26 January
Written by Susan Milligan, Senior Politics

ELECTED OFFICIALS MAY not be able to change the hearts and minds of Americans when it comes to racial equity. But President Joe Biden on Tuesday changed some of the rules.

The president signed four executive orders meant to thwart discrimination against racial minorities, including a directive to ban any new Department of Justice contracts with private prisons and a requirement that the Department of Housing and Urban Development to buttress the implementation of the Fair Housing Act.

Other orders direct all federal agencies to engage vigorously with Native American communities and Tribal governments, and condemn harassment and bias against Asian Americans, especially in the aftermath of the coronavirus.

“We’ve never fully lived up to the founding principles of this nation – to state the obvious – that all people are created equal,” Biden told reporters at the White House before signing the orders. “For too long, we’ve allowed a narrow, cramped view of the promise of this nation to fester.”

But instead of a “zero-sum” game – one in which one person’s success demands another’s failure – Americans need to understand that “when any one of us is held down, we’re all held back,” Biden added.

The president earlier dissolved the “1776 Commission,” a panel President Donald Trump established and which was critical of the civil rights movement, saying it had abandoned its initial “lofty ideals” with affirmative action and other policy goals. Biden also reinstated diversity and inclusion training for federal employees and contractors – training Trump had banned.

Racial equality was a key element in Biden’s very decision to run in 2020, he has said. While Biden passed on a chance to run for the White House in 2016 – the year after his son Beau, died of a brain tumor – the president said the racism displayed at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally made him decide to launch a 2020 campaign.

His early attention to race relations, always a politically delicate matter, is unusual for a president. President Lyndon B. Johnson brokered and signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, fulfilling a pledge he made after John F. Kennedy’s assassination the previous year to continue the slain president’s fight for civil rights.

President Barack Obama began his administration with a focus on the economy and providing universal health care. He encountered criticism from the right when he weighed in on the shooting death of Black teenager Trayvon Martin and on the behavior of Cambridge, Massachusetts, police, who arrested African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates when a neighbor thought Gates was breaking into his own home.

The growth of the Black Lives Matter movement after numerous cases of Black people dying in police custody has brought renewed attention to racial discrimination and inequity in criminal justice. But polling shows there are still deep divisions – along both party and racial lines – on matters involving racial justice.

A Pew Research Poll last fall found that 86% of Blacks, 57% of Latinos and 56% of Asian Americans felt that the country has not made enough progress on racial equality. By comparison, 39% of whites agreed.
Gallup polling shows a drop, since 2016, in the percentage of both whites and African Americans who believe race relations are “very” or “somewhat” good, with Blacks – 36% of whom say relations between Black and white Americans are good – less optimistic than white survey respondents, 46% of whom said relations were good.

Deep-dive polling by PRRI shows sharp partisan divides on the issue as well. A sweeping survey the group released in October found, for example, that Republicans were more likely to see discrimination against white people as a problem than bias against Blacks or other minorities. The poll by the group, which studies the intersection of religion, culture and politics, found that 57% of Republicans thought white people faced discrimination, compared to 52% who thought Black people did, 45% who believed Latinos face bias, and 37% of whom thought Asian Americans are discriminated against because of their race.

Among Democrats, the numbers were much different: 92% believe Blacks face discrimination, 86% believe Latinos do, 68% believe Asian Americans face bias, and 22% think white people suffer from discrimination.

“I think the challenge that we’re facing is a set of attitudes, particularly among white, Christian Republicans, that have been half a century in the making,” says Robert Jones, CEO and co-founder of PRRI, explaining the racial grievances of that part of the population. “When you have something that’s been built so deeply into the theology and the culture, it’s not going to change overnight.”

Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, called Biden’s plan “a great initial start,” telling MSNBC that Blacks “are taxpaying citizens. We just want an equitable return on investment in this country.”
Biden, in his remarks, said the case last year of George Floyd, who died after a police officer pinned his knee to Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes, was both a reflection of the need for racial progress and an impetus for change.

“It was a knee on the neck of justice, and it won’t be forgotten. In my view, it marks a turning point” in public attitudes toward criminal justice, he added.

“The ground has shifted. It’s changed minds and mindsets. It lays the groundwork for progress.”
Biden reinstates Covid travel restrictions Trump rescinded, imposes new ban on South Africa
The limits affect non-U.S. citizens traveling from the United Kingdom, Ireland and much of Europe.

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