5 things to know about Biden’s racial equity orders
President Biden took strides toward advancing racial equality on Tuesday with the signing of four new executive orders.
The directives come on the heels of more than two dozen signed since he took office just a week ago and cover a wide breadth of issues: better enforcement of federal housing laws, increased communication with and support for Native American tribes, criminal justice reform and the condemnation of xenophobia.
Here are five things to know about Biden’s orders on racial equity.
Biden meets expectations — so far
After the election was called for Biden in November, he pledged to have Black Americans’ backs when he took office.
Activists and civil rights groups that lauded increased Black voter turnout as the difference-maker on Election Day have been vocal about their intent to hold Biden to his word.
Tuesday’s executive actions, along with an executive order last week that directed the federal government to “pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved,” were well received by civil rights groups.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson acknowledged that while it was “early in the process,” the executive orders were a “great, initial step.”
“We acknowledge and commend the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to make racial equality a legislative priority and center piece to their agenda,” Advancement Project Executive Director Judith Browne Dianis said in a statement Tuesday. “Today’s action pushes the reset button on some of the Trump Administration’s most harmful policies.”
Orders represent rebuke of Trump administration
Biden has already fulfilled key aspects of his campaign promise to reverse many of the Trump-era policies.
That trend continued Tuesday with Biden’s order on fair housing.
The memorandum calls on the Department of Housing and Urban Development to “examine the effects of the previous Administration’s regulatory actions that undermined fair housing policies and laws.”
It also reintroduces the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, a key Obama-era revision to the 1968 Fair Housing Act rolled back by former President Trump. The provision creates an extra safeguard against discriminatory housing practices by requiring jurisdictions that receive federal funding to look for and analyze patterns of housing discrimination and then present a plan to address the practices if they exist.
Biden also signed an order “condemning and combating racism, xenophobia and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States.”
The executive action marks a significant shift in rhetoric compared to Trump, who regularly referred to COVID-19, which has killed more than 400,000 people in the U.S., as the “China virus.” The term was widely criticized and labeled as xenophobic, and figures indicate there’s been an uptick in racial violence toward Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders since the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March.
The orders follow Biden’s actions last week that reversed several of Trump’s highly controversial bans, including his travel restrictions on Muslim-majority countries, the prohibition of transgender people serving in the military, and his freeze on diversity trainings for federal workers and contractors.
Biden’s approach to racial equity is wholistic
The executive orders signed on Tuesday underscore Biden’s game plan for racial equity by focusing on the entire federal government.
“I believe this nation and this government need to change their whole approach to the issue of racial equity,” Biden said before signing the orders in the State Dining Room.
“We need to open the promise of America to every American. And that means we need to make the issue of racial equity not just an issue for any one department of government. It has to be the business of the whole of government.”
Biden has tasked former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Obama-era national security adviser Susan Rice to oversee this process.
A senior Biden administration official said Tuesday in a call previewing the executive actions that Rice — now head of Biden’s Domestic Policy Council — will work with people like Catherine Lhamon, who was previously the chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, to achieve Biden’s goals.
“I am really pleased that the approach for racial equity would be embedded within the domestic policy council,” said the NAACP’s Johnson, who previously called for Biden to create a separate White House adviser position for racial equity. “It allows for a more robust approach to address systemic barriers as they may have existed within our policy or procedures for decades.”
DOJ is ending its relationship with private prisons
Biden’s action on private prisons is being viewed by advocates as a step toward police reform, a campaign pledge that was influenced in large part by the May 25 killing of George Floyd.
Police reform, especially around the use of force, has been at the forefront of a national discussion following a summer of nationwide protests decrying police brutality and systemic racism after the police killings of Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
Biden spoke of Floyd in his remarks Tuesday afternoon, saying that his death “opened the eyes of millions of Americans and millions of people around all over the world.”
The executive order largely returns the Department of Justice to the policy adopted under the Obama administration. About 16 percent of federal prisoners are incarcerated in private prisons.
“To decrease incarceration levels, we must reduce profit-based incentives to incarcerate by phasing out the federal government’s reliance on privately operated criminal detention facilities,” Biden wrote in the order.
David Fathi, director of the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, praised the severing of ties between the Justice Department and private prisons by saying: “The order signed today is an important first step toward acknowledging the harm that has been caused and taking actions to repair it, but President Biden has an obligation to do more, especially given his history and promises.”
None of this is legislation — yet
Like many of the other executive orders Biden has signed, the four newest ones contain policies that many of his supporters want to see codified into law so that they can’t be simply reversed by a future administration.
Johnson called concrete legislation “the next step” in the process of racial equity.
While Democrats have razor-thin margins in the House and Senate, many of Biden’s proposed reforms will more than likely need bipartisan support if they are to overcome potential GOP filibusters in the Senate.
Biden, during his speech Tuesday, reiterated how he wants to see the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act on his desk.
The bill, along with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the For the People Act, passed the House last year but were not taken up in the GOP-controlled Senate.
“We need to restore and expand the Voting Rights Act, named after our dear friend John Lewis and continue to fight back against laws and many states are engaged in to suppress the right to vote, while expanding access to the ballot box for all eligible voters,” Biden said, referring to the civil rights icon and former Georgia lawmaker who died last year.