Miami Herald (Sunday)
Biden starts presidency with emphasis on equity
In his first days in office, President Joe Biden has devoted more attention to issues of racial equity than any new president since Lyndon B. Johnson, a focus that has cheered civil rights activists and drawn early criticism from conservatives.
In his inauguration speech, the president pledged to defeat “white supremacy,” using a burst of executive orders on day one to declare that “advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our government.”
He has ordered his coronavirus response team to ensure that vaccines are distributed equitably. His $1.9 trillion recovery plan targets underserved communities by calling for paid leave for women forced out of jobs, unemployment benefits that largely help Black and brown workers, and expanded tax credits for impoverished Americans who are disproportionately nonwhite.
And the new administration is preparing to take sweeping steps in the months ahead to directly address inequity in housing, criminal justice, voting rights, health care, education and economic mobility.
“Racial equity is not a silo in and of itself,” said Cecilia Rouse, Biden’s nominee to lead his Council of Economic Advisers, who would be the first
Black economist to oversee the council if confirmed by the Senate. “It is woven in all of these policy efforts.”
The actions reflect the political coalition backing Biden, who was lifted by Black voters to his party’s nomination and who won the White House in part on the strength of Black turnout and support from women in the suburbs and elsewhere. They also reflect what historians see as a unique opening for Biden to directly address issues of inequality – in contrast to President Barack Obama, under whom Biden served as vice president.
Obama, the nation’s first
Black president, took pains to be seen as a president for “all Americans,” as opposed to Black Americans, said Nicole Hemmer, a Columbia University historian and associate research scholar with the Obama Presidency Oral History project.
“You got less of that overt racial equity language from Barack Obama than you get from Joe Biden,” Hemmer said. “The challenge to Biden is how he makes clear the universal benefits of focusing on racial and gender equity. He is going to face real pushback on this.”
The backlash has already begun. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., told Fox News that Biden’s inaugural address had attacked Republicans with “thinly veiled innuendo, calling us white supremacists, calling us racists.” Columnist Andrew Sullivan, who writes a Substack newsletter, accused the president of “culture war aggression” in a recent post, saying Biden’s focus on “equity” would give “named identity groups a specific advantage in treatment by the federal government over other groups.”
“You don’t get to unite the country by dividing it along these deep and inflammatory issues of identity,” Sullivan wrote.
Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who is leading Biden’s Domestic Policy Council, is charged with ensuring that the new administration embeds issues of racial equity into everything it does. In an interview, she rejected the idea that doing so is a “zero-sum game” that benefited some groups of Americans at the expense of others.
“Look at the COVID crisis, which disproportionately sickened and killed Black and brown people who are the front-line workers, the essential workers,” she said. “We are all poorer when those among us who are most vulnerable, most disadvantaged, are suffering.”
Rice, who is Black, has little experience in domestic policy, but has recruited a team with deep roots in civil rights and justice. She said Biden persuaded her to return to the White House with the promise that equity issues would not be “an isolated bubble,” but rather a central mission of his administration, one focused on rolling back the legacy of President Donald Trump, who she said “deliberately sought to divide and degrade huge segments of our population.”
One of the fullest expressions of Trump’s views came in September when he ordered the government to stop using diversity training programs, saying they were promoting a “malign ideology” that misrepresented the country’s history.
“This ideology is rooted in the pernicious and false belief that America is an irredeemably racist and sexist country; that some people, simply on account of their race or sex, are oppressors; and that racial and sexual identities are more important than our common status as human beings and Americans,” Trump wrote in his executive order.
Biden revoked the orderhis first day. He also disbanded a presidential commission Trump assembled that last week produced a report, widely denounced by historians, that included a reframing of the United States’ history of slavery in terms more favorable to white slaveholders.
Biden made racial and gender equity promises a central theme of his campaign. He nominated a Cabinet that has more women and people of color than any president before him, though he drew criticism from the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus for not appointing any Asian American or Pacific-Islander secretaries.