Tanzina: On Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed four new executive orders to address systemic racism and racial inequity.
Biden: I'm not promising we can end it tomorrow, but I promise you, we're going to continue to make progress to eliminate systemic racism in every branch in the white house and the federal government is going to be part of that effort.
Tanzina: The orders include housing policies to prevent discrimination and end to private federal prisons, respecting sovereignty of Native American tribes, and fighting discrimination against Asian Americans. These steps by the Biden administration come after four years of a Trump administration where racial tensions were inflamed. It's going to take a lot more than four executive actions to fix systemic racism in this country, and civil rights leaders are hoping to see more from the new administration. I'm Tanzina Vega, and the Biden administration's approach to racial equity is where we start today on The Takeaway. For more, I'm joined by Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson, a historian, and professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College. Kellie, welcome back to the show.
Kellie: Hi, thanks for having me.
Tanzina: We also have Russell Contreras, the justice and race reporter at Axios. Russell, thanks for being with us.
Russell: Good to be with you.
Tanzina: Dr. Niambi Carter is an associate professor of political science at Howard University. Niambi, thank you for joining us.
Niambi: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina: We'll give you the first question, Niambi. How is the administration defining racial equity?
Niambi: I think it's been really interesting to see this administration seem to take the systemic approach to equity rather than the individual bad actor approach. I think it's clear that they know that they can't change individual opinions, but they can at least address some of the federal policies that have led us here.
Tanzina: Kellie, do you think the Biden administration is meeting expectations on racial equity so far? We should be clear, the Biden administration has been in office for what? Two weeks?
Tanzina: It's a little much to ask that, but so far--
Kellie: I'll say this, that the Biden administration clearly has a mandate from the black community. We know that the black community was instrumental in bringing about Joe Biden's campaign and even of his presidency. He definitely will have to speak to some of the issues and the grievances in the black community, probably more than any other president. The expectations are high. I think he's trying to get out the gate running, but we'll see what happens particularly in these next 100 days what his platform looks like.
Tanzina: Russell, who are the key players in shaping the Biden administration's racial equity agenda so far?
Russel: Well, it's domestic policy advisor, Susan Rice. She's the one that introduced these executive orders in a conference call with reporters, and Vice-President Kamala Harris. She's definitely playing a role in here. But you have a number of people who have been appointed, and who are awaiting confirmation. Also, Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland. She's someone who's been very outspoken on indigenous issues, she's a congresswoman here in New Mexico. He's putting together a diverse group of folks to advise him on these things. This is a down payment on what's to come in the future of administration according to these officials.
Tanzina: Kellie, in your experience, there have been presidents who have talked about racial equity, or I should say racial inequity. Have we seen a president address this quickly out of the gate?
Kellie: I don't think we can. I think even when we think about President Obama, there was a lot of distancing that he did to try to say, "I'm not the president of black America, I'm the president of all America. I have to address all American issues." I think that Biden will have a completely different set of expectations, given that he doesn't have to navigate around a black identity like Obama did. Also, coming off of the Trump administration, there's been so much harm that's been done that has to be remedied or rectified immediately or very soon. I think the stakes are much higher, I think the stakes are different.
Tanzina: Niambi, your thoughts on that, because I'm wondering. That is such a different place that we are right now after four years of the Trump administration, than when President Obama, being the first black president of this country, really had to navigate. Is the pump primed, if you will, for Biden to really take this on?
Niambi: I think so. I think there's certainly an appetite for it. We saw the events of the summer. I think we saw these tepid attempts under the Clinton administration when they did the OneAmerica report that was headed by a preeminent black historian, John Hope Franklin, but nothing really happened out of it. I think we have as much momentum as we're probably going to get in this country, or at least that we've seen in recent memory. This is a moment for Biden to press the gas because the voters that put him in office in Georgia, in Philadelphia, in Michigan, they want to see this. They want someone to talk about anti-Asian sentiment. They want somebody to take seriously, the issue of housing discrimination and reparations and all these other things. He has as close to a positive path forward as we're going to probably see for a very long time in this country. I suggest he keeps going full throttle here.
Tanzina: Russell, let's talk a little bit about the specific orders. One of the executive orders Biden signed was aiming to end contracts between private prisons and the justice department. This however does not apply to immigration detention centers. What does that signal right now about the Biden administration on ICE detention?
