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Opinion: Affirmative Action decision puts pressure on environmental equity movement

July 17, 2023

July 17, 2023


By Andres Jimenez. Read at Austin American-Statesman.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last week regarding affirmative action threatens almost 40 years of progress at leveling the field in college admissions. The decision is a huge step backward for prospective students and not only threatens college admissions but may very well impact the current face of the workforce that affirmative action helped change.  

Green 2.0 publishes an annual NGO and Foundation Transparency Report Card that focuses on the environmental sector. In 2022, 36.5% of full-time NGO staffers identified as people of color, up 3.5% from 2021. While these numbers indicate progress, we must address the lack of diversity across the green movement. The Court’s decision on affirmative action may very well force people of color and underserved communities back into an enormous disadvantage of entering into the environmental workforce.  

Though the Court’s decision focuses on college admissions, the long-term ramifications may be dangerous for communities of color who often face the harshest consequences of climate change.

A recent EPA analysis— Climate Change and Social Vulnerability in the United States: A Focus on Six Impact Sectors—finds that racial and ethnic communities are particularly vulnerable to the greatest impacts of climate change. The study determines, something that we at Green 2.0 already knew, that underserved communities will suffer the most severe harms from climate change while being the least able to prepare for and recover from heat waves, poor air quality, flooding and other impacts. Our Transparency Report Card finds that the groups positioned to do something to fix climate stressors don’t look like the communities most affected. 

Without the guardrails of affirmative action, we may be placing even greater stresses on environmental organizations and foundations to find executive-level employees who look like affected communities. Already, American universities do not reflect the faces of the American population.  

Though Black and Latino communities make up 12.4 and 18.7 percent of the American population, American universities’ demographics, which we would hope represent the cultural make up of our communities, break down to 6 percent multiracial, 7 percent Black or African American, 14 percent Latino, 22 percent Asian American and 46 percent white. 

The decision leaves room for schools to recruit from a variety of neighborhoods, cities or regions, family income levels, and first-generation applicants, but this does not explore systemic issues that keep communities of color out of ivory towers. Ignoring the reality that racism impacts communities of color and their entry into college leaves too much room to pass over students who often don’t have the same options available that wealthier, more socially affluent or upwardly mobile students have.  

Justice Sonia Sotomayor argues that the decision “cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.” 

Sadly, with the lack of diversity in environmental and foundation spaces where Green 2.0 strives to find equity, this decision could be a matter of life and death in communities affected by climate stressors. The decision also raises the specter of moving the nation back toward a cycle of ‘intergenerational transmission of inequality,’ as Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in her dissent.  

We have made many steps forward toward equity in the environmental space, but this threat severely ushers us a few steps back. But Justice Jackson stated it best in her dissent by lashing at the majority by saying, “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces, ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat, but deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.” 

Andres Jimenez is the executive director of Green 2.0