President Joe Biden signed four executive orders on Wednesday that address racial inequalities and injustice.
The first executive order strengthens anti-discrimination housing policies that were weakened by the Trump administration. The second order forbids the federal government from signing new contracts with private companies to house federal prisoners. The third order aims to increase the power of tribal nations when engaging with federal agencies, and the final order formally condemns the rising racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Biden said that these executive orders, which join a growing list of racial justice actions by his administration, are meant to redress historical wrongs and level the playing field for all Americans.
“We have never fully lived up to the founding principles of this nation, to state the obvious, that all people are created equal and have a right to be treated equally throughout their lives,” Biden said in a press briefing. “And it’s time to act now, not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because if we do, we’ll all be better off for it.”
Wednesday’s executive orders were largely applauded by human rights, racial justice, and legal groups across the country.
The formal condemnation of racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islander was heralded by the Asian American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (AALDEF) as a promising step toward a national reckoning with racism. The AALDEF noted that 2,800 hate crimes against Asian Americans were reported since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. These incidents “followed the former president’s repeated use of racist, inflammatory terms, such as ‘China Virus’ and ‘Kung Flu,’” the AALDEF said in a statement.
The executive order on tribal rights was welcomed by the National Congress of American Indians: “The first steps President Biden has taken toward truth and reconciliation with Tribal Nations are so responsive to our needs and aligned with our values and principles. This order will, in effect, improve federal processes around policy implementation and budgeting for tribal lands, ensuring that tribal members and Indigenous communities have a say throughout these processes and that principles of transparency are upheld.
Biden also declared that the federal government will stop relying on private prisons, a first step toward removing the profit incentive from the criminal justice system. Reform advocates have long argued that the justice system criminalizes poverty through cash bail, civil forfeiture laws, and the overpolicing of poor communities.
Lauren-Brooke Eisen, director of the justice program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, told the Hill that the new order covers just 9% of the federal prison population and that current private prison contracts will be allowed to remain.
Further, the order doesn’t include the detention of immigrants and asylum seekers in private facilities under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These facilities are notorious for violating human rights.
“If the administration is serious about removing profit from incarceration, they need to look at DHS and ICE contracts with these firms,” Eisen told the Hill.
The executive order on housing centers on two federal policies that were enacted under the Obama administration that were subsequently gutted under the Trump administration: a rule that protected marginalized communities from housing discrimination, and the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which sought to address systemic racism in housing.
“All people — regardless of their circumstances or background — should have equal access to fair housing,” Sandra Park, senior staff attorney at the ACLU, said in a statement. “The Biden administration must restore these critical tools needed to dismantle residential segregation and other forms of housing discrimination that lock out marginalized communities from housing opportunities.”
Biden has made racial justice a priority in his first several days in office. In addition to his latest executive orders, he has also called on federal agencies to review policies that reinforce systemic racism and reinstate diversity and sensitivity training protocols, and he rescinded the Trump administration’s 1776 commission, which was widely rebuked by historians.
The Biden cabinet is on track to be the most diverse in US history if approved. While improved representation does not, in and of itself, guarantee that future policies will advance racial justice and reduce economic inequality, they indicate that a broader swath of the American public will have a say in decision-making processes.
For example, Deb Haaland, the nominee to head the Department of the Interior, is the first Indigenous person to be nominated to the post. Haaland has spent her life advocating for greater tribal sovereignty and Indigenous rights. As the interior secretary, she will be able to allocate resources to improve government services on tribal lands, protect sacred cultural sites, and, more broadly, advocate for Indigenous rights at the federal level.