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Biden Administration Focuses On Racial Equity, Faces Backlash From Conservatives

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President Biden's first few weeks in office have included a focus on equity, and that's won him praise from the coalition that delivered him the presidency. It's also brought criticism from conservatives. NPR's Juana Summers reports.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: During his first week in office, President Biden made clear that addressing inequity would be a fixture not just of his presidency but the responsibility of the entire federal government. As he signed an executive order last week, Biden described these actions as a moral imperative.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: It's time to act because that's what the faith and morality call us to do.

SUMMERS: In the months to come, Biden's team is expected to take steps to directly address inequity in all parts of life, ranging from housing, criminal justice, health care and education. He has said that one of his administration's goals is to dismantle systemic racism. Julian Castro served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration. He says that Biden's focus on historical inequities is especially significant now.

JULIAN CASTRO: To govern with an equity lens means to be realistic, to govern with eyes wide open about the racial inequities that exist in our country that were there before COVID-19 but had been exacerbated since COVID-19.

SUMMERS: Biden's early focus on equity is an attempt to account for differences in need among people with historically disadvantaged backgrounds. It is also a reflection of the coalition that delivered him the presidency. Civil rights leaders and activists have given the new administration early positive reviews, though they have also made clear that they want to see more from Biden than just rhetoric. Rashad Robinson is the head of Color of Change.

RASHAD ROBINSON: The work ahead will be operationalizing that, ensuring that equity just doesn't show up in speeches but it shows up in budgets, that equity simply isn't about restoring us back to policies from the Obama years but about, what is it going to take to move us forward?

SUMMERS: Susan Rice, Biden's domestic policy adviser, made the case that there is a universal, concrete benefit to these actions. She talked about it in the White House briefing room.

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SUSAN RICE: These aren't feel-good policies. The evidence is clear. Investing in equity is good for economic growth, and it creates jobs for all Americans.

MIKE GONZALEZ: I think every American deserves equal treatment under the law, and the executive should be focused on ensuring that equality is protected. So that's the reason I am concerned that the Biden administration seems to be attempting to do the opposite, right?

SUMMERS: That's Mike Gonzalez with the Heritage Foundation, and he echoed criticisms that are already being heard from Republicans on Capitol Hill. On Fox News, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul said that Biden's inaugural address had attacked Republicans with what the senator described as thinly veiled innuendo, suggesting that Republicans are racists. And take a listen to this exchange between Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton while questioning Biden's nominee for housing secretary, Marcia Fudge.

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TOM COTTON: So just to be clear then, it sounds like racial equity means treating people differently based on their race. Is that correct?

MARCIA FUDGE: Not based on race, but it could be based on economics. It could be based on the history of discrimination that has existed for a long time. It could be based on educational levels. It could be based on many things.

SUMMERS: President Biden says that advancing equity is a core value of the country and a value that the majority of Americans share. But at least among some Republicans, he may have some convincing to do. Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.