Biden needs to appoint a secretary of racial justice to the cabinet

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It should come as no surprise that President Trump, in his attempt to redeem himself with voters of color, tried to position himself as a criminal justice reformist, even saying that he has done more for criminal justice reform than any other president. Trump’s record on criminal justice reform tells a different story.

That record is punctuated by publicized disgraces like the pardon of Joe Arpaio, who famously set up a Tent City to jail and dehumanize Latinx people in Arizona. Trump also sent national troops to stop Black Lives Matter protests across the country, and he failed to denounce white supremacists during the first presidential debate that showcase he doesn’t care about real justice reform. 

While the First Step Act was a change in the right direction, real justice is about getting at the roots of the problem, not tinkering with a single symptom. For the United States, that means tackling racism, poverty and the politics of exclusion.

Now with President-elect Joe Biden positioned to take office this upcoming January, he has a chance to rewrite history by rebuilding a new type of justice in America. This will require taking on our nation’s historic obsession with prisons and mass incarceration and gutting a criminal justice system that was never intended to protect Black, Indigineous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. 

Confronting racism must be part of Biden’s renewed commitment to justice. He could start here: a secretary of Racial Justice in the cabinet. This position would be responsible for coordinating actions to correct racial disparities across the administration. 

The secretary would review federal policy across the board to better understand ways they have increased racial disparities, and propose innovative solutions to reverse them. There’s plenty of precedent for this idea. San Francisco, San Diego, Seattle, Charlotesville, Va., and Pittsburgh all have an Office of Racial Justice, and are using these offices to propose bold policy solutions that tackle the legacy of systemic racism in America and right the wrongs that stem from slavery and the termination of indigenous people.

Confronting poverty must also be core to Biden’s justice plan. This is even more critical in light of the economic hardships millions of Americans are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. A federal jobs guarantee program, that includes formerly incarcerated individuals, can dramatically improve employment opportunities for millions of Americans. But we know that jobs alone cannot fix America’s poverty crisis, especially as Americans have a hard time accessing affordable and sustainable housing. Putting forward policies that address housing insecurity and poverty simultaneously would ensure that as we shrink our jail and prison population, formerly incarcerated Americans have a reliable home to go back to after release.

Biden must also reimagine public safety; time and time again we have seen firsthand the flaws within law enforcement agencies across the country. Safety is often seen as just the absence of crime, but it’s also defined as the presence of opportunity. The presence of opportunity looks like access to high-quality schools, plenty of parks and public spaces, access to mental health and a strong democracy. Once we start looking at public safety through this new lens, rather than an over-reliance on policing, we need to make budgetary and policy decisions that reflect what truly keeps our communities safe.

There isn’t a silver bullet for how Biden should tackle our failed criminal justice system, but doing more of the same isn’t the way to go. The status quo and more of the same, is what got us to this place in the first place. It’s time to reimagine, rebuild, and bring in new perspectives and voices within the administration that can finally build a new type of justice in America.

Sukyi McMahon manages the Square One Project’s Roundtable on the Future of Justice Policy based out of Columbia University’s Justice Lab. She serves as the board chair for the Austin Justice Coalition.

Tags biden administration Biden cabinet BIPOC Black communities BLM protests Criminal justice reform criminal justice system Diversity Donald Trump Incarceration Joe Arpaio Joe Biden racial justice racial tensions Racism

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