On November 7, 2020, Joe Biden used his victory address to speak directly to the Black voters who resuscitated his presidential campaign. The African-American voting bloc rescued a campaign on life support, catapulting him to frontrunner status in the Democratic primary en route to the White House. “Especially at those moments when this campaign was at its lowest ebb, the African-American community stood up again for me,” Biden said, to applause. “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.” From the outset, it looked like the Biden Administration would put racial equity front and center in its policy decisions.
The rhetoric continued after Biden was sworn in. The President, who surrounded himself with a diverse cabinet of secretaries, including Vice President Kamala Harris, called the job of advancing racial equity “the responsibility of the whole of our government.” The President did not wait for Congress to act, signing a series of early executive orders. On day one, he signed the “Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” The order called for the government to “pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and plagued by multi-generational poverty and inequality.” The order went into great detail to specify who was due redress and remedy:
The term “equity” means the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.
Days later, the President signed four additional executive orders that would: direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development “to take steps necessary to redress racially discriminatory federal housing policies”; direct the Department of Justice to end its use of private prisons; reaffirm the federal government’s “commitment to tribal sovereignty and consultation”; and “combat xenophobia against Asian American and Pacific Islanders.”
President Biden’s remarks during the signing represented an Administration that seemed to get it. He spoke to a range of issues, from COVID-19 death disparities among Black and Latino people, police violence punctuated by the killing of George Floyd, the racial wealth gap, voting rights, and a need to teach truthful and accurate history about the nation’s checkered past with respect to race and equality. “Our soul will be troubled as long as systemic racism is allowed to persist,” Biden said before adding that the impacts of racism were “destructive” and “costly.”
A New Deal Start
Hope for something substantially different hit a tipping point when congressional Democrats ushered in a $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan (ARP) to mitigate the devastating impacts of the global pandemic. Passage of the package, in a 50-50 Senate, was a big deal, considering Senate Democrats’ ideologies ranged from progressive to conservative. It was a historic piece of legislation that didn’t get its due in a 24-hour news cycle that always looks for the next big story. The federal government took the rare step of redistributing money to the 99 percent. The ARP was more than just performative. It was substantive, giving hope to many that the Biden Administration was well on its way to delivering on the transformative tenure it promised.
The ARP included direct aid to families in the form of $1,400—means-tested—stimulus checks and the Child Tax Credit, which, according to a Columbia University study, cut the child poverty rate by 25 percent. There was aid for small businesses and local governments to keep people employed. Indigenous communities also received $32 billion for the expansion of social services and public safety programs, and the delivery of potable water. At the forefront of the Administration’s messaging was the acknowledgment that Black, Latino, and other people of color would substantially benefit from this rising tide legislation aimed at lifting all boats.
The Administration book-ended 2021 with November’s passage of a massive infrastructure bill that has the potential to advance its racial equity goals. While the bill calls for upgrades to roads, bridges, and decaying lead water pipes, the devil is always in the details. In this case, that includes the administering of lucrative contracts and a myriad of choices about which communities benefit. How the bipartisan infrastructure bill will be implemented is the test of whether it lives up to its goal of righting the historical wrongs of racism in our nation’s infrastructure.
Racial Progress Collides with Racist Progress
Alas, the jubilation from early policy victories, speeches, and executive orders was short-lived. More than a year into the Biden Administration, the portions of the President’s racial equity agenda that haven’t collapsed seem on the cusp of failure. It’s possible that Biden, who leans heavily on his ability to be a unifier, underestimated the gravity of the task before him. As author, historian, and activist Ibram X. Kendi notes, racial progress and racist progress accompany each other in our journey through history:
To deny the forward march of racism is to deny the successes of American racists. We have paid less attention to the progression of racism that often follows racial progress: how the law, the lyncher, and the creditor replaced the master, the whip, and the slave patrol in locking Black people into destitution to white exploiters.
