References, Terminology, and FAQs

Terminology and General Frequently Asked Questions

Race is a social construct used to categorize humans into groups based on combinations of shared physical traits such as skin color, hair texture, nose shape, eye shape, or head shape. Although most scientists agree that such groupings lack biological meaning, racial groups continue to have a strong influence over contemporary social relations. Historically in the United States, race has frequently been used to concentrate power with white people and legitimize dominance over non-white people.1

1CPDH, 2020

Ethnicity is a term used to describe subgroups of a population that share characteristics such as language, values, behavioral patterns, history, and ancestral geographical base. Social scientists often use the terms ethnicity and ethnic group to avoid the perception of biological significance associated with race.2

2CPDH, 2020

Racism is any prejudice against someone because of their race when systems of power reinforce those views. 3

3Oluo, 2019

Institutional racism describes the ways in which policies and practices perpetuated by institutions, including governments and private groups, produce different outcomes for different racial groups in a manner that benefits the dominant group. In the United States, institutional racism includes policies that may not mention race but still result in benefiting white people over people of color.4

4CPDH, 2020

Structural racism is the normalization and legitimization of an array of historical, cultural, institutional, and interpersonal dynamics that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. Structural racism encompasses the entire system of white domination, diffused, and infused in all aspects of society, including its history, culture, politics, economics, and whole social fabric. Structural racism is more difficult to locate in a particular institution because it involves the reinforcing effects of multiple institutions and cultural norms, past and present, continually reproducing old and producing new forms of racism. Structural racism is the most profound and pervasive form of racism; all other forms of racism emerge from structural racism.5

5Lawrence and Keleher, 2004

While the terms institutional racism, structural racism, and systemic racism are sometimes used interchangeably, systemic racism can be said to encompass both institutional and structural racism. Glenn Harris, president of Race Forward, defines systemic racism as “the complex interaction of culture, policy and institutions that holds in place the outcomes we see in our lives.” 6 The legacy of systemic racism can be seen in a variety of outcomes affecting people of color, such as housing insecurity, a ten-fold wealth gap between white and Black or Latinx households, a dramatic overrepresentation of people of color in prison, and disparities in education, health, and exposure to environmental pollution.7

6Yancey-Bragg, 2021

7Nelson et al., 2015

Racial equity means Race can no longer be used to predict life outcomes and outcomes for all groups are improved. For example, when we hold income constant, there are still large inequities based on race across multiple indicators for success, including the environment, education, jobs, incarceration, health and housing. 8

8Nelson et al., 2015

Equity is about fairness, while equality is about sameness. Equality describes circumstances in which each individual or group is given the same or equal treatment, including the same resources, opportunities, and support. However, because different individuals or groups have different histories, needs, and circumstances, they do not have equal positions in society or starting points. Providing the same resources, support, or treatment does not guarantee that everyone will have fair or equal outcomes.10 Equity recognizes that because different individuals or groups have different histories and circumstances, they have different needs and unequal starting points. Using an equity approach, individuals and groups receive different resources, opportunities, support, or treatment based on their specific needs. By providing what each individual or group needs, they can have equal or fair outcomes. 11

(Image from 2017 Robert Wood Johnson Foundation)

9Nelson et al., 2015

10CPDH, 2020

11CPDH, 2020

California Department of Public Health (CPDH) Racial and Health Equity Workgroup, Racial and Health Equity Glossary of Terms, January 2020,

Lawrence, Keith and Terry Keleher, “Chronic Disparity: Strong and Pervasive Evidence of Racial Inequalities,” Presented at the National Conference on Race and Public Policy, Boalt School of Law, University of California Berkeley, Berkeley, CA, October 2004.

Oluo, Ijeoma, So You Want to Talk About Race. New York: Seal Press, 2019, pg. 27.

Nelson, Julie, Lauren Spokane, Lauren Ross, and Non Deng, Advancing Racial Equity and Transforming Government: A Resource Guide to Put Ideas into Action. The Local & Regional Government Alliance on Race and Equity: 2015,

Yancey-Bragg, N’dea, “What is systemic racism? Here's what it means and how you can help dismantle it,” January 29, 2021, USA Today, .

We lead with race primarily due to the government's historic role in using race to establish structures and systems designed to deliver racist outcomes. This core historical fact calls on us, as government, to work to undo these inequitable systems. Leading with race acknowledges that racial inequities, which drive wealth, environmental, and other inequities, are real, deep, and pervasive today; race intersects with many if not all other marginalized identities; and lifting up race has been shown to lift other marginalized communities.1

California Environmental Protection Agency’s (CalEPA’s) 2021 Pollution and Prejudice Story Map demonstrates a stark example of institutional racism, in which historically redlined neighborhoods are “generally associated with worse environmental conditions and greater population vulnerability to the effects of pollution today.” In addition, Black, Indigenous, and people of color are overrepresented in the neighborhoods that are the most environmentally degraded and are still experiencing severe racial wealth gaps caused by redlining and other land use practices.2 Race is also the strongest predictor of water and sanitation access.3

There are noticeably large inequities based on race across multiple indicators for success, including the environment, education, jobs, incarceration, health and housing.4
In 2020, across the nation, including here in California, people rallied in the streets in public outcry to condemn the violence and racial inequities that have systematically impacted people of color, especially Black people, particularly following the murder of George Floyd. These events led to deeper conversations and actions to address systemic and institutional racism. We have heard calls from the public and our workforce to confront racism in its many forms, within the communities we serve and throughout our organization.

