“A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer. A cry for survival comes from the planet itself. A cry that can’t be any more desperate or any more clear. And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront, and we will defeat. To overcome these challenges — to restore the soul and to secure the future of America — requires more than words. It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity.” — President Joe Biden, inaugural address
I had the honor of attending the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris.
It was an inauguration unlike any in my lifetime, and perhaps unlike any in American history.
The twin pandemics that plague our nation — COVID-19 and racially-motivated violence — meant there were no cheering crowds of hundreds of thousands. Those of us who were invited to attend were tested for COVID and required to wear masks. 25,000 National Guard members were on hand to prevent a repeat of the deadly riot of Jan. 6.
But the inauguration was historic for other, more hopeful reasons, as well. Kamala Harris became the first woman, the first African American, and the first person of South Asian descent to hold the office of vice president. A 22-year-old Black woman, the nation’s first Youth Poet Laurate, captivated the nation with her vision of hope and healing.
It was a ceremony that was at once uplifting and weighty with the life-and-death challenges that face the new administration.
Among the very first actions he took upon assuming office — after mandating masks and social distancing on federal property —was directing every federal agency to review its state of racial equity and deliver an action plan within 200 days to address any disparities in policies and programs.
The Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government reads, in part, “The Federal Government’s goal in advancing equity is to provide everyone with the opportunity to reach their full potential. Consistent with these aims, each agency must assess whether, and to what extent, its programs and policies perpetuate systemic barriers to opportunities and benefits for people of color and other underserved groups. Such assessments will better equip agencies to develop policies and programs that deliver resources and benefits equitably to all.”
The order also rescinds the Trump administration’s 1776 Commission, which “sought to erase America’s history of racial injustice,” as well as Trump’s order preventing federal agencies and contractors from holding diversity and inclusion trainings, which the National Urban League sued to overturn.
It was an encouraging sign from a president who campaigned on a promise to bridge the nation’s racial divide. He has assembled the most racially diverse presidential Cabinet in U.S. history, with people of color making up half of the nominees for Cabinet positions and Cabinet-level positions.
In a memo issued Saturday, the president’s chief of staff promised “significant early actions to advance equity and support communities of color and other underserved communities.” He was not specific about these actions, but President Biden has promised he would create a national police oversight commission in his first 100 days.
The National Urban League stands ready to assist and support President Biden and Vice President Harris as they tackle what the memo called the “four overlapping and compounding crises: the COVID-19 crisis, the resulting economic crisis, the climate crisis, and a racial equity crisis.”
We also stand prepared to hold the administration accountable to its commitments.
In the words of our Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, “We will not march back to what was but move to what shall be, a country that is bruised but whole, benevolent but bold, fierce, and free.”
Morial is president/CEO of the National Urban League.