Racial disparities in everything from wealth to health have persisted in the United States because racist policies have persisted, and oftentimes progressed. When the Obamas of the nation have broken through racial barriers, the Trumps of the nation did not give up. They organized and sometimes succeeded in putting new racial barriers in place, new discriminatory policies in our institutions. And they succeeded in developing a new round of racist ideas to justify those policies, to redirect the blame for racial disparities away from their new policies and onto supposed Black pathology.
Systemic racism is not a matter of accident or misunderstanding. It is intentional and calculating. At times brutal, at times genteel, but always devastating, whether polite or barbaric. To have the backs of Black Americans is a choice that was destined to test President Biden’s allegiances. Real progress on combatting systemic racism put the President on a collision course with people he’d long considered friends and allies.
We need look no further than police reform to see the remnants of this collision. Biden is the architect of the 1994 crime bill that pumped obscene amounts of money into policing and incarceration at the expense of Black, brown, and poor communities. More than two decades later, the President is still in staunch opposition to legalizing cannabis and an unapologetic defender of a law enforcement machine that is functioning as intended: a brutal check on communities of color and the poor. Where Biden is a critic, he critiques individual officers’ actions, not policing as a whole. In his remarks after Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, the President stated, “Most men and women who wear the badge serve their communities honorably,” while singling out “those few who fail” to meet a standard of service and should be held accountable.
Republicans love to caricature the President as a radical socialist when nothing could be further from the truth. Nobody paying attention believed Biden would be a strident supporter of the Movement for Black Lives or the demand to defund the police. There are live debates along the spectrum from abolition to reform. However, even among the most tepid of police reformers, what is not in dispute are the clear majorities that want more investment in communities of color. The President’s response has been swift calls against defund coupled with calls to refund police, asking for money for municipalities to hire more officers.
After months of negotiations, a police reform bill in honor of George Floyd’s memory predictably collapsed in September after bipartisan negotiations hit an impasse. There are those who believe policing needs substantial reform and those who believe police improvements come down to restoring trust. But as those who do substantial work in repairing relationships know well, there can be no restoration of trust without naming the harms caused and developing an action plan for improved behavior. The President has been unwilling to critique policing as an institution or take on police unions, which frequently stand in the way of even the most modest of reforms. Justice Department policies aimed at banning chokeholds and no-knock warrants and expanding the use of body cameras are designed to mitigate policing at its worst. Before you arrive at George Floyd’s tragic murder, citizens suffered racial profiling, stop and frisks, and other acts that cut at the heart of human dignity. These aren’t mere misunderstandings, and you can’t train your way out of a police culture that sees the public as adversaries.
While debates on police reform among people within his electoral coalition give the President somewhat of an out on taking action, the same cannot be said on the issue of voting rights. As the calendar ticks closer to the 2022 midterm elections, the need for swift, transformative action to protect our democracy becomes more urgent. Republican-driven efforts to restrict access to the ballot or outright overturn the results of free and fair elections have gone into overdrive in the year since the attempted insurrection on January 6. Where most Republicans aren’t explicitly co-signing those who would use political violence to achieve their goals, as Senator Josh Hawley did when raising a fist at the soon-to-be insurrectionists, make no mistake, they are aiding and abetting in other ways. A December 2021 YouGov poll found that just 21 percent of Republicans think the 2020 election was legitimate. These are not mere thoughts. The belief in the “Big Lie” is propelling rules changes across the country. According to the Brennan Center, in 2021, “At least 19 states passed 34 laws restricting access to voting. More than 440 bills with provisions that restrict voting access have been introduced in 49 states in the 2021 legislative sessions.”
In response to these unprecedented and coordinated attempts at voter suppression, the White House told voting rights organizers that they’d need to focus on turnout and “out-organize” voter suppression. This slap in the face spoke volumes about the Administration’s priorities. While it is true that Black voters have moved mountains for the right to vote, Black voters should not have to brave long lines, broken voting machines, and a policy deck stacked against them to cast a ballot. No one should.
