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Biden wants an electric vehicle revolution. Will communities of color be left behind?

While the White House is driving a proposal to accelerate electric vehicle usage to combat carbon emissions, advocacy groups say Black and brown neighborhoods must benefit, too.

Bill Williams, a real estate developer on Chicago’s West Side, was an early adopter of electric vehicles, at first leasing a Tesla Model S before recently upgrading to a Taycan, the first electric car made by Porsche.

His motivation to drive an electric vehicle, or EV, was largely that the technological novelty intrigued him, he said, although there was another reason: “I’m not saying I’m an environmentalist, but I do think about the Earth, and I do care about the future of the planet. So if it’s not too late, I’d like to be someone who’s part of the solution.”

But persuading more Americans to swap vehicles that run on internal combustion engines for cleaner, battery-powered rides presents a greater challenge. And in places like Chicago, where neighborhoods of color have been combating pollutants and the ill effects of a warming world, providing access to electric cars and charging stations in historically underserved communities so residents benefit from improved air quality and health must not be overlooked, experts say.

“You can factor in the history of this country and how interstates were built right through our Black and brown neighborhoods and the harmful legacy of that,” said Billy Davis, the general manager of JitneyEV, which advocates for electric vehicle transportation and charging stations in Bronzeville, a historically Black neighborhood of Chicago. “Just as a matter of justice, the corrective measures to increase electrification and the benefits of that should start in those areas that are greatly impacted.”

Clean air and electric vehicle advocacy groups are looking to the White House for a road map: President Joe Biden signed an executive order this month that seeks to cut carbon emissions and tackle the effects of climate change.

The federal government plans to do that by working with the auto industry so that 50 percent of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2030 are electric, and it is pushing automakers to slash tailpipe emissions and increase gas mileage for new vehicles through model year 2026 — nonbinding goals that go beyond what the Obama administration wanted, which were watered down by the Trump administration.

Transportation vehicles, including diesel- and gas-powered cars and trucks, are the largest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

​But the federal government’s initiative must go further by guaranteeing that communities of color get the same benefits from the White House’s electric vehicle targets, advocacy groups say. They said that can be done by equitably distributing charging stations in areas that would benefit from more use of electric cars and offering grants to those communities, providing car buyers with financial rebates upfront and expanding tax credits so buying vehicles is not as financially burdensome, and working with communities to support electric car-sharing programs like one in Minneapolis-St. Paul that has partnered with Somali-, Hmong- and Karen-speaking organizations.

“Climate change impacts Black and brown communities first and worst,” said Terry Travis, a co-founder of EVNoire, a national environmental consultancy organization that advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion in the transportation sector. “From our vantage point, there’s an urgency of now. We’re not talking about suburban communities where the air quality tends to be a lot better.”

Changing Americans’ attitudes toward electric vehicles and making them more accessible and cost-effective for car buyers is only one part of Biden’s proposal.

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