‘Electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris Is the Door, Not the Destination’

By N. Jamiyla Chisholm Feb 10, 2021

On January 14, President Joe Biden introduced an ambitious agenda for his Administration’s first 100 days, including a proposal for a $1.9 trillion package to address the nation’s COVID-19 pandemic crisis and a wounded economy. The plan calls to protect voting rights, reform criminal justice, action around climate, and a pathway to citizenship for the country’s more than 11 million undocumented immigrants—all legislative acts of great significance to people of color.

In fact, not long after he officially took office on January 20, President Biden signed multiple executive orders focused on advancing racial justice. He also disbanded the previous Administration’s 1776 Commission— which the American Historical Association (AHA) condemned as historically inaccurate, especially around the institution of slavery. While these actions are good steps in the right direction in the march towards equity, so much more needs to happen.

Colorlines checked in with three activists to unpack the BIPOC agenda of Biden’s first 100 days, and how best to hold the administration accountable if, and when, it falls short. 

The panel:

The Highlights

Maurice Mitchell: The number of executive orders reversing some of the most egregious Trump policies is a good thing in the world. We are interested in seeing how those executive orders are going to be paired with other things, like regulatory changes in the agencies, by legislation out of Congress. For example, the executive order on halting any further private prisons, that is a good thing. Some of the executive orders around racial justice… like throwing out the 1776 project, the wacky Trump project to rewrite history. Elections have consequences, and seeing some of those things is very encouraging. It mirrors many of the sort of policy perspectives and agenda points that advocates on the ground were articulating during the election, so it’s good to see that they’re being responsive. But, we’re still very early.

Nse Ufot: A thumbs up to how swiftly and intentionally the Biden administration is moving, as it relates to the COVID-19 relief response. Nearly half a million of our neighbors, friends, families and colleagues are no longer with us. The idea that they are pulling in public health experts, listening to science, leaning in to address the logistical challenges, getting the vaccine out to as many of us as possible is supercritical and important. There is a lot at stake and a lot that needs to get addressed, but we need to be here to be able to do it, which means we need to address the immediate threat and throw the full weight of the federal government and all of the resources that it has at this issue. I live in a state where I’m convinced that people don’t think that COVID exists. We jokingly say that Atlanta is open-open, and that has delayed a return to something that looks like normal. I grew up in Atlanta and was raised on a steady diet of [Martin Luther] King quotes, which means I know that the actual title of the “I Have a Dream” speech is “Normalcy—Never Again.” A return to normalcy isn’t what we’re organizing for. 

Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson: I agree with the assessment that Alicia Garza has said often: This is the floor, not the ceiling. If we were breaking it down to what was good, I would add talking about the discriminatory housing policies and starting the far too long to-get-to-process of removing some of those practices from our every day of fighting against housing discrimination, which disproportionately impacts Black women in majorly concerning ways. To have a federal administration that pushes back against xenophobia, and the rise of hate crimes against Asian American and Pacific Islander folks is a good first step. Many of us can recognize that having conversations with Indigenous communities and sovereign nations is a big deal. 

The story isn’t celebrating that the Administration did a good thing. It’s really an opportunity is to celebrate organizations like the New Georgia Project, the Movement for Black Lives, Frontline, the Rising Majoritythe Working Families Party, United We Dream, the NDN Collective, and so many others which made it politically possible for the Biden-Harris administration to get into office. The thing to celebrate is that we have begun to make the political realities of this country such that they have to talk about racial equity. That’s huge. We can unequivocally say movement did that. 

The Deficits

Mitchell: Democrats have a slim 50/50 Senate majority when you add Kamala Harris’s vote. What we don’t know is if they will have the political will to stick together, all 50 of them, to pass the largest and most impactful legislation—maybe in a generation—around COVID-19 relief, economic recovery, and doing it in a way that targets our communities. That hasn’t been done. What remains to be done on the agenda is structural democracy reform. We just skated through with the threads of our democracy, and the federal government could immediately, through legislation, provide teeth to the Voting Rights Act, which has been gutted by the Supreme Court. The federal government can ensure that automatic voter registration is the law of the land; to make it easier for people to be able to exercise the franchise. Will all 50 senators stay together to do that? Will they decide that $1.9 trillion is the floor or will they succumb to bipartisanship? The test, now, is if Biden will be able to hold the Democrats together. Our folks are getting decimated by COVID-19 and the federal government’s response has been atrocious around contact tracing, testing, getting these vaccines out. We needed that $1.9 trillion yesterday. 

