Shalanda Baker, a law professor currently on a professional leave of absence from Northeastern University to serve in the Biden administration, is already secretarial adviser on equity and deputy director for energy justice in the Department of Energy. The deputy director role is newly created by the Biden administration.
Baker has been nominated to lead the DOE’s Office of Minority Economic Impact (OMEI). After initially considering her nomination at a hearing on June 8, the committee on July 22 confirmed her nomination, advancing her nomination to the full Senate.
Baker’s writings on energy include “Revolutionary Power,” described as “an activist’s guide to the energy transition.”
In it, Baker advocates what she calls a “justice first” approach to climate change, “rather than one of climate first, justice later.”
In a 2020 article for a Boston public radio station, “How To Create Anti-Racist Energy Policies,” Baker stated, “The time for reckoning with the racialized violence embedded within the current energy system is long overdue.”
She argues that energy costs per household should be permanently capped at 6 percent of overall household income.
“If that household is within an environmental justice community with lower air quality, the cap would be lower, and not exceed 2 percent of overall household income,” Baker wrote. She doesn’t indicate how energy would be paid for, when its costs exceed these caps.
Baker’s academic scholarship includes an article for the Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, “Anti-Resilience: A Roadmap for Transformational Justice within the Energy System,” in which she argues against resilience in the grid, claiming that the modern energy system “should be transformed, rather than made more resilient.”
She argues that “anti-resilience” would need to be rooted in both anti-racism and “anti-oppression.” Anti-oppression would involve mandating “that the majority of participants in community energy programs be people of color and low-income people.”
The concept of “anti-racism” has been recently popularized by critical race theorist Ibram X. Kendi. According to Kendi, “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.”
Various forms of pollution and other risks related to the energy system do, in fact, disproportionately affect black Americans and Hispanic Americans, as well as poor Americans of all colors. In Baker’s writings and congressional testimony, she has consistently argued that a focus on equity can help address those disparities.
“People don’t understand the difference between equity and equality,” said Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University who has written extensively about the influence of social justice and equity rhetoric on academia. (Boghossian declined to comment on the specifics of Baker’s scholarship or nomination). “Equity is the opposite of equality.”
According to Boghossian, an institution that embraces social justice ideology will deviate from its mission and become “an institution of critical social justice.”
“I think people are in for a surprise,” he said.
Boghossian, James Lindsay, and Bruce Gilley of New Discourses recently released “Combatting Social Justice Rhetoric: A Cheat Sheet for Policy-Makers.”
“Equity,” they say, translates not to “equality” between individuals but to “equality of outcomes plus reparations.” They also claim that the language of “environmental justice” equates to the belief that “environmental issues are race issues,” which they describe as “an ineffective and inefficient way to protect the environment.”
“For the last several months, I’ve served as the Secretary’s Advisor on Equity, and I’ve had the pleasure of leading the execution of Executive Order 13985, which you may know as the President’s Order on Equity,” Baker said at the Senate Energy and Natural Resources committee’s June 8 meeting.
At that meeting, Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) noted the OMEI’s duties include promoting “small, disadvantaged businesses—i.e., minority-owned businesses” and highlighted the Biden administration’s proposal to allocate $100 billion in federal contracting opportunities to small, minority-owned businesses.
Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) asked Baker about the Justice40 Initiative, established through another Biden administration executive order. The order sets the goal of “delivering 40 percent of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities.”
“What is your understanding of the meaning of the term ‘disadvantaged community’ as used in the Justice initiative, and does it extend to the coal mining communities in my state of West Virginia, and many other states?” asked Manchin.
“The Justice40 Initiative is absolutely the cornerstone of this administration’s climate transition policy,” Baker replied. “As you mentioned, the president has made this commitment to ensure that 40 percent of the overall benefits of the investments go to disadvantaged communities. In the same executive order announcing the Justice40 Initiative, the president makes a deep commitment to ‘energy communities,’ which are communities that are experiencing the transition away from fossil fuels.”
A spokesperson for the White House Council on Environmental Quality didn’t respond to requests for a definition of “disadvantaged communities.”
In a section of “Anti-Resilience” advocating “System Transformation,” Baker argues for “new conceptions of energy,” claiming that, “since we are creators of our understanding of energy, it is not fixed,” and arguing that energy should be thought of as a “commons.”
“Within a frame of transformation, the edges of the energy system begin to soften and meld into other notions of property, beyond private resource ownership and toward conceptions of shared management and control,” wrote Baker.
Neither Baker nor Republicans on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources immediately responded to requests for comment.
As of press time, Baker’s nomination is awaiting a vote by the full Senate.