Nearly a week into his administration, President Joe Biden is focused on creating a path toward equity after inheriting a deeply divided nation.
After picking the most racially diverse Cabinet in US history, Biden jump-started his efforts by proposing a sweeping immigration overhaul, disbanding the 1776 commission and reversing a Trump-era ban on most transgender Americans joining the military.
“President Biden believes gender identity should not be a bar to military service and that America’s strength is found in its diversity,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday. “America is stronger around the world when it is inclusive.”
On Tuesday, Biden signed a range of executive orders that could potentially help bridge the gap in homeownership between people of color and White people, strengthen the fight against bigotry faced by Asian Americans and ease the anxiety of families with incarcerated relatives.
“I firmly believe the nation is ready to change but government has to change as well. We need to make equity and justice part of what we do every day, today, tomorrow and every day,” Biden said during his remarks before signing the orders on Tuesday afternoon.
While previous administrations have had “an interest in advancing justice and equity,” a senior administration official told reporters earlier on Tuesday that “never before has there been this whole of government approach” in which every agency has been mandated to advance equity and be held accountable for it.
America’s long history of housing discrimination
The Biden administration intends to promote fair housing in a country where the cost of housing is continuously slipping out of reach for millions of people.
On Tuesday, Biden signed a memorandum directing the Department of Housing and Urban Development to take steps to promote equitable housing politics, according to a senior administration official.
Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, said every year about 4 million people face discrimination when they are trying to purchase or rent homes, or while getting home loans and insurance for their houses or apartments.
But discrimination is not centered on those transactions, Rice says. “There are systems in place that drive and perpetuate discrimination.”
“We hoard resources in predominantly White communities. And then we starve predominantly Black communities of resources. We starve Native American and Latino communities of resources,” Rice said.
America’s long history of housing and mortgage market discrimination practices such as redlining, the biased housing practice that stopped banks from providing mortgages in low-income, largely minority neighborhoods, has impacted generations of Black and Hispanic households, according to research by the Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies.
Researchers found that nearly two-thirds of the Black, Hispanic and Native American populations living in poverty reside in communities with poverty rates above 20% and are underrepresented in higher-income areas.
Among those who own homes, Black people lag behind White homeowners. In the third quarter of 2020, nearly 76% of White households owned their homes compared with 46.4% of Black households and nearly 51% of Hispanic households, according to US Census data.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also disproportionately hurt Black and Latino renters and homeowners, advocates and researchers say. When people lost their jobs due to the economic downturn forced by the pandemic, renters couldn’t pay their rent and began living on the edge of eviction.
Last week, Biden signed an executive action to extend the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s federal moratorium that is protecting millions of struggling renters from eviction until at least the end of March. The CDC’s order first went into effect in September and was previously extended until January 31.
Biden’s push for housing equity comes after the Trump administration ended the Obama-era rule known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing in 2020. The rule was enacted in 2015 as a way to bolster the 1968 Fair Housing Act, which outlawed restrictions on selling or renting homes to people based on race.
Covid-19 brought ‘two pandemics’ for Asian Americans, advocates say
Since the first months of the Covid-19 pandemic, racism and xenophobia against Asian Americans spread across the nation, from violent attacks to racist slurs or jokes.
Biden is taking a stand against discrimination against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community with an executive order on Tuesday acknowledging the harm and directing the Department of Health and Human Services to consider issuing Covid-19 guidance to advance language access and sensitivity toward these communities, according to a senior administration official.
“It does send a signal to the Asian American community that we have an administration that cares about the community and wants to protect the community,” said John C. Yang, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC, which advocates for the civil and human rights of Asian Americans.
Yang said rampant ignorance, misinformation and former President Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Covid-19 led to anti-Asian sentiment.
“Unfortunately the pandemic was really two pandemics for the Asian American community,” Yang said.
Trump, some GOP lawmakers and administration officials used terms like “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus,” even after the World Health Organization and the CDC provided the official terminology for the virus in February. The WHO has advised not to use geographic locations in naming diseases because it creates a stigma.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice - AAJC was among the dozens of organizations that sent a letter to Congress in March asking them to take “tangible steps to counter the hysteria around the novel coronavirus, such as passing a joint resolution denouncing the racism, xenophobia, and misinformation surrounding it.” The US House of Representatives addressed it by passing a resolution in September.
In response to the spike in incidents, Yang said his organization along with Hollaback!, an initiative aimed at combating harassment, have trained over 15,000 people in techniques to intervene and de-escalate if they witness an incident.
Biden will seek to address mass incarceration and one of his first steps will be ending the use of private prisons, according to a senior administration official. The Obama administration moved to phase out the use of private prisons in 2016 but the decision was reversed by the Trump administration.
According to a 2020 report from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, about 2.1 million adults were held in America’s prisons and jails at the end of 2018. In federal prisons, Black people represent nearly 39% of all detainees, according to the Federal Bureau of Prisons though they make up only about 13% of the US population.
Several states already have passed legislation involving for-profit prisons. In 2019, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill to end the use of those facilities and privately run immigration detention facilities by 2028.
Jail and prisons have struggled for years with crowded conditions and inadequate resources and they have not been spared by the coronavirus pandemic.
Some of the country’s largest Covid-19 outbreaks have been reported in correctional facilities. The Covid-19 mortality rate in state and federal prisons has been twice as high as in the general population after adjusting for sex, age and the race/ethnicity of those in prisons, according to an analysis by Kevin T. Schnepel, an assistant professor of economics at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.
Groups are calling for a new White House racial equity office
A coalition of civil rights groups are urging Biden to create a White House office dedicated to leading federal efforts in advancing racial equality and confronting systemic racism in the country.
The NAACP, National Urban League, UnidosUS, Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum; and Faith in Action are some of the organizations that are part of the coalition.
In a memo sent in December, the coalition proposed the creation of an office that would be responsible for supporting federal agencies in their racial equity work, supporting the collection of racial data, fostering partnerships between federal agencies and civil society and training federal employees on racial equity.
“Even before 2020 exposed our pandemic of triple deadly disease and economic hardship and racial unrest, America was a nation that still had only begun to grapple with the legacy of White supremacy,” said Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League. “Establishing a White House Office on Racial Equity and Inclusion is our best hope of nurturing that awakening and achieving our true potential.”
Members of the coalition met with Biden’s transition team on January 12 to discuss their vision for the office and conversations with the administration are ongoing, said Elana Needle, director of the Racial Equity Anchor Collaborative.
CNN’s Nicquel Terry Ellis contributed to this report.