The other thing that remains to be seen is how they use the Movement for Black Lives’ legislation, the Breathe Act, which goes far towards addressing investments in our communities and disinvesting from criminal justice. After a year where the Movement for Black Lives became the largest social movement in our history, to not electorally realize that movement leads to some of the victories would be a slap in the face. 

Woodard Henderson: I agree that what’s missing is everything that happens after you take the first step. Also missing is more than a commitment to have a conversation with Indigenous people, but to actually recognize their sovereignty and to treat them like the sovereign nations that they are. To do more than write a memo about how the Department of Health and Human Services needs to be culturally competent, and make sure that they’re not discriminating against API folks, but to make sure that API folks are represented and making decisions around policy to win social justice for their communities. We need more than closing private prisons, we need to defund them all, including detention centers. We need to create housing that’s adequate and available to all of our people, point-blank. The question isn’t if elected officials are going to make that possible. The critical question is will we, as movement people, be committed to keeping the pressure on in a Black-led, multiracial, working-class-rooted coalition of forces that actually ushered in this new elected reality in the first place?

Ufot: The fact that investing in a climate policy directed at Black and Indigenous communities is missing from the first 100 days is problematic. Investing in a green economy that can be sustained. An economy that is not extractive, and that doesn’t rely on dirty energy that will kill us is important. For most Americans, their wealth is in their homes. But think about the once-in-a-decade, once-in-a-century storms that are happening every couple of months, the discriminatory practices of insurance companies, and how that has had a disproportionate impact on Black Americans, low-wealth folks, rural Georgians. We are 15 years after Hurricane Katrina, and we see the wide-ranging policy implications on the city of New Orleans. Rejoining the Paris Climate accord, was a no-brainer, but there is a lot to be done at the intersection of climate and energy policy.

Stay Vigilant 

Mitchell: Stay engaged. Don’t go back to brunch; don’t go back to business as usual. Because Trump is no longer president doesn’t mean that Trumpism has gone anywhere. Electing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is the door, not the destination. We voted for large-scale, transformative relief, so if folks think that you vote people in, and then you wait and see, that’s the wrong strategy. You vote people in and then immediately hold them accountable every step of the way, 365 days of the week. As for the tools, reach out to elected officials; engage them, write them, email them, tweet them. Join organizations. If you’re in Georgia, join the New Georgia Project. If you are a Black person, join the Movement for Black Lives. If you’re engaged in grassroots, power-building anywhere, join the Working Families Party. Find a political home. Sometimes it might feel isolating as a sole person to do the work to engage your elected official. That’s why we organize. And it’s on us. 

Ufot: Like Mo said, we don’t elect messiahs. I think that there’s an instinct to negotiate against ourselves, to lean into a false unity message. Again, that will require us to not negotiate against ourselves and our priorities, or to pretend like the harm that is visited upon us in our communities isn’t happening. This is the time for us to plant our feet and with flexed knees, and it is much easier to sustain that with organizations.

Woodard Henderson: Fannie Lou Hamer said it: the thing to track about whether elected officials are being accountable to us or not is that nobody’s free until we’re all free. We need to hold out and keep political pressure on. In this moment of urgency around the first 100 days, we know they’re only going to focus on what’s winnable. And then we’ll talk about this racial equity stuff, this economic justice stuff, this housing stuff after we get through this initial set of orders. But we need to say, we really meant it when we said defund the police and when we said we wanted to build in legislation that was good for our people and our planet. We need to make the political realities respond to us, versus only making demands based on what other people tell us is winnable. We proved that every state should be considered a battleground state if you invest in Southerners, who have consistently been on the point of the spear’s edge. It has been us who developed the most revolutionary social change that has happened in this country. There would be no abolitionist movement without us, nor a labor movement. Ultimately, we have to believe that if you invest in us, that we will build power, we will govern and we will win.