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‘We Must Repair This Damage.’ Civil Rights Leaders Advise Biden and Harris on Racial Equity Action

8 minute read

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris met with the leaders of seven legacy civil rights groups—including the National Urban League, the N.A.A.C.P. and the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights—on Tuesday to discuss what steps the incoming Administration should take to move toward racial equity.

“I said to [Biden] that he must not take light that he is succeeding the most racist, bigoted administration in memory,” Rev. Al Sharpton, who was present on behalf of his National Action Network, said in a media briefing after the meeting. “So it is not even just about going forward—we must repair this damage that has been done by [the Trump] Administration.”

Sharpton told Biden and Harris that he would like to see them appoint a Black attorney general, while N.A.A.C.P. president Derrick Johnson urged Biden to form a White House civil rights envoy position. Several present at the meeting called for Biden to increase representation in his Administration, among many other demands.

Advancing racial equity is one of the four core pillars in Biden’s Build Back Better plan, his broad agenda for COVID-19 economic recovery, and he has stated that he will directly address the racial wealth gap, police reform and affordable housing issues. Speaking to reporters on Friday, the President-elect made a promise that the legacy civil rights groups are pushing him to live up to: “I promise you, it’ll be the single most diverse Cabinet based on race, color, based on gender, that’s ever existed in the United States of America,” he said.

Biden has already made a number of diverse selections, including an all-female White House communications team and transition teams staffed with nearly 50% people of color. Biden plans to nominate Alejandro Mayorkas to head the Department of Homeland Security, who, if confirmed, would be both the first Latino and immigrant in the position. He’s picked Gen. Lloyd Austin to run the Pentagon; if confirmed, he would be the first Black defense secretary. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman who led the Bureau of African Affairs during the Obama years, was chosen as his pick for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. And Biden is expected to announce Ohio Democratic Representative Marcia L. Fudge, former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, as his pick for secretary of Housing and Urban Development.

The waves of appointments have been widely welcomed by civil rights organizations, and several groups want to see Biden bring more diverse representation into his administration. On Monday, members of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus met with the President-elect to call for more Asian Americans to be chosen for his higher-level appointments.

Marc Morial was at Tuesday’s meeting representing the National Urban League, the 110-year-old civil rights organization that offers direct services to underserved communities in 37 states. This year, Morial’s work as president and CEO of the National Urban League has been largely focused on COVID-19 response, adding food delivery to the organization’s services, ensuring programs could be delivered virtually and advocating for stimulus bills.

The organization has also been working on policing issues in cities, including Minneapolis and Rochester, alongside pushing for the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, which the House passed in June and is awaiting Senate approval. “Today we heard the President-elect reaffirm his commitment to racial justice, and we underscored that our job as historical civil rights leaders is to, one, help him and, number two, hold him accountable for the commitments that were made,” Morial said in the media briefing. “I thought the President-elect welcomed that dichotomy.”

Speaking to TIME after the Tuesday meeting, Morial says he has known Biden for 30 years and Harris for at least 15, so he has “a great deal of confidence and familiarity” with each of them. Both Biden and Harris have attended National Urban League conferences in the past. Morial reflected on the Tuesday meeting, the importance of representation in Biden’s Cabinet and the priorities he would set for the President-elect’s first months in office.

TIME: I’d like to start with something foundational: why is it important to have a government that reflects the people it is governing?

Morial: The consent of the governed is so critical in democracy, and the consent of the governed is conferred by an election. But it’s also conferred by people seeing themselves in who governs. Now, this is a diverse country, but we have a long history of exclusion—exclusion of African Americans, exclusion of women, exclusion of Hispanics. The first Black Cabinet officer was not appointed until the 1960s. These historically left-out communities deserve and want to be seen in governing themselves. This is the essence of self-government, the idea that people from every community have an opportunity to participate at the highest levels.

What do you expect to see from Vice President-elect Harris’ new position of power?

I’d like to make sure she’s in the room on all major decisions, and that she’s a co-partner in governing and decision-making.

Just a few hours after your discussion with Biden, Harris and fellow civil rights leaders, how are you looking back on it?

It was a constructive meeting. We pressed the President-elect on the commitment to a diverse Cabinet, and we heard him reaffirm his commitment. It’s noteworthy that General Austin was nominated to secretary of Defense and Representative Marcia Fudge to secretary of Housing and Urban Development. The most important thing the President told us was that he was committed to having a record level of diversity when it comes to African Americans and Hispanics in his Cabinet.

What other appointments would you like to see Biden make to live up to those promises?

We’re very interested in the Cabinet, the sub-Cabinet—assistant secretaries and undersecretaries—and we’re also interested in key White House staff. He’s made some moves with Cecilia Rouse as the nominee for chair of his Council of Economic Advisors. There are jobs with the Small Business Administration, the Minority Business Development Agency, the Environmental Protection Agency, the trade administrator. There are many, many important jobs, so I would say we’re interested in all of them—not that all of them can be held by African Americans, but they should be populated by people who share the President’s commitment to racial justice.

There has been some critique that Biden might be leaning on representation as a superficial means of addressing inequity. What comes next after representation? How can Biden, and leaders everywhere, ensure that they’re empowering Black leaders in newfound positions of power to be able to make change and bring their full selves to their work?

We’ll see a lot in the inaugural speech. We’ll see a lot in the first State of the Union, where substantive proposals will be made. We’ll see a lot in the first budgeting proposals. We’ll be looking for those early steps toward furthering the President-elect’s commitment.

What specifically would you like to see from this administration in the first 100 days?

Action on voting rights, action on criminal justice reform and an equitable distribution plan for the COVID vaccine. I’d like to see an economic framework that makes a down payment toward reducing and eliminating the racial wealth gap.

What is the single most important issue you’d like to see Biden address?

This came up; there’s no one issue. Criminal justice reform is important. Policing issues are important. Economic empowerment issues are important, particularly efforts to close the racial economic divide. Educational equity is also important. It’s a mistake to say, “Well, this issue is the racial justice issue.” But having said that, policing has been so, so, so, so violent against our Black men. The criminal justice system has destroyed so many lives, particularly the lives of young Black men. That is certainly present and at the top of the list of many people in the community.

With regards to policing, what specific policy changes do you think the Biden administration should prioritize?

[Former Attorney General] Jeff Sessions and [current Attorney General] William Barr both refused to investigate misconduct among police departments, either individual misconduct or patterns. That should be reversed on day one: put the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division back in business and allow them to do their job.

What are your priorities for the National Urban League, heading into 2021?

2021 is still going to be about COVID. It’s going to be about economic empowerment, education and racial justice—mainly criminal justice and police justice. Education is going to be all about how our kids can get caught back up. They’ve lost ground; many kids have fallen out of the system. And, of course, economic empowerment is all about closing the racial wealth gap and the racial income gap.

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Write to Anna Purna Kambhampaty at Anna.kambhampaty@time.com