WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden signed executive orders Tuesday to end Justice Department contracts with private prisons and increase the government’s enforcement of a law meant to combat discrimination in the housing market, part of the new administration’s continued focus on racial equity.
Biden also signed orders that make it the federal government’s policy to “condemn and denounce” discrimination against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, who have faced harassment since the coronavirus pandemic spread from China to the United States, and to strengthen relationships between the government and Native American tribes.
The moves are incremental pieces of Biden’s broader push for racial equity — an initiative that is expected to be a centerpiece of his administration and that follow an executive order last week directing federal agencies to review policies to root out systemic racism. The government effort is led by Susan Rice, who runs the Domestic Policy Council.
“I’m not promising we can end it tomorrow, but I promise you, we’re going to continue to make progress to eliminate systemic racism,” Biden said before signing the orders. He added that “every branch of the White House and the federal government is going to be part of that effort.”
The orders are an escalating repudiation of President Donald Trump’s policies and attitudes toward race relations. In separate executive orders last week, Biden overturned a Trump administration ban on diversity training in federal agencies and disbanded a Trump-created historical commission that issued a report aiming to put a more positive spin on the nation’s founders, who were slaveholders.
In a conference call with reporters, a senior White House official described the Trump administration’s “heinous” Muslim ban and said certain minority groups were treated with a “profound level of disrespect from political leaders and the White House.”
During a news conference Tuesday, Jen Psaki, White House press secretary, blamed the Trump administration for exacerbating racial inequities when it came to health. “The actions taken by the prior administration, for all intents and purposes to destroy the Affordable Care Act, didn’t help any Americans and certainly didn’t help communities of color,” she said.
At the same briefing, Rice made it clear that the administration was taking a new direction by highlighting those disparities instead of ignoring them — and that appointing a woman of color to oversee the initiative was part of that approach.
“Americans of color are being infected by and dying from COVID at higher rates,” she said, noting that “40% of Black-owned businesses have been forced too close for good during the COVID crisis.”
A descendant of immigrants from Jamaica, Rice called herself the living embodiment of the American dream and noted that “investing in equity is good for economic growth” and “creates jobs for all Americans.”
One of the orders signed Tuesday calls on the Justice Department not to renew contracts with private prisons, reverting to a policy first adopted in the Obama administration, when Biden was vice president, and which Trump reversed.
The order does not end all government contracts with private prisons — administration officials confirmed it would not apply to other agencies, like Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which contracts with private companies to detain thousands of undocumented immigrants.
“There is broad consensus that our current system of mass incarceration imposes significant costs and hardships on our society and communities and does not make us safer,” the order reads. “To decrease incarceration levels, we must reduce profit-based incentives to incarcerate by phasing out the federal government’s reliance on privately operated criminal detention facilities.”
The housing order directs the Department of Housing and Urban Development to more strenuously enforce the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which targets discrimination in home buying. That includes asking the department to review actions under Trump that sought to weaken some of that enforcement. Last year, as part of Trump’s attempted appeals to white suburban voters, the department rolled back an Obama-era program meant to fight racial segregation in housing, known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing.
“This represents a clear change of direction that gets us back on track to fulfill the Fair Housing Act,” said Julián Castro, who served as secretary of housing and urban development under President Barack Obama. “It’s sending a very strong signal that it’s a new day when it comes to fair housing and that HUD is going to be aggressive again. In some ways this is the easy part, but it’s a strong first step.”
Castro said that the housing department was still far behind in terms of the number of personnel it needed to enforce the Fair Housing Act and that nonprofit groups across the country working on fair housing issues should receive federal funding and other resources. But given that the action came on Day 6 of the new administration, he said, it served as a “clear repudiation of Trump’s fearmongering” about low-income housing invading white suburbs.
Biden’s prisons order won praise from the American Federation of Government Employees Council of Prison Locals, which represents 30,000 federal prison workers across the country, and from groups working to reduce mass incarceration of Black and other Americans.
“Eliminating the use of for-profit prisons is but a first step,” said Holly Harris, executive director of Justice Action Network, a bipartisan organization working on criminal justice — but a step with implications beyond the small percentage of federal prisoners who are held in private prisons. “Everyone is missing that they’re a big obstacle to reform because they give millions to elected officials who write our criminal law.”
Harris, who said she was a Republican, added that she was “extending a little grace to the Democratic administration and applauding this first step.”