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Racial equity impact assessments

What is it?

Racial inequities in income, health, and other indicators of social and economic well-being are not inevitable. They have been created and perpetuated over time through systemic bias, public policy, and institutional practices, and eliminating these inequities requires thoroughly analyzing existing and proposed policies to root out bias and promote equity, opportunity, and inclusion.

Racial equity impact assessments are a formal process in which a city, county, school, or agency analyzes how a budgetary or policy decision is likely to impact different racial and ethnic groups, modeled after the environmental impact statements required by the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 to anticipate the positive and negative environmental effects of proposed policy decisions. These assessments can help local leaders to understand the racial equity implications of an existing or proposed policy, program, or institutional practice, and to determine if it will ameliorate or exacerbate existing economic and social inequities.

The general framework for an equity impact assessment is a structured analysis that can be applied to any standard policy- or decision-making process with the goal of identifying the populations likely to be affected and taking steps to close existing racial gaps and/or mitigate unintended consequences. This framework can easily be adapted a single agency or implemented throughout all city operations. Some racial equity assessment processes concentrate on budgets and expenditures, while others are designed to analyze all policy and program decisions. Addressing ongoing racial inequities is an economic as well as moral imperative: according to the National Equity Atlas, racial gaps in income cost the United States about $2.4 trillion in 2014, and a 2015 report found that racial health inequities cost the economy an estimated $245 billion in excess health care expenditures, illness-related lost productivity, and premature deaths.

See the Government Alliance on Race and Equity, Race Forward, and Living Cities for more resources on racial equity impact assessments.

Who implements it?

  • Elected and appointed city officials can design tailored racial equity assessments and integrate them into policy development and implementation processes.
  • Community-based organizations, residents, and advocates can promote the use of racial equity tools and hold officials accountable for their implementation.

Key considerations

By setting clear equity goals and establishing standards of measurement at the outset, leaders can maximize and accurately track the racial equity impacts of policy and budgetary decisions informed by the assessment process. City leaders aiming to implement the use of racial equity impact assessments must consider a range of related issues.

  • Strong city leadership and buy-in: Institutionalizing racial equity impact assessments requires government and agency leaders who are willing and able to support the planning, design, and execution of the assessment process — and to ensure that their findings inform policy decisions.  
  • Program scale and costs: Because there is no one-size-fits-all model and the scope of equity impact analyses ranges widely, the implementation costs also vary. Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative, for example, employs several full-time staff members and interfaces with dozens of city departments and every neighborhood in the city. Smaller-scale projects will incur significantly lower administrative costs.
  • Pilot processes: Jurisdictions may choose to pilot an equity impact assessment within a single department or agency to test and fine-tune the process before expanding it to additional agencies.
  • Community engagement: Impact assessments should include a process for meaningfully engaging and representing the needs and priorities of the racial/ethnic groups and residents most affected by the proposal under analysis.
  • Measurability: Racial equity impact assessment processes should identify clear goals, and define indicators for measuring outcomes, guided by the questions, Who benefits?, Who pays?, and Who decides?
  • Evaluation: Beyond considering the likely or projected equity impacts of a policy or program decisions, cities should commit to measuring and analyzing the actual outcomes of those decisions and adjusting policies accordingly to achieve equity.

Where is it working?

Several cities across the country have adopted racial equity assessment polices over the past few years.

  • Seattle has been using a racial equity toolkit to guide its budgeting and policymaking decisions since 2012.  In 2009, the City Council passed a resolution directing city departments to “use available tools to work to eliminate racial and social disparities across key indicators of success, including health, education, criminal justice, the environment, employment and the economy; and to promote racial and social equity in the delivery of City services.” Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative is the longest-running and most comprehensive example of a U.S. city working to achieve racial equity in city government and the community at large. Racial equity impact assessments are a central component of the initiative, and have informed policy changes that helped the city triple the share of its contracting dollars going to women- and minority-owned businesses and mandated interpretation and translation services to help non-English-speaking residents meaningfully participate in civic life.