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Unpacking Biden's Executive Orders Advancing Racial Equity And Tribal Sovereignty


President Biden said it's what faith and morality require. Among the executive orders he's signed since arriving in the Oval Office, four are aimed at advancing racial equity and tribal sovereignty. Earlier this week, we spoke with the Brookings Institution's Andre Perry about one of those initiatives tackling discriminatory federal housing policies.


ANDRE PERRY: I do think this is a start. You have to start somewhere. You start with HUD, and hopefully, momentum from the public can encourage these other areas to make change.

MCCAMMON: We called on three experts to address the other pillars of the Biden plan - reaffirming tribal sovereignty, ending the federal government's use of private prisons and condemning discrimination, bias and hate crimes against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Ethel Branch is a former attorney general for the Navajo Nation. Paul Butler is a former prosecutor and author and professor at Georgetown Law. And from Citizen University and the Aspen Institute - Eric Liu. I started off by asking, will these executive orders make a difference? Ethel Branch spoke first.

ETHEL BRANCH: Absolutely. It sends a strong message. Using the language of equity is very helpful. It's a needed reaffirmance to Indian country that this administration's engagement with Indian nations will be very different from the last administration and also signals that some of the things that were underway under the Obama administration will be put back into place. But I think this is just a start. If President Biden really wants to reaffirm tribal sovereignty, we need to start talking about lifting the federal chains, essentially, that restrict tribes from controlling their territory and governing with respect to their people.

MCCAMMON: And, Eric Liu, you have written about the experience of Chinese American families. I wonder what you make of this order fighting xenophobia against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

ERIC LIU: I think President Trump created a frame of permission that it was OK to be casually racist toward Asian Americans and people of Asian descent. And as with so much of President Trump's racism, he could say, at least on the surface, plausibly, oh, I didn't mean that. That's not meant to be that. You're being too sensitive. But I think anybody of actual Asian descent could feel the vibe of disrespect and menace, and the form of disrespect comes in this way in particular, which is, you look Asian. I don't really care whether you're Asian American or Asian from Asia. I'm going to see you as a threat. I'm going to see you as a problem. I'm going to see you as a scapegoat. President Biden, simply by changing the tone, simply by refusing to speak in that way, makes a big difference.

MCCAMMON: I want to turn to the other executive order, ending the federal government's use of private prisons. Paul Butler, you're a professor, of course, at Georgetown Law. You're a former prosecutor, though you've been critical of the criminal justice system, many aspects of it. What are your thoughts on that executive order and its effectiveness?

PAUL BUTLER: Biden rolled back some of President Trump's administration's most egregious policies, like abolishing Trump's 1776 Commission, which tried to get schools to teach American history discounting the role of white supremacy. President Obama had banned federal private prisons. Trump reinstated them, and now Biden has rebanned them. It's a decent but limited start. For example, Biden's executive order does not immediately close one prison. It says that when a contract with a private prison comes up, it should not be renewed. And it only applies to prisons, not to immigration detention centers. The bigger problem is mass incarceration, and Biden's executive order doesn't make a dent in that. Only about 10% of all inmates are housed in federal prisons. Not one of those gets to go home.

MCCAMMON: We've heard a lot about tone, about undoing things that the Trump administration has done, about sort of reframing in each of these cases. But what needs to happen next?

LIU: We talk about the president as POTUS, but there is another POTUS that's at play here, and that's the people of the United States. The great responsibility is on us, we, the people, us as citizens to take responsibility where we live, in our own communities and our own institutions for starting these same conversations, naming these same ills and reading the map of power and decoding. How are we going to hold up our corner? How are we going to do our part to unwind these challenges and problems?

BUTLER: This is Paul. I would push back from that a bit. The New York Times described the movement for Black lives as the most successful social justice movement in the history of this country. There was one day this past summer where there were demonstrations in 550 different cities. Citizens have been demanding change, so we've been on the case. And now that we have a sympathetic person in the Oval Office, I think it's time for us to demand that that person act. So I say every week, us racial justice advocates should be asking the White House, what have you done for us lately? What have you done for us this week?

BRANCH: If Biden does want to make these bold, transformative moves to advance racial equity and just equity in this country for all American citizens, I think we really need to be talking about moving from that civil rights framework to a human rights framework. Everybody should be able to eat three meals a day. You know, everybody should have a right to have a job or whatever, you know?

A third of Navajo and Hopi lack indoor plumbing and direct access to clean drinking water. And in the face of COVID, that's been devastating because it makes constant handwashing difficult and makes it hard to stay home because people have to travel to a windmill and haul their water or seek water in neighboring communities where the COVID restrictions are not very strictly imposed. So, you know, I would really love to see President Biden start talking about human rights and setting that minimum standard for all Americans.

BUTLER: This is Paul. The concern is that's a colorblind approach that doesn't directly attack white supremacy. So human rights, not civil rights, reminds me of President Obama's colorblind approach. He would say that a rising tide lifts all boats, so if you make things better for everybody, then people of color will also benefit. But the rising tide only helps if you have a boat, and too many people of color, including Native people and African American people, never had a boat in the first place. The point is that mass incarceration, police violence, the disproportionate impact of the COVID pandemic on communities of color, segregated and substandard housing - all of those are related. And they're all symptoms of the disease. And the disease is white supremacy.

MCCAMMON: We've been talking with Georgetown Law's Paul Butler, Ethel Branch, former attorney general for the Navajo Nation, and Eric Liu with Citizen University and the Aspen Institute. Thanks so much to all of you for joining us.

BRANCH: Thank you.

BUTLER: Always a pleasure.

LIU: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.