Many references5 provide evidence and discussion of the disproportionate effect of pollution and water quality issues on BIPOC communities.

1 Nelson et al., 2015
2 Altare et al., 2021
3 Roller et al., 2019
4 Nelson et al., 2015
5 Morello-Frosch and Lopez, 2006; Balazs and Ray, 2014; Schechinger, 2020; OEHHA, 2021

Government laws, policies, and practices have created a racial hierarchy and determined who benefits and who is burdened.6 Governmental systems and structures have repeated patterns of exclusion. The “color-blind” (“I don’t see race”, “we are all the same” “I don’t care if you are purple or green”) approach simply does not work when it is built on top of a long history of racism.7 The Water Boards, as a government agency, are positioned to affect change regarding this pattern of exclusion related to our mission and our workforce. “We are now at a critical juncture where there is a possible new role for the government to pro-actively advance racial equity.8

Race is still a primary indicator of economic success, housing security, and overall stability in our society. The government and government agencies have played a large role in perpetuating and maintaining racial inequities; common examples include citizenship, voting, who can own property, and where one can live. The historic role of government in establishing, supporting, and sustaining racist systems draws attention to the need for government to center on race and advance racial equity.9

Although the Water Boards were already involved in racial equity work, along with the CalEPA and other government organizations, it became clear that we needed to do more. Last August, the State Water Board held a public meeting directly addressing the topic of racial inequity. The Board members acknowledged the historic effects of institutional racism that must be confronted throughout government and directed staff to develop a priority resolution and related action plans. The State Water Board is committed to prioritizing racial equity and identifying inequalities by evaluating our policies, programs, and practices.

The Water Boards have established a Racial Equity Steering Committee and Working Group to develop plans for addressing systemic racism and its institutional legacy at the Water Boards within our agency and through our work in the communities we serve and to create an inclusive culture where people of all identities and races feel they belong, can contribute, and have the same opportunities and access to clean, affordable, and safe drinking water and environments.

6 Nelson et al., 2015
7Nelson et al., 2015; CPDH, 2020
8Nelson et al., 2015
9Nelson et al., 2015

No. We understand that there may be a misperception that race or ethnicity will now be considered when hiring or making other employment decisions. This is not the case. The added focus on racial equity means that we will examine the practices and policies that guide workforce development and take appropriate steps to reduce and eliminate practices that can perpetuate systemic racism, such as unconscious bias. For example, we can ensure that staff participating in a hiring panel have completed implicit bias training. Advancing racial equity does not mean that we are advocating for or making hiring decisions based on race, ethnicity, gender, or any factor other than merit. Indeed, the California Constitution does not allow any discrimination against, or the granting of any preferential treatment to, any individual or group based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.

State hiring rules and best practices have been created to ensure that hiring and promotional decisions are based on merit. State hiring practices leave room for taking steps to remove the symptoms of systemic racism while ensuring that employment decisions continue to be based on merit.

The Water Boards are committed to ensuring that their workforce represents and is best capable of interacting appropriately with the diverse communities that we serve. While preserving merit-based hiring, workforce diversity can be improved in a number of lawful ways, including use of culturally competent interviewing strategies and inclusive recruitment practices. The goal of this effort is to ensure that the Water Boards have the best and most diverse candidate pool while adhering to state law and CalHR training, policies, and regulations.

Altare, David, Greg Gearheart, Beti Girma, Jaimie Huynh, Maraid Jimenez, Charles Lee, Jennifer McGovern, Kevin Olp, Deldi Reyes, Amy Schwanhausser, Walker Wieland, and Angie Ye, Pollution and Prejudice: Redlining and Environmental Injustice in California. CalEPA Story Map, April 19, 2021,

Balazs, Carolina and Isha Ray, “The Drinking Water Disparities Framework: On the Origins and Persistence of Inequities in Exposure,” American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 104, No. 4, pp. 603-611, April 2014,

California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA), “Preliminary Analysis of Race/Ethnicity and Draft CalEnviroScreen 4.0 Scores,” California OEHHA website, February 2021 (2021),

Morello-Frosch, Rachel and Russ Lopez, “The riskscape and the color line: Examining the role of segregation in environmental health disparities,” Environmental Research, Vol. 102, Issue 2, October 2006, pp. 181-196,

Nelson, Julie, Lauren Spokane, Lauren Ross, and Non Deng, Advancing Racial Equity and Transforming Government: A Resource Guide to Put Ideas into Action. The Local & Regional Government Alliance on Race and Equity: 2015,

Roller, Zoë, Stephen Gasteyer, Nora Nelson, WenHua Lai, Marie Carmen Shingne, George McGraw, and Radhika Fox. “Closing the Water Access Gap in the United States: A National Action Plan,” DigDeep and US Water Alliance, 2019,

Schechinger, Anne Weir, “In California, Latinos More Likely to Be Drinking Nitrate-Polluted Water,” Environmental Working Group, October 7, 2020,