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In his inaugural address, President Biden pledged to make racial equality a central focus of his presidency. “A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us,” he said. “The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer.”
Racial equality has been at the forefront of the nation’s attention duuring the past year as the country has lived through a global pandemic that has disproportionately affected people of color, a massive protest movement against police violence and an insurrection at the Capitol carried out by a mob that included at least some members with explicitly white supremacist beliefs.
During the campaign, Biden made the goal of “advancing racial equity” a core part of his plan to help the country through the crises it faces. As president, he has taken some tangible steps to promote that vision. His running mate, Kamala Harris, became the first woman and first person of color to serve as vice president. He has also nominated the most racially diverse Cabinet in history. Among the flurry of executive orders Biden signed during his first days were several aimed at furthering racial justice on issues like housing, criminal justice, immigration and health care.
Why there’s debate
Some activists see reason to believe Biden will be able to deliver on his promise to advance racial justice. His legislative agenda still includes potentially transformative proposals on issues like jobs, voting rights, climate change and poverty reduction — all of which are built with equality in mind. The combined influence of last summer’s protests and the attack on the Capitol may also motivate the slim Democratic majority in Congress to pass major bills that might have taken a back seat to other concerns in previous eras.
There is some skepticism from the left, however, about whether Biden’s commitment to racial justice goes beyond rhetoric and into meaningful action. His recent executive orders, for example, have been criticized as being largely symbolic. Others argue that his policy proposals aren’t aggressive enough to uproot the massive systemic problems that cause racial disparities in the U.S. There are also concerns that his plans may be watered down in order to garner support from moderate Democrats.
Biden’s vision has faced criticism from many on the right, who argue that too much focus on race will spark resentment and make existing tensions even worse. Republicans are mostly unified in opposition to Biden’s policies, which is likely to significantly limit what he’s able to pass through Congress, many argue.
The American public is eager to see racial equity advanced
“The country is begging for a pivot on racial justice issues. The conversation has been started and the promise has been made and now it's time to watch how that unfolds.” — Historian Timothy Naftali to CNN
Hopeful talk is meaningless without action
“For all of Biden’s testimony that he feels the pain of the public, those on the suffering end of the pandemic and the unemployment crisis are not in the mood for honeymoon hopefulness. They want action and results. But translating political desires into political action is a tall order.” — Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, New Yorker
Biden’s overemphasis on race will only make tensions worse
“The Biden Administration has signaled in promoting ‘equity’ that it has abandoned fair and equal treatment. This will lead to further social division and resentment, as it has in every society that has practiced favoritism by race.” — Editorial, Wall Street Journal
Biden may not be willing to address police violence head-on
“Biden can change the guidelines for federal law enforcement and put immense economic pressure on state law enforcement with his signature. He said, ‘Black lives matter.’ Now he has to prove it.” — Elie Mystal, Nation
Democrats can’t be counted on to enact measures that meet the scale of the problem
“Rather than enact the measures that the given moment demands, the Democratic Party’s leaders have repeatedly shown that they will instead triangulate, offering lukewarm versions of urgent policies and failing to commit to the political maneuvers necessary to achieving them.” — Nick Martin, New Republic
Americans are too divided to unify behind the goal of advancing equality
“The past few elections have helped to demonstrate just how difficult it is for America to overcome the longstanding racism and ethnocentrism that increasingly defines the division between the two parties. This conflict is so intense because it is an issue where most Americans believe there is a clear right and wrong and that compromise is not an option. For that reason, it is hard to see prospects for moving beyond this issue in the immediate future.” — Political scientist Brian Schaffner to New York Times
Racial justice can’t move forward if the GOP continues to embrace extremism
“Both parties struggle with an ungovernable, nihilistic, militant wing with an appetite for violence, and most Americans are repulsed by them. On the Republican side, that wing is disconcertingly comfortable with racial hostility. … This obscene phenomenon cannot be wished away. It must be confronted, and Republicans in good standing must confront it.” — Noah Rothman, NBC News
Pressure from outside groups is needed to keep Biden focused on racial justice
“For seekers of racial justice, Biden had a decent start. But people of color cannot afford a long honeymoon with the new administration. Biden has said, ‘We need to make equity and justice part of what we do every day — today, tomorrow and every day.’ People of color must ask every week for the next four years: ‘What have you done for us lately?’” — Paul Butler, Washington Post
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