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Movement for Black Lives Activists Respond to Biden’s Orders on Racial Equity

Social movements have pressured the new Biden administration to act.

President Joe Biden was elected with massive support from people of color, and in his second week in office he issued four executive orders to advance what the White House calls his “racial equity” agenda. The orders aim to strengthen anti-discrimination policies in housing, end Justice Department contracts with private prison companies, reaffirm sovereignty of Native American tribes and combat xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Biden’s racial justice push comes as COVID-19 has devastated communities of color in the U.S., who are experiencing higher rates of infection, death and unemployment during the pandemic. Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, says Biden’s executive orders are “a step forward” and credits social movements who have been pressuring the administration to act. “This is not just because of his good graces,” Henderson says. “This is because movement made it possible that racial equity be something that is prioritized in the executive branch of our government.”


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: After winning office with massive support from people of color, President Joe Biden moved Tuesday to advance what the White House calls his “racial equity” agenda.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We need to open the promise of America to every American. And that means we need to make the issue of racial equity not just an issue for any one department of government; it has to be the business of the whole of government.

AMY GOODMAN: Biden opened his speech by invoking the legacy of George Floyd, the African American man whose death under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer prompted nationwide protests against racism. He announced four executive actions.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today, I’m directing the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs and Urban Development to redress the historical racism in federal housing policies.

Today, I’m directing the federal agency to reinvigorate the consultation process with Indian tribes. Respect to tribal sovereignty — respect for tribal sovereignty will be a cornerstone of our engaging with Native American communities. …

Today, I’m directing federal agencies to combat resurgence of xenophobia, particularly against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, that we’ve seen skyrocket during this pandemic. … I’ve also asked the Department of Health and Human Services to put out best practices for preventing xenophobia in our national response toCOVID. …

I’m rescinding the previous administration’s harmful ban on diversity and sensitivity training, and abolish the offensive, counterfactual 1776 Commission. Unity and healing must begin with understanding and truth, not ignorance and lies.

AMY GOODMAN: Many civil rights groups welcomed Biden’s executive orders. Alicia Garza of Black to the Future Action Fund called the orders, quote, “a floor to set and not the ceiling.”

As a senator, Biden authored the 1994 crime bill, which intensified mass incarceration, disproportionately targeting Black and Brown communities, but he expressed regret for his past policies on the campaign trail after intense scrutiny and pressure. On Tuesday, Biden also ordered the Justice Department to halt its use of private prisons run by the Department of Justice.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The executive order directs the attorney general to decline to renew contracts with privately operated criminal facilities, a step we started to take at the end of the Obama administration and was reversed under the previous administration. This is the first step to stop corporations from profiting off of incarceration that is less humane and less safe, as the studies show. And it is just the beginning of my administration’s plan to address systemic problems in our criminal justice system.

AMY GOODMAN: The order will impact about 9% of the federal prison population. President Biden made no mention of ending contacts with privately run immigrant prisons that jail the majority of people for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Some criminal justice activists argue private prisons increase incarceration rates. But leading prison abolition scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore writes focusing on private prisons is how, quote, “the new ‘new realists’ achieve their dominance by defining the problem as narrowly as possible in order to produce solutions that on closer examination will change little,” she said.

Biden’s push to advance a racial equity agenda comes as COVID has devastated communities of color. It will be led by Domestic Policy Council director Susan Rice, the former U.N. ambassador and Obama-era national security adviser. She also spoke Tuesday.

SUSAN RICE: Americans of color are being infected by and dying from COVID-19 at higher rates. One in 10 Black Americans and one in 11 Latino workers are currently unemployed. By some estimates, 40% of Black-owned businesses have been forced to close for good during the COVID crisis. Black and Latino families with children are twice as likely to be experiencing food insecurity during the pandemic as white families. And Black and Latino Americans are 2.8 times more likely to die of COVID-19.

AMY GOODMAN: All of this comes as the Biden administration has vowed to treat white supremacist violence as a national security threat.

For more, we’re joined by Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, which has long pursued a racial equity agenda. It was founded in 1932 to provide education and support to poor and working people fighting economic injustice, poverty, prejudice and environmental destruction. Many civil rights activists passed through Highlander’s grounds, including Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., as well as Stokely Carmichael. In 2019, one of the Highlander Center’s buildings was destroyed in a fire that was investigated as a possible arson and hate crime, after a white power symbol was found spray-painted in the center’s parking lot. The symbol is frequently used by white power groups and was painted on one of the guns used by the mosque shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, a month earlier. Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson is also an organizer with the Movement for Black Lives and The Frontline.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Ash-Lee. If you can start off by responding to this racial equity agenda that President Biden has put forth in the midst of this investigation into the worst white supremacist violence at the Capitol now?

ASHLEE WOODARD HENDERSON: Absolutely. And thanks for welcoming me back, Amy and Juan. It’s good to see you all.

