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The Biden administration’s early plans for racial equity, explained

The president will end contracts with private prisons and promote fair housing policies.

Protesters in Brooklyn, New York, on September 5, 2020.
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Before taking office, President Joe Biden promised that racial justice would be one of the four “compounding crises” he’d tackle in his first days on the job. And on day one, he dissolved the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, an education advisory committee convened to downplay the role of slavery in American history, among other revisionist efforts. He also announced a plan to examine how federal agencies promote and foster inequality along racial lines.

Now, on day seven, Biden took four more executive actions designed to bolster fairness and justice: He denounced racism and xenophobia directed at Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, he directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to combat housing discrimination, he vowed to strengthen the federal government’s respect for tribal sovereignty, and instructed the DOJ to not renew contracts with private prisons.

Biden’s equity platform states that while equal opportunity is America’s foundation, systemic racism — laws, policies, and institutions — prevents many Americans from reaching this ideal. This very fact is illustrated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has decimated Black and Indigenous communities by taking their lives at a disproportionate rate and leaving many in those communities unemployed or at greater risk of infection due to their positions as essential workers.

According to the first order he signed on January 20, Biden wants to pursue a “comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”

Biden’s early attention to equity comes at a time when social justice advocates are calling on elected officials to directly address systemic racism as it manifests in policing, education, health, housing, the environment, and the economy through policy. In 2020, millions of Americans protested the police killings of Black Americans like Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. While Biden’s executive order suggests that equity is top of mind, activists say they’re aware that they’ll need to put pressure on the administration to set the agenda and bring continued urgency.

“While these are a good first step, no set of executive orders alone is going to revoke structural oppression,” Maurice Mitchell, national director of the Working Families Party and an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives and the Frontline, told Vox. “Historically, whenever this country made major gains around racial justice and equity, it was because social movements led the government. Significant movement around racial justice and equity has never come from the White House, but we are encouraged they’re paying attention. Our social movements still have a critical role to play in all of this.”

Biden’s orders address discrimination in housing and against Asian Americans

On January 26, the Biden administration announced he will sign four executive orders to advance racial equity. These include:

  • “Redressing Our Nation’s and the Federal Government’s History of Discriminatory Housing Practices and Policies” acknowledges the federal government’s role in discriminatory practices like redlining and directs HUD to fully implement the Fair Housing Act, which requires the government to fight housing discrimination.
  • An order to reform the country’s incarceration system by ending the use of private prisons, an action in line with what Biden proposed during his campaign for president. According to the administration, “private prisons profiteer off of federal prisoners in less safe conditions for prisoners and correctional officers alike.” The order instructs the Department of Justice to not renew any contracts with privately operated criminal detention facilities.
  • A memo that repudiates racism and xenophobia toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, particularly amid the coronavirus pandemic. Throughout the pandemic, Asian Americans have been the victims of racist attacks and have been scapegoated and stereotyped as the people who created and spread the coronavirus. Trump helped spur these reactions by using racist language to describe the virus. Biden’s memo directs the Department of Health and Human Services to issue guidance around cultural competency in the government’s coronavirus response. Biden’s memo also encourages the Department of Justice to partner with AAPI to work to prevent discrimination and hate crimes.
  • An order directing agencies to strengthen their communication with Native American tribes. The United States has a history of not honoring its agreements with Indigenous peoples. The memo could be a start to the federal government fulfilling its duties and helping reverse poverty and poor health conditions in Indian Country.

The administration also announced plans to pass legislation that boosts investment in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, triples funding for Title I schools, and increases funding to small businesses — all measures that it hopes will bolster groups that were previously left out of the government’s relief packages amid the pandemic.

Biden revoked Trump’s ban on anti-bias training and rejected Trump’s mission to downplay slavery in American history

On his first day in office, Biden emphasized his commitment to equity by rolling back two signature orders that the Trump administration implemented last fall that rejected the role of systemic racism in America.

The first of those orders, “Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping,” barred federal agencies from conducting workplace training that “inculcates in its employees any form of race or sex stereotyping or any form of race or sex scapegoating.” The order boiled down to a ban on any diversity training that informed employees about racism or helped them become aware of their implicit biases. Trump’s order also rejected critical race theory, the foundation of these trainings that moved scholars and activists to recognize how racism is endemic to American life.

Anti-bias training for federal employees has traditionally helped reduce the negative impact of implicit and explicit bias and ultimately improves the efficiency of various agencies, one report from the Obama White House noted. During Obama’s administration, the Office of Personnel Management developed a course called “Micro-Behaviors: Understanding the Power of the Unconscious Mind” and trained more than 10,000 federal employees on the impacts of implicit bias.

