Many still waiting for Biden’s promised racial equity reckoning

Advocates say steps taken by administration won’t do enough

Philonise Floyd, center, Bridgett Floyd, left, the brother and sister of the late George Floyd, walk to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial during a march on Aug. 28, 2020.  (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Philonise Floyd, center, Bridgett Floyd, left, the brother and sister of the late George Floyd, walk to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial during a march on Aug. 28, 2020. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 26, 2022 at 12:22pm

During his 2020 campaign, President Joe Biden promised to change federal policies to address long-term racial inequalities in the country, and his administration has touted some successes since then.

Biden nominated a record-breaking number of judges from minority communities, along with the first Black woman to the Federal Reserve Board, to make the federal government look more like the communities it serves.

The administration also stepped in to delay construction of a $7 billion freeway expansion in Houston affecting eminent domain proceedings for a largely Black neighborhood and increased the Small Business Administration’s set-asides for disadvantaged business owners by 50 percent, or about $100 billion over five years.

However, many activists and professional groups working to advance racial equity say that’s not enough. They argue that other changes proposed by the administration won’t address deep-seated inequalities in areas like educational achievement, business ownership and household wealth.

They also question whether Biden is the person to lead such efforts.

“If we’re going to have a racial equity strategy, it is not going to be developed by a man who spent 40 years in Congress and 40 years in seats of power and never talked about the kind of equity that I’m talking about,” said Mike Green, chief strategist for the National Institute for Inclusive Competitiveness.

According to the most recent Census Bureau data, Black, Latino or Asian business owners ran about 18 percent of all U.S. firms. Green noted that Black business ownership would have to double every decade, for 30 years, to go from its current 2 percent of all businesses to match the 12 percent of the population who identify as Black.

Green argued that Biden’s efforts to increase SBA set-asides for minority-owned businesses or business accelerator programs in historically Black colleges and universities won’t be enough to meet that goal.

Communities struggling

The coronavirus pandemic and subsequent economic crash hit minority communities hard. Black, Hispanic and Asian Americans have been more likely to catch COVID-19, and unemployment for those groups has lagged behind that of white Americans. In addition, protests against police brutality rocked the country after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in spring 2020.

On the campaign trail that year, Biden seized on his predecessor’s racially charged comments and villainization of immigrants. Minority communities proved key to Biden’s victory, according to a Pew Research Center exit poll. Nationwide, Black voters backed him by an 84 percent margin, Asian voters by a 44 percent margin and Hispanic voters by a 21 percent margin.

Activists credit minority voter turnout with Biden’s wins in Georgia, Arizona and other key states, and they believe it could be central for Democratic victories in the upcoming midterm elections, said Yadira Sanchez, co-executive director of Poder Latinx.

She said the administration hung many of its hopes for addressing racial equity on legislative proposals such as paid parental leave, which has stalled in the Senate. To energize voters who counted on Biden’s 2020 promises, Sanchez said activists like herself will have to pivot to executive actions Biden has taken to dig out long-entrenched disparities.

“A lot of attention has been centered around the [Biden economic recovery bill], and we haven’t informed the community about these other policies that have us on a path to benefit us tremendously,” Sanchez said. “As the midterm elections approach, these policies have to be front and center.”

Within days of taking office, Biden signed an executive order directing federal agencies to address systemic racism in their programs.

In July, the Office of Management and Budget issued a report that suggested ways for federal agency programs to assess racial equity. OMB acting Director Shalanda Young said agencies must do more to make sure everyone has a seat at the table.

“Too many people have been historically underserved and experienced marginalization, disenfranchisement, and lost opportunity,” Young wrote in a statement released with the report.

The departments of Treasury, Agriculture, and Housing and Urban Development, among others, have launched more than 180 calls for public comment or rule-makings that reference Biden’s executive order on equity. They vary from a generic request for information about underserved communities in USDA programs to a new NASA rule requiring additional contracting with minority-owned small businesses.

A representative for the White House did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Other efforts to address Biden promises to further racial equity have met with frustration in Congress. Democrats, for instance, failed to pass an extension of child tax credits that experts say disproportionately benefit people of color. They also haven’t pushed through priorities such as an overhaul of criminal justice or a new Voting Rights Act.

At the same time, courts have rejected Biden administration efforts like a historic debt relief plan for minority farmers that was part of the latest pandemic economic recovery bill, a case that remains ongoing.

Administrative steps

That has left the White House largely dependent on federal rule-making to try to enact policy change. But that process can be lengthy.

HUD has said it intends to reinstate two policies shelved during the Trump administration, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule and the Discriminatory Effects Standard rule, according to notices posted in June.

The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule required localities to track and address racial bias in housing as a condition of HUD funding, between when the Obama administration issued it in 2015 until Trump effectively withdrew it in 2020. Even during the rule’s short existence, it helped New Orleans and other communities get a better grip on housing inequality, said Cashauna Hill, executive director of the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center.

“Having the Biden administration commitment to restoring and enforcing those long-standing policies is incredibly important. But there is quite a bit of work to do, that the administration needs to do, to create and implement more impactful policies,” Hill said.

The New Orleans report, the first finalized under the Obama-era rule, showed that Black renters in the city paid a higher percentage of their income than white renters and that Black homeowners had, on average, lower market value for their homes.

The Discriminatory Effects Standard rule made illegal any neutral-appearing housing policy with a discriminatory effect, such as using artificial intelligence to predict creditworthiness, hurting Black and Latino Americans in the process.

National Urban League President Marc Morial doesn’t blame the Biden administration for not yet reviving either of those rules. Instead, he casts it as “a statement of how damaging Trump was.”

“It takes a significant amount of time to put the policy back in place when you cancel a rule, and you've got to now go all the way back and start over and go through the process. [That] takes time,” Morial said.

Amara Enyia, policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives, said the administration has to be measured on its own merits. Enyia noted that as the administration promised policy changes like reinstating the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, it also implemented a new IRS rule that could disproportionately target people of color.

As part of the latest economic recovery package, payment companies like Venmo must report all business transactions greater than $600. Enyia said that could increase the disproportionate scrutiny that people of color already receive from the IRS.

“One of the things that we’re really trying to do is not just compare the Biden administration to the Trump administration. We have to really measure the Biden administration and what communities expect [from Biden] and what they’re actually getting,” Enyia said.

Reports from 2017 by Bloomberg and ProPublica showed the IRS disproportionately audited taxpayers in heavily Latino and Black counties in the South. Additionally, a 2021 internal Treasury Department report found an unequal distribution of audits of taxpayers claiming the earned income tax credit, which also is disproportionately claimed by people of color.

Little details in executing policy can make a big difference, said Melissa Jones, executive director of the Bay Area Regional Health Inequities Initiative. Jones said the administration will have to work to distribute funds from economic recovery and infrastructure laws, making sure to tweak contracting and grant requirements that, in the past, have kept minority communities from participating.

“There’s going to be a lot of work for local communities to make sure that’s applied in an equitable fashion,” Jones said. “Their contracting requirements are so onerous that it’s making it hard for the people that need the most help.”