White House celebrates progress on racial equity

The White House marked the one-year anniversary of President Biden’s second executive order for Further Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government at an event Feb. 14, with a gathering of Cabinet members and deputies who enumerated the successes of the last two years and pledged to continue their work making government resources more accessible, more equitably, to the people who need them most.

The order follows Biden’s first equity order, signed on his first day in office: It outlined the “human costs of systemic racism and persistent poverty” and laid out a broad mandate that swept over all federal agencies, demanding they address these injustices at every level. This year’s order continues that mandate because, as the White House release put it, “The reality is that underserved communities … still confront unacceptable barriers to equal opportunity and the American Dream.”

The new order requires agencies to produce an annual equity plan, commits to high-level staffing to carry out the plans, strengthens community partnerships and invests in underserved communities on a variety of platforms, among other commitments.

“This is the sort of commitment that makes a difference,” said AFT Secretary-Treasurer Fedrick C. Ingram. “Like the AFT, President Biden is creating space for real solutions to some of our nation’s deepest flaws—racism and inequity. I’m proud my union is committed to helping reelect him so he can continue this work.”

Photo of the White House

Counting progress

Over the last two years, the intentional focus on equity has already made a difference. Despite criticism from conservative far-right players, this administration is still determined to “provide everyone with the opportunity to reach their full potential and to remove the structural barriers and inequities that hold people back,” said Neera Tanden, domestic policy advisor to President Biden. “We know more than ever that there are structural barriers to hold people back, and while it can be a bit of a political hot potato, this is about a basic American principle—which is fairness.”

And the improvements are adding up. According to Nani Coloretti, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, the share of Black households owning a small business has more than doubled; for Latino households, the increase has been 40 percent. The Justice40 Initiative, which pledges that 40 percent of certain federal investments will go to disadvantaged communities that have been marginalized, underserved and overburdened by pollution, is already making a difference.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development is bringing more fair housing lawsuits: “You should not be lowballed or blackballed because you live in a brown or Black community,” said HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, adding that her own home is valued at $25,000 less than the homes of white people who live two doors away, despite the fact that her home is bigger and on a bigger lot. Fudge’s agency is also fighting to make home buying more accessible to more people, providing rental assistance to 5 million people every month, and making that assistance more available to people who have been involved in the criminal justice system, who until now were barred from living with family who live in public housing.

The Department of the Interior is working “to remedy decades of underfunding across Indian country,” said Deb Haaland, the head of the department and the first Native American to serve as a Cabinet secretary. She is working to eliminate barriers to success for Native American businesses with new web resources for training and stakeholder engagement, and by making it easier to identify, access and hire Native American contractors.

At the Small Business Administration, Cabinet administrator Isabel Guzman says the agency has simplified access to its funding, expanded eligibility and included people whose past includes involvement in the criminal justice system. The number of Black households of entrepreneurs has doubled, and the number of Latino households of entrepreneurs has gone up by 40 percent.

Equity across the board

“Everything we do must be seen through an equity lens,” said Department of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona of the work in his agency. He talked about supporting student mental health, ensuring college access and affordability, and diversifying the teacher workforce; he described the more than $137 billion in student loan debt the Biden administration has canceled and grants that support teacher education. “If we’re serious about providing opportunities to all of our youngsters, we need to make sure that our educator workforce looks like America,” he said.

Rep. Steven Horsford (D-Nev.), the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, noted accomplishments like the 50-year low in the Black unemployment rate, government recognition of and assistance around collateral effects of climate change on communities of color, and funding for access to broadband in every community. “As we mark one year since President Biden signed the executive order, I really am more hopeful than ever that we can expand on our shared record of accomplishment,” said Horsford.  “President Biden and Vice President Harris are leading by example by taking this comprehensive approach to advancing equity across the federal government.”

Cardona also remarked on the diversity reflected in the president’s Cabinet, and several of the panelists described their commitment to this work as personal, influenced by their own life experiences. The policies that result from the executive orders carried out by these leaders will create the kind of inclusion that better reflects the diversity of this country. “This is an extension of our life’s purpose,” said Cardona. “This is not [just] our job.”

[Virginia Myers]