Jan 26, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden picks up his pen to change the tone on racial equity

Vice President Harris looks on as President Biden signs executive orders related to his racial equity agenda. Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

President Biden is making a down payment on racial equity in a series of executive orders dealing with everything from private prisons to housing discrimination, treatment of Asian Americans and relations with indigenous tribes.

The big picture: Police reform and voting rights legislation will take time to pass in Congress. But with the stroke of his pen, one week into the job, Biden is taking steps within his power as he seeks to change the tone on racial justice from the Trump administration.

  1. Order #1: Directs the Justice Department not to renew contracts with private prisons. (This doesn’t apply to private prisons for immigration enforcement.)
  2. Order #2: Directs the Department of Housing and Urban Development to examine how previous administrations undermined fair housing policies and laws.
  3. Order #3: Calls for “re-establishing federal respect for tribal sovereignty” following years of tension between tribal governments and former President Trump.
  4. Order #4: Directs the Department of Health and Human Services to examine discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

What they're saying: “Following four years of the Trump administration turning a blind eye to racial inequity and injustice at every turn, we are pleased that this new administration is centering its focus around issues impacting the lives and reality faced by people of color in this country," said Dorian Spence of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

  • Alicia Garza of Black to the Future Action Fund said the orders "are a floor to set and not the ceiling."
  • “It is encouraging to see a president promoting racial equity, instead of inciting racism,” said Robert McCaw of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

The other side: Day 1 Alliance, a trade association of private prisons, denounced the executive order on private prisons and said they have little to do with mass incarceration.

  • "The vast majority of contractor-operated facilities house criminal aliens who will be deported upon completion of their sentences, under a program created by Congress in the 1990s," the group said.

Flashback: Trump praised figures such as Robert E. Lee and former President Jackson to the dismay of many Black and Native Americans. He also explained his halting of diversity training in federal agencies, saying that “they were teaching people to hate our country."

The bottom line: Racial justice advocates praised Biden's executive orders but expect him to do more to aggressively tackle poverty, voting rights and police shootings of people of color.

  • "The order signed today is an important first step toward acknowledging the harm that has been caused and taking actions to repair it," said David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project.
  • "President Biden has an obligation to do more, especially given his history and promises."
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