So, I think, as my sister Alicia Garza said, that this is a step forward. It’s a progressive step. And we’re grateful. But I want to start before the executive orders, to talk a little bit about how we got here, because although Joe Biden is using executive power to make this next shift, to take this step towards racial equity, he’s not just doing it because he’s a good person. He’s doing it because everyday people, like many of the folks that are watching this show, got into the streets and have been making demands for generations now around racial equity. His even being in the position of president of the United States is due to the fact that those of us who are part of the largest social movement in U.S. history not only put our feet to the pavement, but also put our feet to the pavement to make sure that we can win the presidential election and get rid of Trumpism up and down the ballot. And so, this is not just because of his good graces. This is because movement made it possible that racial equity be something that is prioritized in the executive branch of our government.

So, you know, these executive orders are a step in the right direction, but they absolutely do not fully meet the demands of our movement. It is just a floor, not a ceiling. You know, the brutality and racism of prisons in this country are clearly recorded, right? And just getting rid of this one piece of the prison-industrial complex is not going to stop the brutality and the militarization of our communities. It’s absolutely time for us to stop this sort of punishment bureaucracy that’s been encouraged by our government, and it’s just tearing our families and our communities apart. So, this is a step towards that, but, as our comrades in the immigration movement, as our folks that are fighting against police brutality and prisons and militarized forces of all stripes, we know this is just a step in that direction.

The housing executive order, critical, right? It’s definitely an important step. But this country is experiencing unprecedented housing crisis — right? — where Black women, in particular, are most likely to lose their homes during stay-at-home orders across the nation, right? We know that according to the data, that Black women are twice as likely to be behind in their rent as white people, because of the economic conditions that they’ve inherited in this country, and have historically faced evictions at twice the rate of white people in at least 17 states in our country. A nationwide eviction moratorium was necessary. This executive order is necessary. But what’s real is, we need to see cancellation of rent across this country, right? We need to see the cancellation of student debt. We need to see, like, defunding policing, whether that’s federal police, Capitol Police, whether that’s ICE and Border Patrol, right? We’re talking about all of it. We’re demanding what we deserve, not just what we concede to.

And so, we’re excited to see these first steps, sure. It’s something to celebrate because movement made that possible. It’s a people’s victory. But we also need to continue to put pressure, political pressure, on the powers that be, both in the executive branch but also in the new Congress, in the legislative branch, to say that we deserve even more. Right? And we need even more from them. We expect them to be champions of our demands, because there’s so much more to do. We need to pass the BREATHE Act, right? We need to pass the THRIVE Agenda. We need to pass the Green New Deal and see a real transformed country that changes the material conditions of our people, because we put them in office to do that.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Ash-Lee, I wanted to ask you, in terms of — an aspect of the president’s executive is this requirement that every federal agency produce within a hundred days a report on what their particular agency can do to advance equity, racial equity, across the country. I’m thinking this, especially in terms of the issue of systemic change, if that’s possible under a Biden administration — and many people question that — but in terms of systemic change, I’m thinking of agencies like the Agriculture Department, the Energy Department, the Small Business Administration, even the Securities and Exchange Commission. Agencies that normally don’t get much attention in terms of racial equity, now they’re going to have to examine and produce a report within a hundred days of what can be done to advance it. Do you see the potential for the movement to begin putting pressure on these agencies in terms of the kinds of reports they’re going to produce?

ASHLEE WOODARD HENDERSON: Absolutely. But I think we also need to be real that a report does not immediately promise equity — right? — that equity is a doing thing, and that just creating space for more access and for more conversation does not necessarily mean that we will get the kind of equity that we’ve been demanding, right? It’s who is representing our people in those conversations, what are they demanding of those departments, and how is that translating from reports into direct policy changes.

And I think that is the hesitancy that a lot of people in social movements across this country and across the world really have, is that we don’t just want to investigate and ask questions, though that is a critical part of the process of getting to equity; we also want to see, like, actual policy change, and not only that policy change, but we want to see people in elected and appointed positions in our government be held accountable to actually implementation of the recommendations that come from those bodies in those reports, right? If we don’t see a level of accountability to the actual implementation of policy change, then we will have more information about the disproportionate impact of discrimination and systemic oppression in this country through different departments and different issue areas in our communities, but we won’t see the transformation of those conditions.

And I think that is the great hesitancy, which is why, again, it’s really critically important that our movements not, like, lean back and take away pressure in assuming that we can just take a break and accept that this new administration is in and that they’ll save us. We were not voting to elect saviors. We were voting to control our conditions and to elect our next target, to push for the most transformational change that we can get. And I think that that’s going to be our responsibility, to pay attention to what comes out of these reports, but also to push them to take the next step of actually actualizing what transformative policy could be in practice.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And the issue of the president saying that the Justice Department should cease using private facilities for criminal detainees, but not necessarily for civil detainees, which would include most of those on immigration charges, your sense of what can be done to increase the pressure on the president to end the private use of detention facilities for immigration purposes?