Biden will also rescind the order that established the 1776 Commission, a panel of historians organized by Trump to counter what students were being taught in school about slavery and America’s founding. The commission, named after the year the Declaration of Independence was signed, was a response to the New York Times’s 1619 Project — harking to the year enslaved people from West Africa were first brought to America — which centers slavery as the American story that defines social inequality and explains the country’s economic origins.

Since the 1619 Project’s release in 2019, educators have used the project as an instructional tool that stands up against the whitewashed American history contained in textbooks. The 1776 Commission wanted to keep school curricula free of information that regarded the founders as people who were interested in maintaining the institution of slavery, for example. The 1776 Commission released a 45-page report on Martin Luther King Jr. Day outlining its version of American history, but it vanished from the White House website two days later, on Biden’s Inauguration Day.

In his executive order, Biden gives federal agencies 60 days to terminate any actions related to Trump’s orders, including reversing any steps they took to end anti-bias training.

The administration plans to study inequity and allocate federal resources to underserved communities

Biden’s order instructs every federal agency — there are more than 400 of them — to take no more than 200 days (mid-August) to complete an equity assessment to determine how that particular agency has potentially blocked underserved communities from receiving benefits and opportunities. The study will also examine the resources available to offices responsible for advancing civil rights. Based on the results of these assessments, the administration, particularly the Office of Management and Budget, will allocate funding to increase investment in underserved communities.

Biden has put the Domestic Policy Council, headed by Susan E. Rice, in charge of the effort to study systemic inequality and determine the communities that the federal government has historically underserved. This same body will also develop the policies that will advance equity in the next four years.

The administration cited a few examples of challenges it could address, like “closing gaps in wages, housing credit, lending opportunities and access to higher education,” but did not specify what areas it plans to address first.

Biden’s equity order also emphasizes that the administration is looking for ways to expand its communication with community-based organizations and civil rights organizations. Following the presidential election, civil rights groups like the NAACP and the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation sat down with the Biden administration to outline priorities. The Biden administration wants this communication to continue.

Biden also plans to establish a working group on data to disaggregate information according to categories like race, ethnicity, gender, disability, income, and veteran status. For economists, scholars, and activists, this categorial breakdown allows them to better understand how policies impact particular groups of people. It’s impossible to advocate for change if there isn’t enough information on the problem. “This lack of data has cascading effects and impedes efforts to measure and advance equity,” the order states.

Biden’s orders are a start. Activists want more.

Biden made his interest in challenging racism clear during his first address to the nation on Inauguration Day, when he named white supremacy, domestic terrorism, and political extremism as threats.

“He’s shining a spotlight on equity and racial justice early on, and that’s a good thing,” Mitchell told Vox. “Presidents have the most political capital early in their career, and the things they do early send a signal about what they’ll do for the rest of their term.”

In his inaugural address, Biden also noted that it will take more than words to fix the country — it will take unity, a concept he has invoked often in the past year, including when unrest broke out in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake and when a pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol on January 6.

But “unity is a loaded word,” Mitchell told Vox. “There are a lot of things we should unify around, but the destination should never be unity. The destination should be justice.”

According to Mitchell, justice is Covid-19 relief in the form of $2,000 cash payments, or dismantling white supremacy, for example, not unifying with those who aided and abetted an insurrection at the Capitol. “I am cautious when I hear ‘unity’ and ‘bipartisanship’ without clarity on the destination,” Mitchell said.

While signing these orders are a good start, Mitchell is waiting to see how federal agencies, regulatory authorities, and Congress operationalize the administration’s racial justice agenda, ensuring that social justice for Black communities doesn’t get narrowly compartmentalized in the criminal justice realm but also extends to jobs, housing, health, and more. “We anticipate that our movement will have to fill in the blanks and create a political urgency so that the political class can do what’s necessary.”

Mitchell backs the policy positions enumerated in the BREATHE Act, which was created by the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation and the Movement for Black Lives and introduced in Congress last fall. The act advocates for specific measures like divesting federal resources from policing and the prison system and investing those funds in community safety and the self-determination of Black communities.

Mitchell understands the work will take time but the urgency doesn’t end. “Black folks have been waiting since we came to this continent, so a minute more is too much for us.”

Biden’s executive action states that more communication is necessary to achieve racial justice — and that means his team will have to listen to the voters of color across the country who helped elevate him to the country’s highest office.