'It's time to act': Biden moves to address racial inequity

President Joe Biden will sign executive orders related to 'equity.' By Maegan Vazquez, CNN

(CNN) -- President Joe Biden signed a series of executive actions revolving around racial equity policy on Tuesday, focusing on nondiscrimination policy, prison reform and public housing, saying it is "time to act."

"It's what the core values of this nation call us to do. And I believe the vast majority of Americans -- Democrats, Republicans and independents -- share these values and want us to act as well," Biden said during a signing ceremony at the White House alongside Vice President Kamala Harris. "We have never fully lived up to the founding principles of this nation, to state the obvious, that all people are created equal and have a right to be treated equally throughout their lives."

He added that "it's time to act now not only because it's the right thing to do, but because if we do, we'll all be better off for it."

Biden also credited protests over the death of George Floyd as having "stirred the conscious of tens of millions of Americans, and ... marked a turning point in this country's attitude toward racial justice."

As part of Tuesday's executive actions, the President directed the Justice Department not to renew federal contracts with private prisons. Biden had campaigned on eliminating the federal government's use of private prisons.

Biden established that it is the policy of his administration to condemn and denounce anti-Asian bias, specifically addressing anti-Asian bias in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The President will be working with the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice on the matter.

Biden issued a memorandum to the Department of Housing and Urban Development he said will "redress historical racism in federal housing policies." He also took steps on Tuesday to reaffirm the federal government's commitment to tribal sovereignty and consultation.

The President indicated during the signing ceremony that while previous presidential administrations have had interest in addressing equity, his administration intends to integrate racial equity policy holistically across its domestic policy efforts.

A senior administration official said on a call with reporters earlier Tuesday that cost implications of the move away from private prison was not a "motivating factor."

"The motivating factor, however, was the fact that private prisons are not only encouraged profiteering off of human lives but more importantly, I've been shown by the Department of Justice inspector general's report to be subpar in terms of safety and security for those incarcerated," the official said.

The housing memorandum will "make clear we have to acknowledge the role that the federal government has played through much of the 20th century and implementing discriminatory housing policies across the United States from redlining to mortgage discrimination, to destructive federal highway construction to redress this history," the official said.

Reporters were also told by the official that "the President has asked (the Office of Management and Budget) to examine opportunities to embed racial equity in its work(.)"

Biden has specifically asked the office, which plays a role in crafting the administration's annual budget proposals, to evaluate opportunities to allocate funding "more equitably to target groups who have been underserved or harmed by federal investments in the past" in its annual budget submission, the official said.

Tuesday's executive actions are the first among more Biden administration initiatives related to equity -- including supporting future legislation in Congress.

An earlier draft of Tuesday's plans indicated that the President was going to issue an executive order creating a policing commission, something he promised he'd create if elected to office. It also indicated that Biden would sign an order to reinstate an Obama-era policy barring the transfer of military equipment to local police departments.

White House domestic policy adviser Susan Rice indicated during a press briefing on Tuesday afternoon that policing and criminal justice reform initiatives will be addressed in the coming weeks.

Biden's voting history in Congress on criminal justice and prison reform issues had an impact on his presidential campaign. And Tuesday's actions, coming less than a week into his presidency, seem to be an apparent attempt to correct what he has admitted was one of his shortcomings.

"You know I've been in this fight for a long time. It goes not just to voting rights. It goes to the criminal justice system," Biden said on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2019. "I haven't always been right. I know we haven't always gotten things right, but I've always tried."

Biden helped draft the 1994 crime bill, which set strict federal sentencing standards and which critics argue led to an era of mass incarceration.

In a 1993 Senate floor speech speaking in favor of the crime bill, Biden warned of "predators on our streets."

"We have predators on our streets that society has in fact, in part because of its neglect, created," Biden said. "They are beyond the pale many of those people, beyond the pale," Biden continued. "And it's a sad commentary on society. We have no choice but to take them out of society."

Biden's vice president, who was once his 2020 presidential race opponent, said in 2019 that she believed the bill caused mass incarceration.

Then-California Sen. Kamala Harris said she disagreed with Biden, who had said at the time that the crime bill "did not generate mass incarceration."

"That crime bill -- that 1994 crime bill -- it did contribute to mass incarceration in our country. It encouraged and was the first time that we had a federal three strikes law. It funded the building of more prisons in the states. So, I disagree, sadly," Harris said.

Biden also expressed unequivocal support, in both 1994 and in the years following, for the law's billions in funding to build state prisons, including in his home state of Delaware. He argued in 1994 that the law should include less money for prison construction than Republicans wanted to spend -- but he emphasized that he too wanted to spend billions.

He was also a longtime proponent of a Police Officer's Bill of Rights measure while serving as a senator, which critics have said would have made investigating police officers for misconduct more difficult.

CNN's DJ Judd, Daniel Dale, Andrew Kaczynski and Kate Sullivan contributed to this report.

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