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For Biden Administration, Equity Initiatives Are A Moral Imperative

President Biden has said that equity will be a focus not just of his presidency, but of the entire federal government.
Doug Mills/Pool
Getty Images
President Biden has said that equity will be a focus not just of his presidency, but of the entire federal government.

During his first full week in office, President Biden made clear that addressing inequity would be not only a fixture of his presidency, but also the responsibility of the entire federal government.

As he signed a series of executive actions, he declared that "advancing equity, civil rights, racial justice and equal opportunity is the responsibility of the whole of our government."

He described the actions as a moral imperative.

"It's time to act because that's what faith and morality call us to do," Biden said, adding that it was not only the right thing to do, but that acting on these issues was for the good of the entire country.

In the weeks and months to come, the Biden administration is expected to take steps to directly address inequity in all parts of life. And Biden has said that equity is at the center of the $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief proposal.

Julián Castro, who served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, said that Biden's focus on equity is especially significant now.

"To govern with an equity lens means to be realistic, to govern with eyes wide open about the racial inequities that exist in our country that were there before COVID-19, but have been exacerbated since COVID-19," he said in an interview.

Many of the Biden administration's early actions have had an equity through-line. For example, the executive actions that he signed last week include moves to strengthen anti-discrimination policies in housing, fighting back against racial animus toward Asian Americans and calling on the Justice Department to phase out its contracts with private prisons.

The early focus on equity is an attempt to account for differences in need among people with historically disadvantaged backgrounds. Civil rights leaders and activists have praised Biden's actions, though they have also made clear that they want to see more from Biden than just rhetoric.

"The work ahead will be operationalizing that, ensuring that equity doesn't just show up in speeches but it shows up in budgets. That equity isn't simply about restoring us back to policies from the Obama years, but about what is it going to take to move us forward," said Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organization Color of Change.

Susan Rice, the chair of Biden's Domestic Policy Council, made the case that there is a universal, concrete benefit to the equity policies Biden is championing.

"These aren't feel-good policies," Rice told reporters in the White House briefing room. "The evidence is clear. Investing in equity is good for economic growth, and it creates jobs for all Americans."

That echoes what Biden himself has said. He has linked the urgent equity focus of his administration to the fates of all Americans.

"This is time to act, and this is time to act because it's what the core values of this nation call us to do," he said. "And I believe that the vast majority of Americans — Democrats, Republicans and independents — share these values and want us to act as well."

But Biden is already facing pushback from some Republicans. Mike Gonzalez, of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said that the administration is "corrupting the meaning of the word 'equity.' "

"I think that every American deserves equal treatment under the law, and the executive should be focused on ensuring that equality is equally protected, so that's the reason I am concerned that the Biden administration seems to be doing the opposite," he said in an interview.

Gonzalez echoed criticisms made by some Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Speaking on Fox News after the inauguration, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul said that Biden's address included "thinly veiled innuendo" suggesting that Republicans are racists.

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz accused the Biden administration of supporting discrimination against Asian Americans, after the Justice Department dropped a race discrimination lawsuit against Yale University. The lawsuit, brought by the Trump administration, accused the school of illegally discriminating against white and Asian American applicants in the undergraduate admission process.

The topic also came up during the confirmation hearing for Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, Biden's nominee to serve as housing secretary.

"So just to be clear then, it sounds like racial equity means treating people differently based on their race, is that correct?" Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., asked her.

Fudge went on to say that race was not necessarily the only factor involved in equity.

"It could be based on economics, it could be based on the history of discrimination that has existed for a long time. It could be based on educational levels, it could be based on many things," she said.

Gonzalez said that as president, Biden should be focused on ensuring that "all Americans are equally protected," and that the equity-focused actions "violate cherished notions that millions of Americans have."

"They can go to the Bill of Rights and they can see that the rights of individuals are protected, not the rights of identity categories," he said. "It is wrong to look at America that way, it is wrong to look at society as a dynamic of the oppressed and the oppressors, looking at history as just a narrative that must be replaced with a counternarrative."

Castro, the former housing secretary who ran for president last year, said that he was not surprised that some conservatives "are out there actively trying to keep the status quo."

"The status quo is misserving so many Americans of so many backgrounds, but particularly people of color, in every single way," Castro said. "Nobody's asking for anything to be handed to them. What they're asking for is that all of those old biases — the obstacles to success — be removed so that everybody's talent, their ability is allowed to flourish and they can achieve their dreams."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.