Joe Biden signed four more executive orders on Tuesday, as he aimed to fulfill a campaign promise to increase racial equity in the US.
The orders were the latest in a volley since Biden’s inauguration as president last week, meant to undo the legacy of Donald Trump’s time in the White House. The new orders related to housing and criminal justice reform. Broadly, Biden and his aides framed it as a step in their broader hopes to heal racial tensions across the country. In a speech before he signed the orders Biden recalled the death of George Floyd, who was Black, at the hands of police.
“What many Americans didn’t see or simply refused to see couldn’t be ignored any longer,” Biden said. “Those eight minutes and 46 seconds that took George Floyd’s life opened the eyes to millions of Americans and millions of people all over the world. It was the knee on the neck of justice and it wouldn’t be forgotten. It stirred the consciousness in millions of Americans and in my view it marked a turning point in this country’s view toward racial justice.”
He also noted that the mob attack by Trump supporters on the US Capitol was just a few weeks ago.
“It’s just been weeks since all of America witnessed a group of thugs, insurrectionists, political extremists and white supremacists violently attack the Capitol of our democracy,” Biden said. “So now – now’s the time to act. It’s time to act because that’s what faith and morality calls us to do.”
“We’ll hold the federal government accountable for advancing racial equity for families across America,” said Susan Rice, Biden’s domestic policy council director.
Speaking at the White House daily briefing, the former Obama national security adviser and UN ambassador said Biden was looking to address some of the intractable problems facing US society. Throughout his campaign for the presidency, Biden promised to help Americans of color.
“Every agency will place equity at the core of their public engagement, their policy design and delivery,” Rice said, “to ensure that government resources are reaching Americans of color in all marginalized communities – rural, urban, disabled, LGBTQ+, religious minorities and so many others.
“The president has put equity at the center of his response to the Covid-19 and economic crises.”
Biden has issued a run of executive orders in the first days of his presidency, while Congress sorts out the balance of power and settles into its new configuration. On Monday night, Senate leaders announced an agreement over the filibuster, the voting threshold which protects minority rights. The deal allowed the new Democratic majority leader, Chuck Schumer to move ahead with preparations for handling Biden’s legislative agenda.
That agenda will compete for time and space with Trump’s second impeachment trial, sparked by his incitement of the attack on the Capitol on 6 January, which left five people dead. The trial is due to start after 8 February but senators were sworn in as jurors on Tuesday.
Conviction, and with it the possible barring of Trump from running for office again, will require a two-thirds majority, a high bar for a set of Republicans who have mostly voiced opposition to impeaching the former Republican president a second time.
Biden has said impeachment “has to happen”, despite worries it could hinder his push for legislation to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic crisis and other issues.
On Tuesday, the Senate followed its confirmations of defense secretary Lloyd Austin and treasury secretary Janet Yellen – who were both sworn in to office by the vice-president, Kamala Harris – by confirming Antony Blinken as Biden’s secretary of state.
As part of his attempt to reinvigorate the federal government after the Trump years, Biden picked Rice to run the domestic policy council – an obscure organization the new administration is looking to elevate in visibility as it handles issues like racial equity and immigration reform.
“These [orders] are a continuation of our initial steps to advance racial justice and equity through early executive action,” Rice told reporters on Tuesday. “Beyond this, the president is committed to working with Congress to advance equity in our economy, our criminal justice systems, our healthcare systems, and in our schools.”
One executive order directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to look at the effects of Trump administration actions on housing. Any actions that “undermined fair housing policies and laws” will prompt the implementation of new requirements set by the Fair Housing Act.
Another order planned to end the use of private prisons. Specifically, it directed the federal government not to renew contracts with such companies. A third order was concerned with “tribal sovereignty and consultation”, according to an administration handout. It will order the federal government to retain a dialogue with tribal governments.
The fourth Biden order was aimed at fighting xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific islanders. The order acknowledged the history of discrimination and harassment against those groups, and said the federal government would recognize “the harm that these actions have caused” and condemn xenophobic actions against those groups.
Biden also ordered the Department of Health and Human Services to weigh whether to issue guidance “to advance cultural competency” for these groups as part of the administration’s efforts to battle Covid-19. The executive order also directed the justice department to work with Asian American and Pacific island communities to fight harassment and hate crimes.
“These are desperate times for so many Americans and all Americans need urgent federal action to meet this moment,” Rice said.