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Joe Biden takes the office of the US presidency today, and people of colour helped put him there. The work of Stacey Abrams and others in the long battle to make Georgia a Democratic state by mobilising Black voters has been greatly applauded. In Arizona, Native Americans were credited for doing the same. And although some Latinx and Black voters were indeed turning to Trump, the majority did what they always do: vote Democrat.
Biden steps into the White House flanked by a Democratic-led Congress, giving his party a sufficient grounding to repay voter loyalty. There is, of course, an obvious place to start. Biden has already made a series of pledges to tackle the country’s systemic racism, and there’s significant pressure for him to usher in real change, with many sceptical he will.
Polling data from the US shows that people of colour – across political divides – are united in their concern over racial inequality, the pandemic and its economic effects. Ethnic and racial minority groups are, after all, more likely to die of Covid-19 or be unemployed because of it. An analysis of pandemic job losses in December by data journalist Mona Chalabi shows that while Black women and other women of colour lost their jobs, the number of white men in employment increased.
Biden has already promised a sweeping new coronavirus recovery plan, including a $1400 top up of stimulus checks, an increase of the minimum wage and a comprehensive vaccination programme. But details on spending specific to the hardest hit communities are scarce. Investment in minority neighbourhoods worst affected by Covid-19 to support job creation, healthcare and education is possible, if there is enough political will to implement it.
“Polling data from the US shows that people of colour – across political divides – are united in their concern over racial inequality, the pandemic and its economic effects”
Even without the backdrop of Covid-19, healthcare inequality in the US is staggering. Black and Native American women have shorter life expectancies and are disproportionately likely to be uninsured. About 60% of Latinx adults have had difficulty communicating with healthcare providers due to language or cultural barriers. People of colour consistently receive less, or worse care, than their white counterparts.
The Biden-Harris administration has already implemented a task force on health equity. Their scope, however, would need to extend well beyond the limits of the pandemic to make any lasting upheaval in the healthcare system and address the specific needs of different communities of colour. For now though, its head, Dr Marcella Nunez-Smith, is primarily focused on closing the Covid-19 equality gap, working towards greater accessibility for testing, isolation and work safety.
Arguably, Biden’s biggest uphill battle is combatting the far-right extremism that has been allowed to flourish under the Trump presidency, culminating in the storming of the US Capitol building two weeks ago. Some already predict that the Republican Party’s close ties to those groups will make it difficult to investigate far-right threats, with two adherents of racist conspiracy QAnon now sitting in the House of Congress as Republican representatives. Extremism researchers say the government needs to look beyond immediate solutions and invest in prevention and intervention strategies. So far, beyond condemning the violence and distancing his perception of America from it, it’s unclear what Biden intends to do.
The disparity in policing, too, between the Capitol siege and Black Lives Matter protests was not lost on many commentators and activists, drawing attention once more to the racism inherent to the US justice system. Rooting out systemic racism in law enforcement is a matter of life and death for Biden’s Black voters, but the new President has not yet outlined the specifics of his plans for criminal justice reform, other than creating a national police oversight commission. Biden’s opposition to defunding the police, for fear of alienating moderate voters, has also come under fire: simply flinging money at police forces does not curb racism.
“Critics say that despite more people of colour and women in the cabinet, many are in roles not especially suited to their expertise or in lower-ranking positions, with Biden relying too heavily on Obama-era veterans”
Law enforcement officials and political observers say much can be done, including improved hiring practices, active participation of local departments in the FBI’s database of fatal police shootings and use of force and improving interactions between police and the communities they live in. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) wants to see the appointment of a senior adviser exclusively for justice and police reform. If Joe Biden is as serious as he claims about tackling racism in law enforcement, the avenues are open for small, but measurable breakthroughs.
Joe Biden has been lauded by some for his diverse cabinet picks, but among Democratic allies and civil rights groups, others are less certain he’s shifted away from symbolic inclusivity and towards actual change. Critics say that despite more people of colour and women in the cabinet, many are in roles not especially suited to their expertise or in lower-ranking positions, with Biden relying too heavily on Obama-era veterans. If indicative of things to come, the incoming President may well follow through on promises, but fall short on effecting genuine progress.
Tackling structural racism cannot happen overnight, and will undoubtedly face pushback from Republicans in Congress, where Democrat majorities are slim. Yet the direction of the Biden presidency could be indicated with a series of immediate and meaningful steps: revoking Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’, an immigration bill that would give millions in the country a pathway to citizenship, and passing an Equality Act that would add new anti-discrimination protections based on sexual and gender identity.
But with some of Biden’s early promises already looking like they’ll take longer than his first 100 days, and the country still reeling from insurrection and impeachment, change for the people of colour who voted him into power, is likely to be slow and difficult.