Shortly after being inaugurated as President of the United States, Joseph R. Biden used his new authority to sign Executive Order 13985, “Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” In welcome contrast to the previous presidential administration, which consistently ignored racial inequality and provided comfort to White supremacists, Biden’s order, the first of his administration, establishes the problem of rampant systemic inequality as a foundational problem in American society. “It is therefore the policy of my Administration,” Biden’s order announced, “that the Federal Government should pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”
President Biden’s intentional and progressive action on this front is reminiscent of the clarion call of another president, Harry Truman. On December 5, 1946, President Truman signed Executive Order 9808, establishing his Presidential Committee on Civil Rights. The following year, the Committee published its 178-page report, entitled To Secure These Rights. While the committee disbanded, Truman again used the power of his office to issue two additional orders, 9980 and 9981, which ended segregation in the federal workforce and the U.S. Armed Services, respectfully.
The engine driving the work Biden has set in place with EO 13985 is the White House Domestic Policy Council, headed by former National Security Advisor for the Obama Administration, Susan Rice. Rice and the DPC will lead a coordinated effort across agencies, with the assistance of the Office of Management and Budget, to identify inequities where they exist in the federal government and take concrete steps to address them. Bad policy, even when it is put in place with good intention, is at the root of social and economic inequality. Rice’s leadership of such a broad and impactful effort offers a glimmer of hope that effective social justice measures can take root under the Biden-Harris Administration.
Some in the Black community have already expressed dissatisfaction with Biden’s first efforts to address racial inequality. EO 13985 doesn’t feel tangible yet, and his executive order eliminating the use of private prisons at the federal level, while encouraging, has a very limited impact on the ongoing issue of mass incarceration in the US. The fact that these orders were paired with memorandums from the administration that also address the plight of First Nation people as well as Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, to some, represents a diluted focus on the broad problems of “people of color” and not Black people specifically. The criticism is fair, given that we are now far enough away from the implementation of affirmative action policies to know that, while Black people demanded these remedies, White women have been the primary beneficiaries of those policies.
It will take not only time but a continuation of strategic civic engagement and the pressure it brings for the promises made by the Biden-Harris campaign in its “Lift Every Voice: The Biden Plan for Black America” to come to fruition. The $70 billion pledged to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, as well as Minority-Serving Institutions, would have a powerful long-term impact on their fates. The promise of student loan forgiveness for families earning under $125,000 would provide much-needed relief for many, but Black women in particular, as they carry disproportionate amounts of student loan debt. When it comes to addressing other forms of economic inequality, revisions to the Small Business Credit Initiative, closer attention to the equitable distribution of the Paycheck Protection Program, as well as ensuring equitable access to credit and capital for Black-owned businesses are also sorely needed. Positive outcomes on these fronts will be decided by the pressure that Black communities can organize and apply to this current administration.
– Tameka Bradley Hobbs, Ph.D., Director of the FMU Social Justice Institute