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The ‘Equity Agenda’ Takes Root at the USDA—and Beyond

Several key federal departments will now be required to file public reports on their progress in making sure we “all end up at the same place.”

(Frank Bach/Shutterstock)

In Joe Biden's first official act as president, he committed every federal agency to a "whole-of-government equity agenda."

Equity, as Kamala Harris described it, is the principle that people ought to "all end up at the same place." This is distinct from equality, which seeks the equal treatment of citizens before law.


Within two weeks of Joe Biden’s inauguration, equity had become the organizing principle of the federal government. And last week, Biden signed an executive order expanding the equity agenda items for several federal departments.

For the Biden administration, equity serves two purposes. First, it compensates the descendants of historically marginalized groups. Second, it metes out retributive justice against the white majority.

These purposes were made clear less than two months after Biden signed his first executive order. In March 2021, Biden signed a Covid relief package containing $4 billion in loan forgiveness exclusively for "socially disadvantaged" (that is, non-white) farmers. In the words of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the minority-only relief package was enacted to "acknowledge that acts of discrimination took place" within the Department of Agriculture.

The department, though, had already made several expensive "acknowledgements" of that discrimination in the past. In 1997, the USDA reached what at the time was the largest civil rights settlement in American history, paying $2.3 billion to more than 30,000 farmers whom courts found to have been discriminated against by the agency between 1981 and 1996. In 1999, it doled out another $1.06 billion in cash relief, debt payments, and debt relief to other black class members. And in 2010, Congress agreed to pay out another $1.15 billion to specific victims of the agency's discriminatory lending practices.

The victims of those policies had their days in court. The agency was made to pay substantial sums to those victims. Traditional notions of justice would insist that justice was served, since compensation for harm done should be limited to those specifically harmed. But the Biden administration instead demanded loan forgiveness for any farmer who happened to share the skin color of other farmers putatively discriminated against decades ago.


When a group of white farmers excluded from the debt relief package sued the administration, Congress struck down and rewrote the provision to apply to all "distressed" farmers who had been "discriminated" against, regardless of their race. While this served the just purpose of reimbursing people with provable claims of discrimination, it failed to achieve the purpose of equity, which is to symbolically avenge past discrimination against minorities by actively discriminating against the majority in the present. As an NPR reporter put it: "If [the relief program is] expanded beyond race, many Black farmers fear the program won't be effective in atoning for the USDA's racist history."

And the USDA saga is just one example. Last week, we learned the Biden administration's "equity agenda" has expanded far beyond race-based reparations for black farmers. According to the latest executive order, several key federal departments will now be required to file public reports on their progress implementing the president's equity goals, set up "Agency Equity Team[s]" to oversee their departments' commitment to equity, and compile "demographic data to advance equity" so the administration can monitor their "progress."

This data will be used to highlight disparities between groups—between black and white Americans, men and women, homosexuals and heterosexuals. And where disparities are found, equity will demand what the administration calls “affirmatively advancing civil rights”—that is, active discrimination.

That’s not hyperbole, but the stated purpose of equity. Progressives have argued for decades, but with particular vigor after the death of George Floyd, that legal colorblindness entrenches racial disparities. Where colorblindness is rooted in the principle of equality, equity is color-conscious , seeking not to avoid discrimination but rather to actively discriminate in favor of minority groups. As Ibram Kendi puts it, “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination."

The latest executive order will only expand the reach of the equity principle in the federal government. Armed with statistics on inter-group disparities, the Biden administration will push the boundaries of America’s notionally colorblind civil-rights regime to “affirmatively” favor minority groups in federal grant awards. Each department's annual equity report will be used to justify increasingly aggressive interventions in the workplace, schools, and other institutions where the administration can throw its weight around.

It may have been downscale white farmers yesterday, but don’t be surprised if the “equity agenda” hits a little bit closer to home tomorrow.


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