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To keep promises of achieving racial equity, let’s start keeping score

If governments at all levels value fairness, elected leaders should know exactly how their decisions will affect us

Photo illustration.Alex LaSalvia

Along with demands to reform policing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder by a White, Minneapolis police officer in 2020, were calls for something broader: public accountability and progress on racial inclusion and equity across our economy and society.

As one leader from Massachusetts put it, “That means a call for a different way to govern.”

To make that real and achievable, governments at all levels should assess proposed policies and budgets for how much they would either promote or undermine racial equity and inclusion (and other forms of equity). This is known as racial equity impact assessment or equity scoring.

We already score proposed legislation for its cost to taxpayers, and we require environmental impact assessments for many major projects. If we value racial inclusion and equity, then we should measure it, score it, and hold leaders accountable for how well it is achieved through government action.

Newly released research by the Brookings Institution and the Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy at The New School analyzes how governments across the country have begun to assess racial equity and inclusion. Leadership at the national level is one important part of the shift. On day one of his administration, President Joe Biden issued the first-ever executive order on “advancing racial equity and supporting underserved communities” through policies and practices across the executive branch. The order delivered on campaign promises but also drew on momentum generated from work by advocates and local government officials across America. The White House Office of Management and Budget subsequently released a major review of methods for assessing equity, and last spring, executive agencies issued equity action plans to guide follow-through on the president’s order.

Equity impact assessment is not some fanciful idea operating at the margins. At the local and state levels, racial equity is measured in important policy proposals for reducing carbon emissions, advancing criminal justice reform, rezoning neighborhoods, expanding affordable housing, and more. Groups such as PolicyLink, an equity-focused research and advocacy organization, examine whether local fiscal recovery money is being spent to advance racial equity. A number of state and local governments have documented racial disparities of the COVID-19 pandemic, and they have tried to build thoughtful equity-promoting policies and practices into their public health responses.

But equity impact assessment should routinely apply to other policy and budget issues as well, including taxation, retirement, transportation, the minimum wage, reproductive health, small business support, and education and training. And crucially, a different way to govern, one that centers racial equity and inclusion, will improve not only decisions about what government should do (policy and investment choices), but also how government does it (delivery approaches). Both matter for producing results and building public confidence to make these changes endure.

The stakes could not be higher, and history is a guide. Without explicit attention to racial equity and inclusion, otherwise progressive government policies can have very exclusionary or de facto discriminatory effects. A classic example is Social Security, widely viewed as one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal’s landmark achievements. In the 1930s, the program deliberately excluded agricultural and domestic workers, initially leaving about half of employed Black men and about 90% of employed Black women out of the system.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security bill into law on August 14, 1935.Uncredited/Associated Press

Likewise, the GI Bill, which dramatically expanded access to higher education after World War II, was often administered by racist Jim Crow state governments, putting Black veterans at a stark disadvantage. The postwar expansion of government-insured mortgages that helped fuel America’s postwar suburban housing boom redlined Black people out of many neighborhoods, expanding the already-large racial wealth gap.

And there were other roads not taken, each underscoring the power and urgency of applying racial equity scoring widely and routinely. Real accountability could have driven fundamentally different choices about criminal justice policy a generation ago, by showing how harsher sentencing for certain types of crimes would lead to a rapid growth of the prison population, disproportionately affecting Black people and other people of color. Welfare reform might have focused on improving the lives of low-income families with children rather than reducing public spending and imposing punitive new rules.

More recently, experts say the geographically targeted Opportunity Zone program in the 2017 tax reform could have used equity analyses to focus on spurring strategies to generate meaningful community benefits, not just to create attractive financial returns for investors.

These were all lost opportunities — very costly and unnecessary ones.

Our research highlights several concrete examples and overarching lessons based on how government officials actually do their jobs across the country. The first: effectively applying an “equity lens” focuses governments on tangibly improving service delivery while also addressing historical and ongoing racial exclusion.

The second lesson flows from the first: We need better data, tools, and public sector capacity for assessing racial equity, as a part of delivering it. In other words, we need capability along with the political will to do better. Without investments that address those gaps, critics can reject racial equity practices with a familiar, if wrongheaded complaint: It’s well intended, it just can’t be done. Improved operating capacity will make public agencies more responsive when communities and elected leaders press for equity analyses and plans. Greater investment by private philanthropy, as well as the public sector, in building will and capacity is critical.

Governments also need to engage communities in decision-making in meaningful ways, and this, too, requires the capacity, not just the motivation, to do better. Many local governments, for example, are just beginning to engage in collaborative governance with affected communities, as opposed to what insightful observers long ago labeled the perfunctory show of “ritual participation.” State and federal agencies are much farther behind. Massive new investments in infrastructure make it even more urgent that we spread and accelerate changes in how public agencies plan and problem-solve with the public.

Our third lesson is, perhaps, the most challenging: We must change our political culture and grow a broader, more resilient base of political support for racial equity beyond the brave leadership of racial justice advocates. Building political support against the tide of racially divisive politics and fear-mongering tribalism that has driven so much of our public life will take creative and bold leadership and a broader moral awakening. Racial equity impact assessment offers a way to ground policy making and implementation in universal human rights and a widely shared aspiration that the government effectively works to serve everyone. Racial equity must be understood on moral, not just pragmatic, grounds. That, too, was part of the call when hundreds of thousands of everyday people, from all walks of life, in small towns and big cities, took to the streets in 2020 to demand better.

Encouragingly, public officials and their allies are achieving some concrete gains quite quickly, without contentious or protracted lawmaking. Under existing law, Chicago creatively rethought how taxpayer money can be invested for housing affordability, and California is using innovative equity “screens” to shape climate investments. These and other government actions, in red states as well as blue, show change is possible and need not wait for a perfect assessment system, let alone massive policy reform.

Assessing or scoring proposed policies and budgets for racial equity is an innovation that helps build a racially just and more fair economy and society. And new progress measures, like the Black Progress Index recently launched by the Brookings Institution, complement what we have called for here.

It’s urgent that we build on and accelerate this progress, and the basic premise could not be more simple: If we truly wish to build our country around racial inclusion, we must have a clear and truthful picture of whether proposed policies and plans will do that.

Xavier de Souza Briggs and Andre Perry are senior fellows at Brookings Metro and part of the Valuing Black Assets Initiative, which Perry directs.

Darrick Hamilton and Rick McGahey are professors at The New School, based at its Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy, which Hamilton directs.