First of Its Kind: Biden’s Whole-of-Government Executive Order to Advance Racial Equity

By: Prema Rahman, MPAC Human Security Program Manager

Image credit — Photographer: Ken Cedeno/CNP/Bloomberg

Amongst the tidal wave of executive actions President Biden signed on his first day in office, one in particular is historic in nature: the Executive Order (EO) On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government (aka the Racial Equity EO). Through this EO, Biden directs the White House Domestic Policy Council (DPC), headed by Susan Rice, to coordinate and advance racial equity throughout the federal government. In line with the order’s general intent, in Section 10 of the directive, Biden also revokes Trump’s controversial Executive Order 13950, which prohibited federal diversity and inclusion training. This marks the first time a president has enacted a sweeping measure to directly redress racial inequity and discrimination across every agency in the federal government, and it makes clear that racial justice will be a priority in the Biden presidency.

The Racial Equity EO is now the closest America has come to producing comprehensive, systemic accountability for each federal department and agency’s contributions to perpetuating racial injustice. Within 200 days of the issuance of the order, the head of each agency needs to evaluate and report on select programs and policies to gauge “whether underserved communities and their members face systemic barriers in accessing benefits and opportunities available pursuant to those policies and programs.” Within 6 months, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) must submit a report to the POTUS on best practices, gathered from a study with heads of agencies, to assess “equity with respect to race, ethnicity, religion, income, geography, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability.” Alongside these mandates, Biden also provides recommendations on allocating federal resources for just and equitable investment in underserved communities and lays the foundation for equitable distribution of government benefits and programs. The whole-of-government approach to eradicating systemic racial inequities shows great cognizance and initiative on the Biden administration’s part to tackle the historic, deep-rooted nature of America’s institutionalized racism.

The government is responsible for actively creating racialized, exclusionary policies throughout the 20th century. Local, state, and federal governments enacted “racially restrictive covenants, exclusionary zoning, […] and endemic redlining of Black neighborhoods.” In the shadow of Jim Crow America, combined with the refusal to adequately invest in Black neighborhoods and discriminatory incarceration, these policies have crippled Black communities for decades and mounted mile-high barriers to their success. Biden himself contributed to this problem with his infamous 1994 crime law, which gave rise to mass incarceration that disproportionately impacted Black and Brown communities.

The Black vote provided Biden with a significant edge in the presidential election, perhaps even enough to help him win. As such, he is absolutely indebted to Black America and needs to proactively resolve issues like police reform, mass incarceration, and discriminatory housing and lending practices. Prominent civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and Movement for Black Lives will be holding Biden accountable to his promises on creating comprehensive racial equity and addressing structural racism.

On Tuesday, January 26, Biden signed four more executive actions on racial equity, including: (1) an Executive Order directing the Department of Justice (DOJ) to eliminate its use of private prisons; (2) a Memorandum directing the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to redress the federal government’s history of propping up housing discrimination; (3) a Memorandum condemning discrimination and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; and (4) a Memorandum directing government officials to strengthen relationships with indigenous sovereign governments. While NAACP and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights have commended these executive actions, the Biden administration and the relevant departments and agencies need to commit themselves to the goals outlined and plan for action beyond these mandates. The NAACP provided clear-cut policy recommendations to the administration to advance justice for and empower Black America. Similarly, the National Fair Housing Alliance put forth a detailed roadmap for both the executive and legislative branches to expand housing equity. These resources can help Biden and his team develop a blueprint for their racial justice action plan.

To bring forth meaningful change, Biden needs to remain steadfast in his promise to advance racial and social justice throughout his four-year term, and it is imperative that Congress steps up on its duties to the American people and approve the necessary funding by enacting policies that bolster the president’s efforts. The breadth of Biden’s executive actions, ranging from the Racial Equity EO to his memo to resolve housing discrimination, is a promising start. Even so, one of the biggest — if not the biggest — demands to emerge from last summer’s civil rights movement is still missing amongst these directives. Police reform needs immediate attention. Some of that attention came in the form of Biden’s EO directing the DOJ to pull out of the private prison system (the incentivisation attached to using privately operated detention facilities inevitably leads to greater incarceration of Black population). As the Capitol insurrection of January 6 confirmed, however, our law enforcement is riddled with white supremacist sympathizers.

On September 2020, Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD 8), who was then Chair of the Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, released an unredacted version of a 2006 FBI Intelligence Assessment, “The White Supremacist Infiltration of Law Enforcement”, where the FBI warned of the dangers of violent white supremacist ideals influencing law enforcement personnel. The Brennan Center has conducted extensive research into this phenomenon and found that despite the FBI’s identification of the links between white supremacy and law enforcement, “the Justice Department has no national strategy designed to identify white supremacist police officers or to protect the safety and civil rights of the communities they patrol.” The longer our government takes to address the need for police reform, the greater the threat to Black lives in our heavily policed nation.

Full dismantlement of systemic racism will take time and will likely need to extend far beyond Biden’s time in office. For now, Biden has embarked on the right path. To reverse decades worth of government-instituted racialized policies that have physically, mentally, and economically hurt Black communities, Biden, along with Congress and the whole of the federal government, will need to enact strong measures to eradicate the greatest sources of racial inequity.

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