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Biden Racial Equity Order Only Step One for Civil Rights Groups

Jan. 21, 2021, 10:42 PM

Civil rights groups praised President Joe Biden‘s racial equity executive order but said it was only a start toward leveling the playing field for minority communities.

Biden on the first day of his administration ordered each federal department and agency to sift through their policies and programs to identify if they perpetuate systemic barriers against “underserved communities,” an early move to uphold the new president’s promise to advance racial justice.

“The executive order was a good step because it’s going to force agencies to do an examination and to report back. And then when they do, it could create a basis to do some public policy,” said Marc Morial, president of the National Urban League.

“No president has ever done this to my knowledge. I’m not familiar with what President Johnson may have done in the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Act was passed. But, as far as I’m concerned, no president has ever been this explicit.”

Broad Review

Enlisting all departments to conduct cross-agency equity reviews is also an important step, civil rights advocates said, praising the scope of the order.

“If you tell us about the Treasury Department, it opens up more opportunities for entrepreneurship and closing the wealth gap. With the Education Department, we can address the disparities and quality of education that’s offered to our children,” said NAACP President and CEO Derrick Johnson.

“We cannot prioritize one agency over the other when, in fact, every agency could have a positive impact on accelerating opportunities and closing gaps and removing structural barriers.”

The order calls on agencies to look at equity in regards to “race, ethnicity, religion, income, geography, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability.” Federal agencies will look for potential roadblocks faced by communities and individuals seeking to enroll or access benefits and services or utilize agency procurement and contracting opportunities, and will examine what resources are available to them.

The reviews should identify if new policies, regulations, or guidance documents are necessary to advance equity. The findings must be sent by Aug. 8 to the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy.

Community Impact

The full impact of the reviews on each agency and which communities they will affect remain to be seen, said David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition.

“This is why the combined protections language and cross agency assessments matter,” Johns said. “The agency that needs it the most depends on who in America you are asking to answer the question.”

Johns added that the impact could touch on many different groups, for example, members of the Black LGTBQ community could benefit from agency assessments to close the digital divide for children, find equitable housing, and obtain better access to healthcare to reduce the spread of sexual diseases. The Department of Justice may also find the need to decriminalize and legalize sex work so individuals can do their jobs in safer and more secure environments.

“For a Black lesbian couple working from home during the pandemic with children, the digital divide and any red tape that makes it more difficult for their children to take part in school virtually and safely feels more urgent,” Johns said.

Follow Through

Advocates said the review would only be the first step toward ensuring agencies are promoting equity and reducing barriers for underserved communities.

“It is critical that each agency goes through this process deeply and meaningfully, and that the American people are kept up to date on the progress and how it impacts our lives,” said Johns.

Organizations including the National Urban League, the NAACP, the National Black Justice Coalition, and Rainbow PUSH said they look forward to working with the Biden administration to improve racial equity.

The executive order urges the head of each agency to evaluate ways to coordinate and engage with community-based organizations and civil rights organizations.

“Depending on what they find, this could be very meaningful and significant to the Black community. We can say that there have been gaps, but the Biden administration is taking a deeper look at the barriers keeping the community behind,” said Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr, president and founder of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.

“This is a big deal and we’ll continue to work with the administration moving forward.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Ayanna Alexander in Washington at aalexander@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Meghashyam Mali at mmali@bloombergindustry.com; Andrew Childers at achilders@bloomberglaw.com

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