, Mississippi, community, I see the living, breathing reality of Dr. Bullard’s evidence-based assessment every time it rains, flooding our downtown.
So, it begs the question: Why did the Biden administration disregard race as a factor given what we know to be true?
Study after study shows environmental injustice can’t be disentangled from the racism that infuses American public life — from zoning laws to school funding, housing, redlining, gross health disparities and economic obstructions to infrastrastructure.
Historically redlined neighborhoods, where people of color live because zoning regulations and local laws once prohibited them from buying homes in many other neighborhoods, are stuck in a vicious cycle of climate impacts.
The discriminatory federal housing practice of redlining outlawed more than 50 years ago depressed home values, lowered job opportunities and spurred poverty in communities deemed undesirable because of race. And it’s why, more than half a century later, 45 million Americans are breathing dirtier air, according to a recent study released by the American Chemical Society.
Corporations sought out cheap land in “sacrifice zones” — made “undesirable” by the presence of Black and Brown residents nearby — to build coal- and gas-burning plants, petrochemical facilities, and hazardous waste sites. State and federal planners further degraded historically Black communities by building highways through them. As a result, these neighborhoods are today hotter and more polluted than non-redlined areas nearby.
Black, Indigenous, and other people of color everywhere experience a higher energy burden — the cost of energy bills relative to income — and often can’t afford to improve the efficiency of their homes to bring costs down and save power. And affordable housing is disproportionately located in areas especially vulnerable to sea level rise and flooding, and are often made from substandard materials that can’t stand up to the extreme weather becoming more common because of climate change.
By failing to include race, and by allowing certain levels of education or income to exclude communities that might otherwise qualify, the Justice40 screening tool ignores the fact that racism and climate vulnerability don’t come together by coincidence.
And it means communities that probably ought to be included are left out. An independent analysis by Climate Nexus found a quarter of U.S. Census tracts that are majority Black, Hispanic and/or Indigenous would be ineligible according to the screening tool’s environmental or climate indicators. Of those tracts, about two-thirds meet threshold levels for one of the qualifying criteria — but are ineligible because they miss the cut on low income or higher education attainment.
Historically disadvantaged communities also might fail to qualify because of much more mundane, but no less pernicious, echoes of racism’s impact on public life: bad data. The screening tool relies on the 2010 national Census — a count that has historically and disproportionately missed millions of people of color while overcounting white people.
Nor has the administration said how it plans to ensure the funds end up in the intended communities.
Many federal programs funnel money through state governments, and many eligible communities are located in states like mine with long histories of white governors resisting federal efforts to tackle racial injustice. The track record of white, mostly (but not only) Republican governors on this count does not inspire a lot of confidence the money will end up where it should. In order to address the centuries of inherent racism in environmental policies and regulations, local governments and communities must have the agency to design effective programs, successfully apply for funding, and hold the system accountable.
No screening tool with the ambition and scope of the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool could be perfect, but this one is unacceptable as proposed and can and should be strengthened. By steering away from race, the administration has taken the coward’s way out, preemptively folding to potential legal challenges before they materialize.
Race matters. I call on the Biden administration to make the improvements necessary to make the promise of climate justice a reality.
Romona Taylor Williams is the Executive Director of Mississippi Communities United for Prosperity (MCUP) in Duck Hill, Miss.