Russel: It signals that he still has a lot of work to do to come up with an immigration reform package. Putting undocumented immigrants in some of these private prisons is something he's kicking down the road. He wanted to send a message that he didn't like the fact that the federal government has these contracts with private prisons. The private prison industry pushed back and said, "Look, we're not involved in the "mass incarceration" of people," meaning they don't even agree with the concept. They said, "Look, the main deal we have with the federal government is the detention of immigrants." They pushed back hard on this, but it did signal to some activists that the fact that he acknowledged private prisons play a role in what we have, this mass incarceration problem that is disproportionately affecting communities of color, is something he wants to tackle right out the gate.
Tanzina: Also, Russell, he signed an executive order on Native American tribal sovereignty, something we've been covering Native American communities here on the show quite a bit. That feels like it is a departure from current federal policy. How much of it would you assess that is?
Russell: It's a broad assessment that he wants to engage in tribal communities, but he did want to signal that this is a change of tone from Donald Trump. Donald Trump said many offensive things while he was in office, even having the portrait of President Andrew Jackson in his office, and above events with Native Americans sent a message that angered a lot of tribal governments and tribal members. This is an attempt to change that tone, but I got to tell you, there are some activists that were expecting him to go further. I talked to Nick Tilsen from the Lakota Nation and he said, "Look, give us Black Hills back. Give us a Mount Rushmore back. That's our land. That's ours." That should be something he signaled, but he wasn't going to go that far in the fact that he did say he wants to engage tribal communities was a step forward for some activists.
Tanzina: We're going to be talking a lot about these executive orders down the pike. There's another one, Kellie, I'm curious your thoughts here. The President, Biden wanted to assign an anti-discrimination housing policy executive order. That is also something that the Obama administration weighed in on, really trying to fortify anti-discrimination housing policies. The Trump administration pulled back on some of those. Where does this kind of leave that issue right now?
Kellie: I think it remains to be seen. Housing discrimination is a really big deal and we are still living with the effects of redlining and segregation that took place over 50, 60 years ago. Undoing a lot of the harm that has happened, particularly even if you think about the economic crisis of 2008 and how many African-Americans and Latino Americans lost their homes and have not recovered from those foreclosures and from those losses, there's a lot that has to be done in order to remedy this. It can't be something that is just symbolic. It really has to be substantive and supply the financial resources to get people back on their feet.
Tanzina: Niambi, there was another executive order instructing the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate a troubling trend since the beginning, particularly of the coronavirus violence and discrimination against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders. Remind us again the significance of this, particularly after the Trump administration, and how the Trump administration really may have further alienated this community.
Niambi: Certainly, the United States has a long history of anti-Asian sentiment from the Yellow Peril to contemporary moments, but you had Donald Trump and others from the administration calling it, the China virus, the Wu Han virus, rather than COVID-19. They racialized this illness and really marked this community as carriers of disease.
When doing that, of course, it creates this suspicion that Asian people are, in fact, foreign, first of all, not citizens of the United States, and that they are carriers of disease. I think trying to address the very real discrimination that Asians are experiencing, not just as a result of this moment, but I think over the longer arc, will do a lot to broaden our discussion of what racial equity can look like. I think much of it is focused on say, Blacks and Latinos, but there are Indigenous communities and Asian communities that are racialized also, even though differently than these other communities.
Tanzina: It's a really important point. Russell, your thoughts on that, because you've covered race and ethnicity. I've covered it across the country as well and I do think the Biden administration is signaling something really interesting here with these executive orders broadening many Americans' understanding of how we see race.
Russell: Yes, exactly. You talk to many Latino activists, they'll say, "Look, we need this in our Black communities. There are still some unattended grievances that we have to tackle from slavery, to Jim Crow, to discrimination after the civil rights, but at the same time, this is not a binary discussion about race. If we continue to have a Black-white discussion about race, what you're going to find out, you're going to wake up one morning and find that the whole country is speaking another language because the majority is Latino." But this is not a concept about, "We shall overwhelm." It is still about, "We shall overcome."
The fact that he's proposing these policies but also centering and reminding people, "We have a legacy of slavery and discrimination we need to address." The executive order on housing does attempt to address some of this discrimination, but you have to remember, HUD also services Latino and especially Native American communities. Right now housing is extremely important right now as they deal with COVID.
Tanzina: Kellie, has it been difficult to reconcile Joe Biden's past support of policies, like the 1994 Crime Bill, with what he's doing today? That was something that came up a lot on the campaign trail.
Kellie: Absolutely. When we think about Joe Biden's past in terms of racial equality, it's not a good one, particularly when we think about crime, mass incarceration, and police brutality. I think the similar sentiments could be said for Kamala Harris as well. A lot of the work that they have to do is also about recreating trust in the Black community, that Black people can believe that they will actually do the work that is needed to be done, and that they will commit to this in a different way. Also that they'll be able to self evaluate and see the past harm that's been caused by these laws that have disproportionately impacted Black and brown communities in terms of mass incarceration, and find ways to create restorative justice. I think that's a really big deal. It's a problem when we have so many states that are legalizing marijuana and you still have people who are locked up for those same charges not so long ago.
