If you’ve seen any of the Biden administration’s new executive orders and other presidential actions, you probably picked up on a recurring theme. Many of these actions include a directive for federal agencies to use data and a lens of racial equity to improve work conditions for government employees or address barriers people face when accessing government benefits and services.
Advocates and watchdogs have characterized Biden’s racial equity emphasis as “a welcome change,” with many noting these actions are only the first of many steps the administration must take to meaningfully advance racial equity.
Wait, what executive orders?
President Biden has issued a spate of presidential actions since taking office in January 2021. Primarily, these presidential actions have taken the form of executive orders (EO) and memorandums that establish the Biden administration’s vision, goals and policies.
The administration provided a definition of equity in the executive order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government (EO 13985), which sets out core racial equity mandates for agencies. Although this definition of equity is only in relation to that specific EO, it provides a useful perspective on the administration’s inclusive vision:
The term “equity” means the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.
Several presidential actions either explicitly direct federal agencies to use an equity lens, or are focused on addressing issues created or worsened by racial and other inequities. These actions address topics such as pandemic response (EO 13994, EO 13995, EO 14000, and EO 14002), housing and homeownership (memorandum, Jan. 26, 2021), refugee resettlement (EO number unassigned as of Feb. 9, 2021), foreign policy and national security workforce and institutions (memorandum, Feb. 4, 2021), scientific integrity and evidence-based policymaking (memorandum, Jan. 27, 2021), and more.
Challenges to using data to advance racial equity
As explained in executive order 13985, data can be used to identify barriers and address equity, but not when the governance of that data is itself biased. The EO explains:
Many Federal datasets are not disaggregated by race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, veteran status, or other key demographic variables. This lack of data has cascading effects and impedes efforts to measure and advance equity.
Data is a tool. As with any tool, data can be misused and abused by the people who collect, analyze, manage, and report it. In just the last few years, we’ve seen federal and local governments politicize Census data, withhold COVID-19 data, and restrict the use of public health data. People may misuse and abuse data for many reasons, including to perpetuate biases or grow inequity.
Data has the power to disrupt. It can support narratives that change minds, shift priorities and shape policy toward equity. But it can also result in doubt, denial, and even hostile resistance when the data findings contradict preexisting beliefs and biases. An example of this is when Professor Kyriakos Markides analyzed data separated by race and toppled a piece of conventional wisdom about the connection between socioeconomic status and health.
Feds are not starting from zero
The new presidential actions make it clear that the Biden administration believes federal agencies have some catching up to do on racial equity and data use. Federal employees can take comfort in knowing that municipalities around the country have been working on systems and processes for applying a racial equity lens.
In Milwaukee County, Minnesota, the government passed a racial equity ordinance in April 2020. It committed “to identify and address policies, practices and power structures that, whether intentionally or unintentionally, work in favor of white people and create barriers for black, brown, and indigenous people.” Milwaukee’s Racial Equity Framework is focused on improving public health by addressing the underlying institutional racism, and has data at its core.
Over in San Francisco, California, the Office of Racial Equity, created in 2019, is working to develop and implement Racial Equity Action Plans for each city department. To measure progress, the office’s legislative mandates include policy and budget analysis tools, regular reporting of data on the local government’s workforce and contracting, and indicators of racial equity throughout the San Francisco community.
The Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) offers a trove of resources, examples, and training for government employees interested in bringing a racial equity lens to public service.
Open data opens doors
The administration’s presidential actions set out the initial guidance for the data practices that will be expected of federal agencies. However, there is a lot yet unknown. What data will federal agencies be required to collect? How will data be shared with other agencies and with the public? How will people’s data privacy be protected? What measures will be put in place to evaluate whether the data process itself is not biased? How will agencies know if they’re successfully making progress on racial equity?
When asked about how this success will be achieved and measured, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration “will make it a priority and infuse expertise and personnel to ensure we are addressing issues that impact communities of color across the country every day, and not just every few months when it’s an issue that comes up and prompts questioning.”
The task is immense and important. New guidance and regulations will follow in the weeks and months to come, which should provide clarifying details, instructions and requirements.
Lauren Girardin is a marketing and communications consultant, storyteller, and freelance writer based in San Francisco. She helps organizations engage their communities and tell their stories. Her website is laurengirardin.com and you can connect with her on Twitter at @girardinl.