Maya King, Politico, January 26, 2021
The four executive orders President Joe Biden signed on Tuesday on advancing racial equity marked the new administration’s first major address of systemic racism. They signal that Biden plans to attack the problem with sweeping policy changes mandating cooperation across multiple federal agencies — a bold departure from previous administrations which rarely tackled racial inequities head-on.
The executive orders direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development to dismantle Trump-era housing discrimination policies, end the Department of Justice’s contracts with private prisons, reestablish tribal sovereignty and combat xenophobia against Asian Americans, which is on the rise since the start of the pandemic. It’s the latest round in a series of swift, aggressive actions undertaken by the president since he took office last week. And they reflect both the realities of racial disparities exacerbated by the coronavirus and the pressure from civil rights leaders to alleviate those disparities.
“Now’s the time to act,” Biden said on Tuesday. “We’ve never fully lived up to the founding principles of this nation, to state the obvious, that all people are created equal and have a right to be treated equally throughout their lives.”
His words echoed those of a number of activists at the height of the protests against systemic racism over the summer. Biden administration officials say the executive orders are but one of several steps the president plans to take to battle racial disparities. It’s why both Biden and racial justice advocates demanding change view the executives orders the same way: as a good first step.
Biden’s mandates are a positive sign that he’s willing to address racial inequities, advocates say, and they plan to continue lobbying him and other Democrats to go big on their policies impacting communities of color.
Tuesday’s four executive orders were drafted in partnership with White House and Justice Department legal counsel and policy staff. Prior Democratic administrations, one senior Biden official said, took steps to address racial inequities, but none engaged multiple federal agencies at the same time to make a large and immediate impact.
“What makes this different is that it has never been done before,” the official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“Every part of the White House, every agency in all of its work, not in a silo, not in an Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, but throughout everything they do,” the official said, “are mandated to consider and advance equity and then be held accountable for it.”
The Biden administration has charged the Domestic Policy Council with coordinating that effort. Led by former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice, the council will focus its efforts largely on racial equity. It has also made eradication of white supremacy part of its charge. During Tuesday’s press conference, Rice said the council will maintain a relationship with the National Security Council to study the threat of domestic extremism on the part of white supremacist groups and aims to make policy suggestions accordingly.