Among his first acts in office last week, President Joe Biden signed an executive order to advance racial equity, declaring that the nation must take a “a systematic approach to embedding fairness in decision-making processes.”
While this policy action shows that Biden heard the demands from his base, the failed insurrection at the Capitol on January 6—spurred by former President Trump—made plain that the American democratic experiment is still a work in progress. The racism originally codified into the Constitution still belies its bedrock of equal opportunity. The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment was added three years after the 13th abolished slavery, but it was flouted until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, as if the Three-fifths Compromise—which precluded any semblance of equity for Black people—was still in place. Even still, amid macro-economic growth, the country has repeatedly ignored severe racial disparities.
In order to form “a more perfect Union,” the federal government must hold itself accountable to basic democratic principles such as racial inclusion. We know that historic and present-day discrimination have tilted virtually every market, making America anything but a level playing field. Policies that facilitated slavery, Jim Crow racism, housing discrimination, and the prison industrial complex not only restricted and extracted wealth from the assets Black people own and limited their opportunity; those same policies also privileged whiteness, generating prosperity for many white Americans at the expense of others.
Because of these racist underpinnings, we must take on an anti-racist orientation to policymaking and implementation—a proactive weeding-out of racism. Biden’s executive order has the potential to establish an anti-racist framework for policymaking moving forward.
To do this, we propose a scoring system to hold government accountable to these democratic goals and prevent the kind of warped, exclusive claims to government we saw and heard during January 6’s failed insurrection. Just as we score policies’ impact on the budget, we need to account for their potential impacts on racial equity.
Biden’s executive order on equity begins by noting that while equality is a core American ideal, “entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions, have often denied that equal opportunity to individuals and communities.” This is especially the case in our present moment, in which “our country faces converging economic, health, and climate crises that have exposed and exacerbated inequities,” as the order states.
To better understand how to achieve equity, the Biden administration recognizes that it is important to have a robust methodology for measuring it. To that end, the order establishes a new Interagency Working Group on Equitable Data to improve federal data collection. The group will be co-chaired by the Chief Statistician of the United States and the United States Chief Technology Officer and will include key members such as the Commerce and Treasury secretaries.
As part of this effort to understand how best to measure equity, the order calls for the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to work with all federal agency heads to identify and report on best approaches for measuring equity and best practices for increasing equity. Each federal agency head will conduct their own internal audit and issue their own report, leading to a comprehensive report by the OMB director, due within six months. The order also calls for the OMB to explore more equitable allocation and distribution of resources to undeserved communities, including noting areas for increasing equity in the budget submitted to Congress.
In addition to this, the OMB should establish a scoring system to measure equity—just as the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) scores bills with regard to impact on the federal budget. Because OMB touches all federal agencies, the office is well suited to evaluate policies and policy recommendations on whether they encourage inclusive economic growth. The OMB should work with researchers to establish methods to measure and evaluate policy outputs as they relate to racial economic inclusion, as well as civic engagement and social equity. Policymakers at local, state, and federal levels could adopt this method to account for policy proposals’ impacts on racial inclusion under their jurisdictions.
In addition to the initiatives outlined above, Biden’s order also calls for all federal agencies to engage with grassroots organizations at the local level. The goal here is to better achieve equity by coordinating with knowledgeable community-based organizations and civil rights organizations. We certainly need solutions from people who are proximate to the conditions that developed from biased housing, criminal justice, and educational policies. However, Biden’s order is thin on systemic solutions for this laudable goal. The president and Congress should create a new feedback loop, using data, for the design and implementation of federal policy as it pertains to historically disenfranchised groups.
On January 6, we heard members of the seditious mob cry out, “This is our country,” asserting the same belief that undergirds the Make America Great Again slogan—that America is built for some and not others. The reality is that for over 200 years, the federal government has indeed fostered such thinking with bigoted policy. Now, with the data capabilities of the 21st century, Washington most hold itself accountable to making sure it no longer robs individuals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.