Indeed, trees are NOT racist

How does a bill provision about funding tree canopy get bogged down in hot button, racially tinged political squabbles?  This is how.

Section 11003(a)(2)  of the Build Back Better Act–the stalled second part of the Biden Administration’s national infrastructure plan–would have appropriated $3 billion for grants “for tree planting and related activities to increase community tree canopy and associated societal and climate co-benefits, with a priority for projects that increase tree equity.”  Priority was to be given to projects  in areas with 1.) more than 30 percent of people living below the poverty line and 2.) lower tree canopy and higher daytime summer temperatures than surrounding areas.  Priority was to be given to grant applications from underserved populations, with at least ten percent of grants going to “members of underserved populations.”  The term “underserved populations” was not defined in Section 11003, but elsewhere in the act, the term “underserved community” was defined in several places to include low income communities, communities with racial or ethnic minority concentrations, or other communities deemed disproportionately vulnerable to economic, social, and environmental stressors.

The term “tree equity” in the provision triggered a vociferous conservative objection in Congress:  

“What else is in the bill?,” Senator Todd Young, from Indiana, asked rhetorically. “How about three billion dollars for tree equity—tree equity—whatever that means. You can’t make this stuff up.” And from Roy Blunt, of Missouri: “If you look at what is actually in that legislation as it comes out of the House, some of the things are pretty amazing. There is . . . a project called tree equity. Now, I don’t think that is to make all the trees the same size.” 

Conservative advocacy groups took up the battle, with one large group warning its millions of social media followers that Democrats were attempting to spend billions of taxpayer funds on “non-racist trees.”  In the view of conservative objectors like these, equity is merely the latest buzzword for policies that treat people unequally to attempt to achieve equal outcomes: quotas, affirmative action, and the like.  They oppose these policies as antithetical to equal treatment under the law, often deriding them as “socialism.”  

How did “equity,” a word with innocuous dictionary definitions such as “the quality of being fair and impartial,” become a political lightning rod?  Well, people disagree about what is “fair,” and the term “equity” in the context of modern social policy has come to connote a particular conception of fairness.  A typical definition of equity in the policy world is “[t]he act of ensuring that processes and programs are impartial, fair and provide equal possible outcomes for every individual.”  The definition incorporates a view that in some instances, policies that treat all people equally fail to create equal opportunity–particularly when there has been a history of unequal treatment–and in these instances, the policies should be adjusted to promote equal opportunity rather than strictly adhere to equal treatment.

In certain contexts, such a view of fairness may have fairly broad political support.  Only eight Senators voted against the Americans with Disabilities Act, perhaps the quintessential example of a law that deviates from equal treatment of all people in favor of promoting equal opportunity.  But clearly, that’s not everyone’s view of what “fair” means when the group to be favored is the non-disabled poor and racial and ethnic minorities. For example, while the public approves of Affirmative Action when asked about it in the abstract, the public strongly opposes racial preferences in hiring and promotion.

To be sure, Section 11003 treats people unequally, by creating explicit preferences for certain populations: those living in areas with high poverty rates and low tree canopy, and other underserved populations.  Indeed, the general public cannot compete for the fraction of grant money explicitly set aside for underserved populations.  Some people will see policies like this as fair, and some will not.

Of course, notions of fairness are inherently political, and it is to be expected that the Biden Administration and its opponents will battle over their respective visions.  But from a public health perspective, it is not acceptable for the public to suffer when public health crises are not addressed because worthwhile policies get bogged down in these types of arguments.  That’s what’s happening here.  Section 11003’s main purpose is to increase tree canopy in cities to combat worsening urban heat island effects that are killing more and more people and increasingly impairing health and quality of life.  This is where politicians’ focus should be.  Concerns about equity are moot if the bill doesn’t pass.  

Without picking a side in the philosophical debate over what constitutes fairness, the underlying policy behind Section 11003 is sound.  Spending a few billion dollars on increasing tree canopy would be a very wise investment in the future of our cities.

 As the Biden administration ponders another push to get its Build Back Better agenda passed in some form, we urge that a tree-planting initiative be retained within it.  The areas with lower tree canopy and higher temperatures tend to be low-income, high minority population areas anyway, and thus the most controversial preferences could be abandoned as a compromise without much practical effect.  

Slade Smith

Slade is Assistant Director of the Applied Health Policy Institute and an Arizona attorney. He is a 2017 graduate magna cum laude of the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law and co-recipient of the 2017 Ralph W. Aigler Memorial Award for his professional and scholarly contributions to the college. He is from Columbus, Ohio, and now lives in Tucson, where he regularly enjoys outdoor activities in southern Arizona's beautiful and varied desert and mountain landscapes.

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