After months of quiet negotiations about filibuster reform with Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema went nowhere, the President publicly called for a “carve-out” to pass a voting rights bill with a simple majority. But the damage had been done. In January, organizers’ frustrations boiled over. In response to a planned trip to Georgia to highlight the need to pass voting rights legislation, groups told Biden not to visit the Peach State without a concrete plan to get legislation over the finish line. “We reject any political visit that does not also come with policy progress—with signs of clear work done, of something accomplished. We reject any visit that fails to begin with the question, ‘How does this serve the people of Georgia?’” the coalition said via statement. Biden’s speech felt like everything organizers said it would be: short on policy proposals and no news of progress. It was uncharacteristically fiery for Biden, who juxtaposed John Lewis and Bull Connor while name-checking Fannie Lou Hamer when asking senators what side of history they want to be on. Had this speech come in August when organizers asked the President to use his bully pulpit, it may have been better received. But with time running out, it looked all too convenient for the President and Vice President to rouse up a crowd already in agreement versus taking the fight directly to the key senators who needed to be moved. It is a well-worn tactic meant to shore up the Administration’s credibility as an ally in the fight. But as organizers have noted, White House speeches in the face of organized Republican legislation to suppress the vote, gerrymander districts, and rig the outcome of elections miss the mark and fail to meet the moment. After all the “what side are you on” questions Biden lobbed during the speech, Manchin and Sinema answered that question the same week the nation celebrated Martin Luther King Day: They remain unapologetically on the side of the southern segregationists. The pair joined all 50 Republican senators to vote down a rule change to amend the filibuster to pass the Freedom to Vote: John R. Lewis Act via simple majority.
This lack of progress isn’t limited to police reform and voting rights. The Build Back Better Act was slated to be one of the biggest legislative restructurings of society since The New Deal. BBB would have extended the Child Tax Credit, invested in universal pre-K, offered $555 billion in resources to fight climate change, which, like most other things, disproportionately impact communities of color. Despite a significant paring down in negotiations, BBB remains embattled in the Senate. Congressional Democrats and the White House are vowing to fight on, and pledge to pass a “significant” portion of the bill this year.
Those who may have been hoping a Biden Administration would be a bigger ally on immigration than its predecessor have also been left frustrated and angry. While immigration organizers and activists receive an audience, the same destructive and destabilizing immigration policies championed under Donald Trump’s regime remain in place. Title 42, a 1944 policy that prevents migrants from seeking asylum during a public health crisis, is still in place while COVID-19 rages worldwide. Additionally, there was an increase in deportations last fall. And where the Administration had an opportunity to provide redress to families separated during Trump-era immigration crackdowns, settlement talks broke down after news leaked that impacted families may have gotten as much as $450,000. The Justice Department now expects the courts to settle the issue of compensation.
What Happens to a Dream Deferred?
In 2020, Joe Biden called the presidential election a “fight for the soul of the nation.” Restoring that soul is not complete without a policy reckoning to remedy the damage done by centuries of systemic racism and inequality. As the Republican Party grows more authoritarian by the day, Democratic failures to deliver on racial equity issues like climate change, police violence, immigration, and voting rights risk more than turning over the balance of power in Congress to the opposing party. A Republican takeover threatens to plunge this country and communities of color back into the dark ages of history.
As a rich, aging white man with a lifetime of Secret Service protection, Joe Biden will be spared the material consequences that will visit communities of color who find themselves unable to vote, policed by hostile law enforcement machines, and living in neighborhoods constantly in danger of the ravages of climate change. We are at a crisis point. Failure is simply not an option. The stakes here are greater than the fates of people of color and speak to the existence of the American Project itself. Delivering on an agenda that puts racial equity at the forefront is a matter of life and death. The best time to deliver was yesterday. The next best time is today.