Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on January 26, 2021 in Washington, DC. Rice discussed plans for President Biden's racial equity agenda. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images) White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki And Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice Hold Briefing
Domestic Policy Advisor Susan Rice speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on January 26, 2021 in Washington, DC. Rice discussed plans for President Biden's racial equity agenda. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Biden said Tuesday that criminal justice reform is necessary but “isn’t nearly enough.” Racial equity “has to be the business of the whole of government,” he added. 

President Joe Biden pledged that advancing racial equity was one of his top priorities as president and he took initial steps to begin that work on Tuesday, signing a series of executive orders that address prisons, housing discrimination, the government’s relations with indigienous tribes, and racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

Speaking at the White House on Tuesday, Biden cited the tragic police killing of George Floyd last May as a turning point in the fight for racial equity and against systemic racism. 

“Those 8 minutes and 46 seconds that took George Floyd’s life opened the eyes of millions of Americans and millions of people all over the world. It was the knee on the neck of justice and it wouldn’t be forgotten,” Biden said. “In my view, it marked a turning point in this country’s attitude toward racial justice.”

While Tuesday’s orders do not directly address police reform, Biden agreed Tuesday that criminal justice reform is necessary but “isn’t nearly enough.” Racial equity “has to be the business of the whole of government,” he added. His new orders underscore that approach. 

They will

  • Direct the Department of Justice not to renew contracts with private prisons. The order does not apply to private immigration facilities, however, which fall under the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Order the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to promote equitable housing policies by analyzing areas where the Trump’s administration’s policies undermined fair housing laws. Biden is also asking HUD to fully implement the requirements of the Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to discriminate in the sale or rental of housing on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status, or disability.
  • Direct federal agencies to regularly and meaningfully engage with Native American tribes and increase their sovereignty.
  • Direct the Department of Health and Human Services to study how former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about COVID-19 may have led to racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. The order also directs the DOJ to work with these communities to prevent hate crimes.

Biden said that Susan Rice, director of the Domestic Policy Council, would be charged with overseeing these equity efforts.

Collectively, these efforts signal that the administration is taking the issue of racial equity seriously. The president also signed a slew of executive orders last week dealing with equity, including one that directed the federal government to “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.” 

Biden has also made equity an integral part of his plans to tackle both the ongoing public health and economic suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic, which—owing to decades of structural racism—has disproportionately devastated communities of color. 

On Tuesday, he spoke of how the pandemic had further laid bare the jarring racial inequities in America.

“No one has been spared, but the devastation in communities of color has been nothing short of stunning,” Biden said. “One in 10 Black Americans is out of work today. One in 11 Latino Americans is out of work today…Black and Latino Americans are dying of COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of white Americans.”

Biden’s orders were praised by activists and civil rights leaders, who hope it will lead to even further reforms.  

“It’s a really good sign that the Biden administration is going to really look at all the powers that they have to make the government work for people who most need it. And certainly, Black, brown, and Indigenous people I would put at the top of that list,” said Seft Hunter, the director of Black-Led Organizing at Community Change.

In an interview with MSNBC, the resident of the NAACP Derrick Johnson also called Biden’s efforts a “great initial start.” 

“The fact he’s embedding this inside of Domestic Policy Council shows the urgency and the gravity of what’s taking place,” Johnson said.

Biden’s effort to eliminate the use of private prisons was quickly hailed by progressives, including Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Jamaal Bowman (D-NY). “This is a big step. But it is just that — a step,” Bowman wrote in a tweet. “We must keep fighting to end profiteering off of all jails and prisons.”

The use of private prisons is highly controversial and a 2016 DOJ report found that they were more violent than government-run institutions for both inmates and guards. The Obama administration tried to phase out their use on the federal level, but that policy was reversed under the Trump administration. Biden is now once again working to eliminate the DOJ’s use of private prisons altogether.

As of 2017, more than 27,000 people were incarcerated in federal private prisons, a 78% increase since 2000, according to the Sentencing Project.

Biden’s effort is an important step to addressing the systemic racism embedded in the nation’s criminal justice system, according to Hunter.

“It is no mystery that when we think about who is most likely to be harmed by the rightly-termed prison industrial complex in this country, it tends to be communities of color,” Hunter said. “It is an important step and I definitely acknowledge it’s a step in the right direction. But I also think this is something that really is crying out for longer term structural change.”

He believes that congressional action will be necessary to enact that change and avoid further rollbacks or pivots, as happened under Trump. 

Hunter, who previously worked with communities of color on housing issues, also believes the order is an important step following the Trump administration’s efforts to “weaponize” Fair Housing laws and sow racial division. 

Black Americans have long faced discrimination with regards to housing, making it more difficult for them to obtain home loans, buy homes, and build wealth. They’ve also faced discrimination when trying to rent, finding themselves officially and unoffically segregated into low-resource areas.

Hunter hopes the Biden administration will begin to lay the groundwork for more equitable housing policies. “It’s going to be a new day over at HUD,” he said. Beyond enforcing Fair Housing measures, Hunter hopes agency officials will get more involved in protecting renters and overseeing the CDC’s existing eviction moratorium. 

“There is a looming crisis, both on the eviction front as well as potentially on the mortgage foreclosure front,” Hunter said. “When we look at the economic disparities, we have a solid understanding on who will be most impacted, and again, again, it’s the same group that we’re most concerned about.”

An estimated 14 million people are at risk of eviction during the pandemic, with renters of color being disproportionately vulnerable to losing their homes.

While Biden’s efforts represent a step in the right direction to achieve racial equity, there’s a lot more to do, according to Hunter.

“I do think that the first 100 days and beyond is really about how we begin to address some of these systemic harms around education, around economics, around criminal justice, and also around voting rights and Democratic protections,” Hunter said. “On almost any of these issues that we’re talking about, the racial impact almost always means that many of these critical issues disproportionately and adversely impact Black folks, brown folks and Indigenous people.”

Black Americans have for decades lacked access to quality health care and basic social and economic necessities such as transportation, housing, education, and good-paying jobs. Consequently, they lag behind their white counterparts on wealth, income, employment,  home ownership, and health outcomes.

Biden himself acknowledged that far more action would be necessary to address the evil of systemic racism.

“Our soul will be troubled as long as systematic racism is allowed to persist,” Biden said. It’s corrosive, it’s destructive, and it’s costly….We’re less successful. We’re less secure. We must change.”