President Biden, just hours after taking the oath of office on Jan. 20, ordered all federal agencies to examine their policies and deliver a report within 200 days outlining any “structural racism” they found.
Nine months later, more than two months past Mr. Biden’s deadline, the White House won’t say how many reports it has received or what information it has found.
But a survey by The Washington Times of a dozen departments and agencies revealed widespread concerns about the government shortchanging people of color, including in farm aid, visits to national parks and the disbursement of unemployment benefits.
The president’s order gave agencies until Jan. 20 to recommend ways to eliminate disparities.
Mr. Biden’s focus on complaints about systemic racism has already spurred some changes. The Department of Homeland Security, for instance, has ordered its agents to stop referring to illegal immigrants as “aliens” and instead call them “noncitizens” to “ensure individuals are treated humanely,” according to the department.
The Department of Agriculture and other agencies have created commissions to examine how to incorporate racial equity into the ways they do business.
The Interior Department last week held the first in a series of “listening sessions” on racial equity. Activists prodded the department to examine why only one-quarter of the people who escape “nature deprivation” by going to national parks are minorities, despite minority groups making up 40% of the population.
The Labor Department said it wants to figure out why Blacks out of work during the pandemic are less likely than Whites to receive unemployment benefits.
Mr. Biden’s vow to promote racial equity in every aspect of government set off alarms. Critics said steering billions of taxpayer dollars toward minorities might discriminate against White people.
“There’s going to be just an avalanche of racial and ethnic preference programs to achieve equity of outcomes,” said Devon Westhill, the president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank. “Obviously, some of this is going to be illegal.”
Mr. Westhill noted that Mr. Biden instructed agencies in June to figure out how to make sure that minority-owned small businesses get more of the billions a year in federal contracts. Mr. Biden said he wants a 50% increase in federal contracts going to minority-owned small businesses, which currently get 10% of federal business. The change would steer roughly $100 billion more to the minority-owned companies.
The Environmental Protection Agency and the Education Department were among several agencies that refused to discuss with The Times what they were considering under Mr. Biden’s order.
EPA and Education Department officials previously announced some of their efforts toward more equity.
The EPA launched an “Environmental Justice & Systemic Racism” speaker series with a total of four speakers so far. The last presentation, on March 4, highlighted the EPA’s Mapping Inequality Project, with publicly accessible digitized versions of its redlining maps for about 200 cities.
The EPA does not have more sessions in the series planned at this time.
The Education Department this year announced that it would use historic levels of school funding in the COVID-19 aid package as “drivers of equity and opportunity.” It included telling low-income school districts how to keep funding levels from being reduced from pre-pandemic levels.
The department also has hosted an “Equity Summit Series” for school officials to examine strategies to benefit minorities. The first summit, held in June, explored “how schools and communities can reimagine our school systems so that every student has a voice in their school and classroom, particularly students from underserved communities, including communities of color, students with disabilities, and multilingual learners.”
Some attempts at equity have encountered problems with discrimination.
Mr. Biden’s American Rescue Plan attempted to forgive $4 billion in federal farm loans for “socially disadvantaged” farmers. The Agriculture Department was accused of denying grants to Black farmers for years, and the program was designed to redress that. A federal court blocked the program after finding discrimination against White farmers.
The Agriculture Department then announced a program to award $16 billion in grants to community groups and colleges that help veterans and people from “socially disadvantaged” groups who operate farms.
“Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, and our diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths. But for too many, the American Dream remains out of reach,” Mr. Biden said in his Inauguration Day executive order. “It is, therefore, the policy of my Administration that the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”
The few agencies willing to discuss their racial equity efforts pointed to policy shifts from the Trump administration.
The Department of Agriculture has prioritized socially disadvantaged farmers with COVID-19 relief payments. Only 4% of aid for farms and other agricultural interests went to minorities during the Trump administration. Since April, 21% of the assistance has gone to socially disadvantaged farmers, the department said.
The department said it did not change the eligibility requirements for the program but increased outreach to minority farmers.
Mr. Biden’s emphasis on “systemic racism” also extended to public health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky declared in April that racism is a public health problem.
Noting that minorities have disproportionately contracted COVID-19, the CDC gave $2.25 billion to state, county and municipal health agencies to improve testing and contact tracing in minority communities. In April, the CDC gave local governments $3 billion to increase vaccinations for the coronavirus. Three-fourths of the money was required to go to minority communities.
The gap in vaccinations between White people and people of color has narrowed, said Samantha Artiga, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation and director of racial equity and health policy.
In April, 38% of White people and 24% of Black people were vaccinated, a 14-percentage-point difference. In October, the racial gap was narrowed to 8 percentage points, from 54% to 46%, according to a Kaiser report.
The Education Department, which declined to participate in this report, drew criticism this year when it cited critical race theory as an example of what U.S. history classes should teach. The department then backtracked and said it didn’t want federal funding to require teaching that America remains racist.
Mr. Biden issued an executive order last week that directed the Education Department to examine racial disparities in education. The order created a special advisory commission to study the issue.
“They’re going to come up with a lot of schemes,” Mr. Westhill said.
Correction: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated the level of increase Mr. Biden wants in federal contracts going to minority-owned small businesses. Mr. Biden wants to increase the number of contracts by 50%.