On his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed an executive order titled, “Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.” The media did not pay much attention to this, given that it did not directly or exclusively focus on fighting the coronavirus, but it could wind up being among Biden’s more important initiatives.

By naming Susan Rice head of the domestic policy council, Biden aimed to make sure this was more than fluff. His longtime aide, who has the authority to speak for Biden, has the potential to make strides both in personnel and in policy matters, according to those close to the project. The New York Times reported Rice “recruited a team with deep roots in civil rights and justice”:

“She said Mr. Biden persuaded her to return to the White House with the promise that equity issues would not be ‘an isolated bubble,’ but rather a central mission of his administration, one focused on rolling back the legacy of President Donald J. Trump, who she said ‘deliberately sought to divide and degrade huge segments of our population.’ ”

The initiative has a number of components, including developing the tools and expertise within government to ensure that policies distribute benefits equitably. We have already seen that with the establishment of a covid-19 equity task force within the Health and Human Services Department. Yale University’s Marcella Nunez-Smith will head that effort. Theoretically, this could affect everything from Justice Department sentencing guidelines to Environmental Protection Agency policies. In 2018, the Atlantic reported that the EPA’s study “indicating that people of color are much more likely to live near polluters and breathe polluted air” found stunning data to confirm that “black people are exposed to about 1.5 times more particulate matter than white people, and that Hispanics had about 1.2 times the exposure of non-Hispanic whites.”

Any effort to address inequities would have to come up with benchmarks to hold the government accountable and, as an official told me, “the data to hold ourselves accountable because you can’t fix what you can’t measure.”

Beyond that, Biden plans to address hiring and advancement inside the federal government. The issue already came up, for example, in the confirmation hearing for secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said the State Department’s workforce does not come “close to reflecting the diversity in our country.” Blinken specifically pledged to hire a senior chief diversity officer and put in place an appropriate recruitment and retention process. We have heard that before from the State Department, which has had a notoriously poor record on diversity. Rice, who served both as ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser, would seem well-suited to making certain Blinken makes good on his promises.

The Justice Department has a similarly pathetic record on diversity. Last fall, the Associated Press found that “a persistent lack of diversity in the ranks of U.S. attorneys has reached a nadir in the Trump administration. Eighty-five% of his Senate-confirmed U.S. attorneys are white men, according to AP’s analysis. . . . White men lead 79 of the 93 U.S. attorney’s offices.” Likewise, in 2019, the DOJ Gender Equality Network complained about the lack of women leadership in the department. Forty-five% of attorneys, according to the letter, were women, but only 38% of senior executive positions were held by women. That record is particularly egregious given that women in recent years make up half or more of law school classes.

In sum, Rice and the president have their work cut out for themselves to make good on Biden’s campaign promises to Black, Hispanic and other non-White voters. It is a truism that in a natural or economic disaster, the gap between rich and poor, Black and White increases. (In the wake of the pandemic, Black unemployment stands at 9.9% and Hispanic unemployment at 9.3%, compared with 6% for Whites.) Part of Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda will depend not simply on getting back to where we were on racial equity before the pandemic and recession but attacking systemic racism. His legacy will depend in part on how he measures up in that regard. That makes Rice one of the most important figures in the administration.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.

Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.

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