Tanzina: Niambi, I'm wondering. I've said this for a while, and again, we're only two weeks into this new administration, but I do think that this administration, particularly when it comes to race and other policies, is really going to have to toe the line between more moderate Democrats and more progressive Democrats. We're seeing some of that split happening even in the party. I wouldn't call it a radical split, but there are definitely different ideologies. What kind of policies do you think the more activist progressive grouping here would be looking for from the Biden administration?
Niambi: That's hard to say. I don't claim to be in the activist community. I certainly don't want to speak for them, but I think a number of things that have already been discussed, which is moving further down these roads, "Okay, you don't renew DOJ contracts with private prisons," but we really need to be talking about why we do prisons in the first place. I think many in those communities are really disenchanted with the notion of Criminal Justice and the ways in which we use the criminal justice system, for example, to hurt people.
It's one thing to punish people for their crimes and have them locked up. It's another thing to have people carry the label of felon for the rest of their lives, which disallows them from public housing, food assistance, access to federal resources for education, things like that. It's a continued punishment that denigrates people and makes it very difficult for them to have a living, and creates all of the bad conditions that would lead people to re-offend. For example, I think that's one.
I think if we're going to talk about this housing assistance, and you want to talk about mortgage discrimination, what are you going to do beyond just saying, "Okay, we have to do some things differently so that people can own homes?" There are still people who've never been able to recover from the downturn in the economy a decade ago, and many of those were Black and brown communities that had their homes foreclosed, or had their credit ruined.
We know if you don't have credit, you can't get anything. If you're living in places where many communities of color live, in some cases like Washington, DC, you can think about a home as a middle-income person or even a working middle-income person. I think there are lots of areas where it's like, "Yes, talking about these things, in theory, is one, but reparations is something else." I think there's a real appetite for even debt conversation to be introduced in the midst of all of these executive orders because the reparations conversation, as we know, was very hot during the election cycle.
Tanzina: Absolutely. It's one that's gotten a renewed attention even in the government right now. There have been bills that have been introduced and committees to study how to actually put reparations in order. We know that that is a conversation that really the Biden administration is going to have to tackle. I'm wondering, Russell, if there are any teeth to some of these executive orders. Are there certain measures of success that the Biden administration will be looking for to show that, in fact, these things are having an effect?
Russell: The measurements are still up in the air. How are we going to assess how these executive orders will be graded? I do know, with the executive order on Asian Americans, for example, the agency, the Health Agency will have to go comb through documents to see where this anti-Asian sentiment seeped in documents, does this affect policy, and can you point to examples of discrimination? That's going to be one measurement that we'll be watching.
Another, I think is going to be the followment of resources. I spoke to Alicia Garza, the Black to the Future Action Fund, and she said, "These executive orders are great, but resources are going to follow. That's one thing to say you're going to revamp the housing department, but you got to follow up with resources because you've got homes that are dilapidated, especially on the reservation in some of our urban communities. How fast is does it take to, for example, fix a pipe, fix heat?" Those are going to be assessments that are going to be looked at later down the road, but I think that is one measurement. Right now, it's hard to tell because there isn't a timetable that has been given to look at, say, "How do we measure students?" for example. That's something that activists are going to be pressing for answers from the administration.
Tanzina: Russell, just curious about what the reaction from Republicans has been so far to this.
Russell: I've seen tepid reactions. I've seen some folks going to talk shows. There have been some Republicans who say, "Why are we talking about race? They're going to that card again. Let's get over race." "I'm offended," as Carl Rose said that we're talking about race, that racism still exists. In that area, there still is to be a lack of engagement. Now, on the state level, for example, in New Mexico, there is an acknowledgment that there is systemic racism, but that's going on at a state level and that's when folks that are interacting with various communities where they see it upfront.
We really will get a sense of how they will be engaged when you see specific legislative policy presented, for example, the Immigration Reform Bill or any sort of police reform. That's when we'll really get a sense and if Republicans or even some conservative Democrats are on board.
Tanzina: There will be lots and lots of reporting to do. Russell Contreras is a justice and race reporter at Axios. Dr. Kellie Carter Jackson is a historian and professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Wellesley College, and Dr. Niambi Carter is an associate professor of political science at Howard University. Kellie, Russell, and Niambi, thank you so much for joining me.
Kellie: Thank you.
Niambi: Thank you.
Russell: Thank you.
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