Several members of a federal environmental justice committee on Thursday sharply criticized a new White House website that shows which communities are deemed disadvantaged—and therefore in line for more federal dollars—because it excludes race as a factor in its calculations.
“There are some things that happen to us just because we are Black,” said Beverly Wright, founder and director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
Wright said the website tool will “miss the mark completely if it doesn’t include race.”
Susana Almanza, director of People Organized in Defense of Earth and Her Resources, agreed, saying race has been used as a factor to discriminate against people of color for generations in the U.S., but “all of a sudden” it isn’t being used to support them.
LaTricea Adams, founder and CEO of Black Millennials for Flint, said the exclusion of race is “disrespectful and a slap in the face to every Black and brown person that has been advocating for decades, for us to get to this point where literally they tell Black and brown people that we don’t matter.”
In February, an official with the White House Council on Environmental Quality—which developed the tool, known as the Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool—said the decision to exclude race was made to ensure the tool can withstand potential legal challenges.
“Both folks within the government and externally have made clear that we cannot be using race as an indicator to guide resource decisions, to have that highest threshold for legal defensibility,” the CEQ spokesman said.
But Wright said the advisory council should call for the inclusion of race anyway, “even if they don’t accept it,” on the grounds that doing so is “righteous.” Several members agreed with her.
Miya Yoshitani, executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network, noted that, while tools such as the CEQ’s can be tailored to capture racial markers without doing so explicitly, “you can never actually attain what you would be able to attain by including race.”
Lucas Merrill Brown, senior adviser for Justice40 at the CEQ, said during the meeting that staffers at the agency “certainly hear and understand and acknowledge long history and deep importance of race and racism,” and that he would “welcome explicit recommendations to include race in the tool.”
The tool assesses census tracts along eight different environmental metrics: climate change; clean energy and energy efficiency; clean transportation; affordable and sustainable housing; remediation and reduction of legacy pollution; critical clean water and waste infrastructure; health burdens; and training and workforce development.
Any tract that exceeds certain levels in at least one of those metrics, and that also exceeds a socioeconomic indicator—such as low income levels or especially low rates of high school graduates—is considered disadvantaged, according to the CEQ.