Nearly halfway through his presidential term, Joe Biden has been handed a damning midterm report card on US race relations by the United Nations. After next month’s midterm elections, Biden’s administration may find it harder to pursue their agenda on race. Meanwhile, state capitals are restricting voting rights, refocusing tensions at a local level. In supporting progress towards diversity and inclusion, what role can business leaders play?      

When Biden came to the White House in January 2021, he restored faith in democracy simply by walking through the door. Only a few days earlier, his predecessor’s role in the attack on the Capitol left America and much of the world aghast. That act of violence was the last move in a divisive period in which little was done to heal old wounds.

‘Plan for Black America’  

In 2021, Biden placed racial justice at the centre of his political agenda, pumping equity into the language used in policy proposals and speeches. Early on, four executive orders were aimed at curbing racial discrimination. “The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer”, Biden declared in his inaugural address. “We can deliver racial justice.”

A month after Biden came to office, Working Voices looked at racial discrimination in the US through the eyes of Eugene B. Douglas, father of Gene Douglas, one of our New York trainers. At the time, the White House was committed to a six-point ‘Plan for Black America’. Aimed at addressing long-term inequalities, this was intended to:

  • Advance economic mobility and close the racial wealth and income gaps.
  • Expand access to high-quality education and tackle racial inequity in the education system.
  • Make far-reaching investments in ending health disparities by race.
  • Strengthen America’s commitment to justice.
  • Make the right to vote and the right to equal protection real for African-Americans.
  • Address environmental justice. 

In Black History Month (in the UK), now’s a good time to take stock on developments in US race relations and take a look at progress so far.

How’s Biden doing on race relations?

On Juneteenth this year (a new national holiday marking the freedom granted to slaves), a White House statement said that “centuries of injustice and decades of disinvestment in Black communities not only undermine the American promise of equal opportunity, but also keep our entire nation from reaching its potential.” Seeking a more equitable future, Biden appointed the most diverse cabinet in US history in addition to the first Black and Asian American female vice-president.

The White House’s American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion post-Covid stimulus package, has released billions of dollars in aid to poor families. It lifted more than a million Black children out of poverty in December 2021 alone, and it made food more affordable for the poorest families.

A $1bn infrastructure fund (much reduced from initial hopes) will reconnect neighbourhoods divided by highways that were carved through thriving Black communities, separating them from local resources. There is also help for Black entrepreneurs and support for minority-owned businesses. There are measures against housing discrimination, and cheaper childcare for Black families. There’s more funding for criminal justice reform, and a new approach to education and health including more affordable insurance.

The UN’s wake-up call

These things however, while commendable, don’t go far enough, according to a United Nations committee of independent experts. The UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) meets every few years to assess how closely member states are sticking to a 1965 treaty on eliminating discrimination.

CERD carries out periodical check-ups, which in the US hadn’t happened since 2014 (under President Obama) – until this year. Meeting in Geneva in August, the committee issued a report on US progress that according to the Southern Poverty Law Center should be seen as a “serious rebuke and wake-up call for the Biden administration.”

The committee’s report listed significant concerns about compliance with nearly every aspect of the anti-discrimination treaty. These included the ongoing lack of reparative justice in regard to the years of slavery, discrimination in the criminal legal system, racial profiling and excessive use of force by law enforcement, discrimination in immigration enforcement, and racial discrimination in education, health and housing.

The report made special mention of a significant increase in hate crimes, state initiatives to restrict the right to peaceful assembly, use of force by law enforcement during anti-racism protests, over-representation of people from ethnic minority backgrounds in the criminal and juvenile justice systems, and disproportionate impact of food insecurity on minorities.

“Pervasive” racism

None of this makes for comfortable reading for a superpower keen on defending human rights elsewhere, not least in Russia and China. Drawing attention to perceived double standards, US civil society groups believe the “US has intentionally exempted itself from human rights demands that it has pressed on other countries while permitting structural racism and xenophobia to operate as pervasive, unbridled forces in American society.”

While human rights groups characterised recent US efforts toward complying with the treaty as “elusive”, the fact remains that America is caught in the fallout of a historic legacy. More than money and legislation, long-term solutions require a fundamental change in political attitudes, particularly at state level. Right now, nowhere do calls for reform echo more loudly than in state capitals across the country.

Progress within individual states relies on local politicians passing, and protecting, anti-discrimination legislation. Getting to vote for these people however is a key part of the problem. The UN report highlighted the recent increase in “legislative measures that constrain the right to vote.”

Restricting the right to vote

Across the country, Republicans are enacting new voter restrictions that campaigners say amount to the greatest assault on the right to vote since rulings by the supreme court gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act, a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. Democrats are struggling to stop them.

These new restrictions are a response to fears about widespread voter fraud in the 2020 election, fears that were unfounded and rooted in fantasy. Analysis of elections over a 20-year period found that fraudulent postal votes were exceedingly rare, occurring in 0.00006 percent of individual votes nationally – which makes them about five times less likely than getting hit by lightning in the United States.

Nevertheless, by May this year, 18 states had passed 34 restrictive voting laws, which are likely to disproportionately affect voters of colour. Across the country, other bills are creeping towards completion. “You said the night you won that Black America had your back, and that you were going to have Black Americans’ backs”, said the Reverend Al Sharpton, “well, Mr President, they’re stabbing us in the back.”

What can businesses do?

Democrats hope to protect voting rights via an overhaul of federal election laws, though new legislation has faltered in the Senate. Passing laws however is just a beginning. Changing underlying attitudes takes longer. Here, corporate America has a huge opportunity to contribute to a wider understanding of diversity and inclusion. In a country traditionally sceptical of government intervention, there is an important role for business leaders in bridging the gap.

Of the 157 million Americans in the US workforce, more than 60% work for a company of 100 people or more. The vast majority of these businesses will have a diversity and inclusion strategy, in one form or another. Leaders can support theirs by investing in professional training courses and coaching that help to restrict biases, promote cohesion and raise awareness. At the same time, there’s also a need to nurture an appropriate company culture in which D&I objectives can flourish without restriction.

Ultimately, meaningful progress on race relations depends on individuals ‘unlearning’ and then relearning their approach to the future of their country. Of course, individuals have choice and the freedom to choose. In America’s past, these things haven’t always been available to everyone. Today they shouldn’t be taken for granted.


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