President-elect Joe Biden has included working toward racial equity in his administration’s agenda. They outline how he will expand opportunities for Black folk and other people of color. Specifically, his Build Back Better document includes a 20-page report titled, The Biden Plan to Build Back Better by Advancing Racial Equity Across the American Economy. It is a comprehensive blueprint, highlighting several potential programs.
Some of the initiatives require legislation. The Democratic Caucus has shrunk while still becoming more diverse, with a split between the progressive and moderate wings of the party. Despite differences, though, they are likely to pass any legislation Biden proposes.
The problem? Currently, the composition of the Senate will be 50-48 with a Republican lean. A Georgia runoff will take place on Jan. 5, 2021, to decide to two remaining seats. If Republicans win those two races, or even just one of them, the obstructionist Mitch McConnell will remain in power and likely attempt to slow or block Biden’s proposals. Biden spent thirty-six years in the Senate and has strong relationships there. He and McConnell are reportedly friends. Those friendships didn’t help President Obama and certainly didn’t keep the Senate from stealing a Supreme Court seat.
The other main opposition to racial equity is likely to come from disaffected whites and those from other ethnic groups. In 1996, California passed Proposition 209, which amended the state constitution to prevent affirmative action in employment, education, and contracting. Proposition 16, which appeared on this month’s ballot in the Golden State, would repeal Proposition 209. But Proposition 16 lost with 56 percent of voters rejecting affirmative action as a policy. Affirmative action always has been controversial, with some whites saying it gave African Americans and Latinos an unfair advantage. But Latinos are the largest ethnic group in California. I don’t know if they supported Proposition 16 or not, but if they didn’t, it wouldn’t be the first time Blacks and Latinos held different positions.
Many whites support racial equity, but not at their expense. Too many don’t even realize there is systemic racism in our society. Nor do they believe that past discrimination should be rectified. Biden’s plan for racial equity would close the unemployment rate gap between whites and Blacks a bit, and it might narrow the wealth gap as well. But can President-elect Biden persuade white members of the House and Senate to support racial equity?
Biden can accomplish some things through executive order, just as both 45 and President Obama did. But if the initiatives need government spending, they would need to go through Congress. I think Biden understands that he owes his electoral victory to Black folks, especially Black women. He may develop programs that will advance racial equity, but there are both legislative and attitudinal obstacles.
In the wake of President Obama’s tenure in the White House, our nation became extremely anti-Black. Obama’s successor did everything he could to fan the flames of anti-Blackness, and those attitudes don’t disappear quickly. Will Biden jeopardize his reelection if he pursues his agenda of racial equity?
The Biden-Harris team must explain that whites benefit from racial equity, and racial equity makes good economic sense. Lower rates of Black unemployment could be economically beneficial and can even improve our overall GDP. More support for minority businesses is also expansionary. When Black folks win, everyone wins, but 56 percent of California voters have shown they don’t think so.
The tension is between two concepts: race-neutral public policy and race-conscious public policy. Biden’s plan is explicitly race-conscious. Those who opposed Proposition 16 prefer race-neutrality. Is it possible, though, to be race-neutral in the face of unconscious bias and anti-Black attitudes? So-called race-neutral policy often has a differential impact by race. As an example, when minimum wage legislation was first passed in 1938, it excluded farmworkers, many of whom were Black men, and private household workers, or domestics, who were mostly Black women. Targeting those two occupations was unquestionably racist.
All legislation should be accompanied by a racial impact statement, indicating who wins and who loses when legislation is passed. Our government should be able to understand and explicitly legislate around the needs of different communities; there is no other way to ensure the rights and prosperity of Black folk, and indeed all Americans. If we cannot. Proposition 16 shows that there is still strong resistance to this idea, just another example of racial animus in the heart of a supposedly progressive paradise.
Malveaux is a D.C.-based economist and author.