“Something happening here”

March 2, 2021

Dear Changemakers,

“There's something happening here, but what it is ain't exactly clear….”

—“For What It’s Worth,” Buffalo Springfield, 1966

Stephen Stills penned those lyrics about early counterculture riots in Los Angeles, and the song became an antiwar anthem. I date myself with the reference, but I see early signs now, too, of “something happening here.” In these rather different circumstances, and facing powerful countervailing forces, there are signs of a cultural sea change, as institutions are taking on the responsibility to eliminate inequities. Some are even owning responsibility for creating and perpetuating inequities.

I speak today specifically of the unprecedented statements by the Biden-Harris administration that, amid a pandemic, transition, and impeachment, have gotten less attention than merited.

The president’s first executive order on “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities through the Federal Government” spoke of “entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies” that perpetuate inequality. And in a subsequent memorandum on discriminatory housing practices and policies, the president outlined the role the federal government has played, through housing and mortgage lending policy and the interstate highway system, in creating and perpetuating today’s patterns of racial segregation, neighborhood disinvestment, housing insecurity, and racial wealth gaps. As my colleagues wrote recently, “Such an acknowledgment is both historic and consequential. No president has so explicitly recognized the federal government’s culpability or taken official action to redress the consequences of its actions.”

The administration’s “whole-of-government” approach to racial equity is as unprecedented as the acknowledgement of responsibility. For my entire career, the topic of civil rights has been narrowly siloed: the subject of a specific class in law school, a division of the US Department of Justice, or a congressional subcommittee. It is unprecedented to suggest, as the executive order does, that every policy decision should consider whether the step would close or widen equity gaps.

To build this decision infrastructure, the Domestic Policy Council will “coordinate efforts to embed equity principles, policies, and approaches across the Federal Government,” and the Office of Management and Budget and every federal agency is given specific tasks. But this work does not simply fall to government officials. It will require expertise on equity across every dimension of policy choice in government and from all of us who seek to inform, influence, or elevate the debate.

To this end, my Urban colleagues offered some initial recommendations that start with data. Begin by shoring up the census, they suggest, so leaders can diagnose equity gaps; target solutions with accuracy; and track the country’s progress. They also recommend easing data sharing across agencies, with privacy top of mind, using new information sources technology now provides, and engaging communities in research.

Other colleagues at Urban suggest that, as the US Department of Housing and Urban Development digs into housing justice, it would be well served by using evidence to chart a path forward, from enforcing existing fair housing laws to creating new ways to support homeownership for people of color.

Urban has begun to build some of the equity assessment tools the executive order commands. We recently launched a Racial Equity Analytics Lab (REAL), which aims to equip today’s changemakers with timely, race-explicit data and analysis they can use to craft and implement solutions that consider how different racial and ethnic groups would be affected. (You can learn more about REAL and how disaggregated data can ensure an equitable response to the pandemic and economic crisis in a recent Evidence to Action conversation.)

I write this as my media feeds are increasingly filled with a rising tide of anti-Asian hate and discrimination, a kind of othering that prevents real inclusion and recognition of Asian Americans’ and Pacific Islanders’ myriad contributions to American society. At the same time, we just finished Black History Month 2021. I found this year’s recognition less perfunctory and more real, with powerful celebrations of Black culture, contribution, resilience, and joy—but also with evidence of the pain and pervasiveness of anti-Black racism.

We have much work to do. But I am encouraged by the clarity of the work ahead. I’m encouraged not just by presidential declarations or monthly celebrations but by a vision of how we might make consistent consideration of the unique circumstances of all Americans—rural residents and urban residents, able-bodied people and people with disabilities, recent immigrants and descendants of the Mayflower—integral to how we make public choices together.

I would love to hear what you and your organizations are seeing and doing. Is something happening here?

Warmly,

Sarah