Nov 25, 2020 - Politics & Policy

Biden's Day 1 challenges: Systemic racism

Photo illustration of a masked black woman wearing a Black Lives Matter earring

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Kirsty O'Connor (PA Images)/Getty Images

Advocates are pushing President-elect Biden to tackle systemic racism with a Day 1 agenda that includes ending the detention of migrant children and expanding DACA, announcing a Justice Department investigation of rogue police departments and returning some public lands to Indigenous tribes.

Why it matters: Biden has said the fight against systemic racism will be one of the top goals of his presidency — but the expectations may be so high that he won't be able to meet them.

  • If Republicans hold the Senate, Biden will have to deal with the limitations of a divided Congress. But he'll face immediate pressure from communities of color to take significant actions to address structural disparities.
  • Without control of the Senate, Biden may be forced to rely more heavily on appointments and executive actions than legislation to address systemic racism.
  • "He should get his pen ready," said Maurice Mitchell, director of the Working Families Party and an organizer who focuses on racial and social justice issues.

The big picture: Biden outlined a broad-base agenda on fighting racial inequality in statements and in proposals, but he hasn't given a timeline on most plans and his transition team wouldn't engage on specifics.

  • "President-elect Biden has called systemic racism one of the four crises facing our nation, and during the campaign he put forward a bold, intentional agenda to tackle this epidemic and advance racial equity. He is taking action now to be ready to implement that agenda on day one," said transition spokesperson Jamal Brown.
  • Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., said in an interview that tackling COVID-19 disparities is the biggest immediate front through which Biden can address this agenda. That includes "massive testing, massive tracing, and aggressive intervention," she said.

1. Announcements: Civil rights advocates say Biden could consider any of a series of announcements on his first day that could send a profound message about battling systemic racism.

  • They're urging Biden to signal that the Justice Department will investigate and enter consent decrees to correct abuses against people of color by troubled law enforcement agencies.
  • LULAC president Domingo Garcia hopes Biden will quickly announce an end to how the U.S. detains Central American migrant children and families seeking asylum in Mexico.
  • NDN Collective CEO and Oglala Lakota Nation citizen Nick Tilsen is urging Biden to pledge to return public lands like Mount Rushmore, Black Hills and Bears Ears back to "Indigenous hands," to address Native American tribes that believe those lands were stolen.

The Biden campaign has said the president-elect intends to reverse the Trump administration's barriers against DOJ consent decrees and would "end prolonged detention" of migrants, but hasn't said how fast he will adopt changes.

  • The campaign also said Biden would "place land into trust for Indian tribes" and reverse "Trump's attacks" on Bears Ears, but stayed away from the controversy around Mount Rushmore.

2. Executive orders: Advocates also say that, like President Trump, Biden could test executive powers by directing federal agencies to change policies around immigration, criminal justice and education.

  • Some are pushing Biden to sign an order forgiving student debt, since many Black and Latino former students are burdened by college loans.
  • Garcia says Latino activists want a DACA extension for another four years to give Congress enough time to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
  • Some are advocating an order that all federal agencies reinstitute requirements for anti-racial bias training for their workers.

3. Healing: Civil rights leaders say Biden can act as a conciliator in chief to show he wants to nation to ease racial tensions in the hardest-hit communities.

  • Horace Small, executive director of the Union of Minority Neighborhoods, says Biden needs to hold public memorial services for Black, Latino, and Native American victims of COVID-19 to illustrate the virus' disproportionate effects.
  • BlackPAC executive director Adrianne Shropshire said Vice President-elect Kamala Harris could be dispatched to cities that have been hit hard by police violence and uprisings, including Minneapolis, Portland, and Kenosha, Wis.
  • In his victory speech, Biden told the nation it was "a time to heal” and vowed to provide comfort amid the pandemic and racial tensions in cities. How and when he would travel to troubled sites is unclear since the nation is experiencing another virus surge.

4. Appointments: Advocates are pressuring Biden to appoint a diverse White House staff and cabinet including Black Americans and at least five Latino cabinet members, while Native American advocates have pushed for Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M. and a member of the Laguna Pueblo, to be tapped for Interior Secretary.

  • Biden has promised a diverse cabinet and administration, including Alejandro Mayorkas, who will be the first Latino to head the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Several other names of candidates of color have emerged, too. Cedric Richmond, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, will serve as senior adviser and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield is being nominated to serve as U.N. ambassador.
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