On Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed four sweeping executive actions as part of his ongoing racial equity plan. The actions aimed to eliminate discriminatory housing practices, end contracts with private prisons, combat anti-Asian racism and xenophobia, and underscored a commitment to Tribal sovereignty.
“I firmly believe the nation is ready to change, but government has to change as well,” Biden said before signing the actions.
The actions are just a few of the several executive orders the president has signed the past week to advance racial equity and improve race relations. As Prism recently reported, Black and brown organizers had some big hopes for Biden’s first 100 days and saw promise in his agenda. Now, one week into the Biden presidency, it appears many activists and progressive organizations are pleased with what they see—so far.
“We acknowledge and commend the Biden-Harris Administration’s efforts to make racial equality a legislative priority and center piece to their agenda,” said Judith Browne Dianis, executive director of the Advancement Project National Office, a multiracial civil rights organization, in a press statement. “The Biden-Harris Administration is recognizing that young people and people of color voted unapologetically for a transformative agenda on policing, voting rights, climate change, education and immigration.”
While acknowledging that Biden’s executive actions were a move in the right direction and that it “pushes the reset button” after four years of the Trump administration’s policies surrounding housing and private prisons, Dianis added that there’s still a long way to go before people see real progress in the fight for criminal justice reform.
“[T]o truly tear down systems of oppression, the Biden-Harris Administration must do more to address mass incarceration in public prisons and ICE-led detention centers—not only private prisons. We must continue to hold this administration accountable and demand bold and innovative solutions to address racial inequity,” Dianis said.
DeAnna Hoskins, president and CEO of JustLeadershipUSA, a national nonprofit building a movement to decarcerate the United States, recognized the significance of Tuesday’s executive orders and stressed the importance of continuing to include the perspectives of the people closest to the problems when creating policy.
“Ending the federal government’s relationship with for-profit prisons is a step in the right direction, but it is just a step,” said Hoskins in a statement to Prism. “The private prison industry has played an outsized role in the demonization and humiliation of disproportionately Black and brown people, and reminds us of our history of profiting from the bodies of marginalized people. We are encouraged to see the Biden administration end the Department of Justice’s reliance on this industry, and hope that this will signal a renewed emphasis on the part of state and federal legislators to decarcerate the United States, and uplift our common values of human dignity and respect for all people.”
The executive order on private prisons does not apply to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, but reports say Biden is considering executive action to end ICE contracts with private immigration detention facilities.
Biden’s other executive orders have also drawn some praise. The presidential memorandum acknowledging the rise in anti-Asian racism and xenophobia in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic—which has consistently been on the rise since last spring—was a welcome move by many Asian Americans who have been on the receiving end of racist attacks. After the orders were signed, leaders with Asian Americans Advancing Justice released a statement applauding the president.
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, political leaders including the former President and current members of Congress have repeatedly used racist rhetoric such as the ‘China virus,’ ‘China plague,’ and ‘kung flu’ when referring to COVID-19, which has stoked xenophobia and led to increased racism and discrimination against Asian Americans who are being wrongly blamed for COVID-19,” the statement read. “Racist and xenophobic language should have no place in our government documents or policy. It should have no place in our society at all. The presidential memorandum … will begin the process of accountability that we need to address the anti-Asian racism and xenophobia our communities have suffered during COVID-19, as well as the deep structural racism that has manifested itself throughout U.S. history.”
Biden, who has said he decided to run for president after the deadly 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, has made racial justice a priority during his first 100 days. Biden has made racial equity and inclusion a centerpiece during his first week in office, saying he hopes to heal the country’s racial divide and end systemic racism. Biden’s administration has been called the most diverse cabinet in history. In his inaugural address, Biden also became the first president in history to use the term “white supremacy” and denounce it. Also on his first day in office, Biden signed an executive order titled, “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” calling for a comprehensive approach to reaching out to underserved communities.
In addition to the executive orders signed Tuesday concerning Tribal sovereignty, Biden has made several big moves concerning Tribal nations. Before taking office, he appointed Rep. Deb Haaland as the nation’s first ever Native American interior secretary. On his first day, Biden also canceled the Keystone XL Pipeline and placed a moratorium on all federal gas and oil activities in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
“These executive orders are welcome after 4 yrs of the Trump admin, but don’t achieve the large structural change Native Nations need & deserve,” tweeted Rebecca Nagle, a journalist who often writes about Indian Country. “Spoiler alert, that kind of change can’t happen without Congress.”
Biden has also issued several Trump-era policies with a goal of creating more equity. This week, he signed an executive order ending the Trump-era ban on transgender military service. Biden also revoked the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, which had been accused of whitewashing history and downplaying the effects slavery has played in shaping American society.