ASHLEE WOODARD HENDERSON: Absolutely. I mean, I think it’s why we need a multiracial, multisector, working-class-rooted united front, that really came together to fight to get the 45th president of the United States out of office and usher in this new administration. It’s even more important for us to continue to put pressure across our issue areas around this. You know, I think people think about immigration reform as just like a single sector, a single, siloed issue, when actually it’s connected to the fight for racial justice. It’s connected to the fight for economic and worker justice. It’s connected to this fight for all of our people to have collective liberation.

And so, I think we need to be following the leadership of folks like Greisa Martínez Rosas in United We Dream and Mijente and so many other incredible immigrant rights organizations, We Dream in Black. You know, I think about all of the incredible — UndocuBlack — all the incredible immigrant justice organizing that’s happening — Women Watch Afrika and so many others — that are actually at the forefront of this frontline for immigration justice, and to recognize that when we’re talking about the crisis of the new Jim Crow and mass incarceration, when we’re talking about policing and militarization, and when we’re talking about immigrant justice, that these fights are intimately linked, they are definitely connected, and that we will all be in this fight demanding all of these things together — right? — that we are building a movement big enough not to be piecemealed, and that until all of us are free, none of us are free.

And so, we’ll be fighting to make sure that when we talk about — when the Movement for Black Lives talks about defunding police, that we’re talking about all police, including ICE and Customs and Border Patrol; when we talk about abolishing prisons, that we’re talking about all of them, including detention centers; and when we’re talking about Black Lives Matter, we’re talking about all Black lives, including those of our people that are in this country without papers.

AMY GOODMAN: Ash-Lee, we’re talking to you in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In 2019, one of Highlander Center’s buildings was destroyed in a fire. Authorities investigated the incident as a possible arson and hate crime after a white power symbol was found spray-painted in the parking lot, the symbol frequently used by white power groups painted on one of the guns used by the mosque shooter in Christchurch, New Zealand, a month earlier. And I was wondering if you can talk about how that was dealt with, and what you’re seeing right now in Washington, D.C., with the Republicans, who so decried the Black Lives Matter protests, with the number, the hundreds of Black Lives Matter activists that were arrested — nowhere near that number has been arrested for the January 6th attack on the Capitol, the Confederate flag brought into the Capitol, the ransacking of offices. If you can talk about both?

ASHLEE WOODARD HENDERSON: Yeah. I think this is a really important and critical question, Amy, so thank you for it. I think the first thought that I had on January 6th was, “Well, I wish that folks had listened to us,” because, again, this arson at the Highlander Center happened in 2019, before we were in the throes of the electoral cycle, right? This was at a time where Black churches all across the South are being set on fire by white supremacists, right? It wasn’t an attack that happened in isolation. This is when mosques and synagogues were being attacked by white supremacist nationalists and paramilitary forces. This was not an isolated issue, right?

We had been screaming to the rafters that we were the canary in the coal mine, that white supremacist violence was increasing, that we were seeing organizations building power related to white supremacy and white nationalism, and not even just in the South, right? I think of our colleagues with the Western States Center and Political Research Associates and colleagues in the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest, who have been saying that white people that felt isolated, folks that were proponents of right-wing populism, were looking for places of belonging, and they were creating them, or they were joining organizations like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, the Three Percenters, right? We’ve been saying this for a very long time.

So, when Charlottesville happens and then the attack on Highlander happens and then the bombing in Nashville happens on Christmas Day, it felt like an escalation was happening — right? — that we could see on social media, clear as day, that folks were planning to go to this protest in D.C. on the 6th, that we could be seeing that. And that the federal government and folks that are literally paid to do a job to pay attention to harm that is happening in our country were not at the helm to ensure that it didn’t happen was quite frustrating.

You know, I think to compare what happened on January 6th to what happened to us in March of 2019, we haven’t heard any updates about that investigation or gotten any more questions about what happened to us from the investigative bodies since August of 2019. So, my expectations for a thorough investigation of this are only optimistic because of the power of our movements to demand it. Right? If we just leave it to the powers that be to do the right thing, I fear that, similarly to the Highlander investigation, that this will just tarry on and on and on with no conclusion.

And I think it’s critical that the demands of the frontline really be executed — right? — that Donald Trump actually see his day in front of the Senate — right? — and that they finish the impeachment process. I think it’s going to be critical that we demand investigation and the expulsion of each member of Congress who fanned the flames of white and male supremacist violence and voted against the certification of the election results, and, even more, that we transform this country by investing in our communities, in healthy, sustainable and equitable communities, and investing in the planet, as opposed to institutions and policies that harm our people and our planet. We have to —

AMY GOODMAN: Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, we want to thank you so much for being with us, co-executive director of the Highlander Research and Education Center, organizer with the Movement for Black Lives and The Frontline, speaking to us from Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Next up, today is Climate Day at the White House. A number of executive orders are being signed. We’ll speak to Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement. Stay with us.

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