Biden Targets Housing, Private Prisons in First Equality Moves

President Joe Biden took a series of high-profile measures intended to improve racial equity across American society, including combating discrimination in housing policies and ending the use of private prisons.

In a package of four directives on Tuesday, Biden delivered his first policy response to nationwide protests over institutionalized racism. The measures joined a growing list of executive actions aimed at advancing his campaign promises and rolling back former President Donald Trump’s policies.

“Advancing equity has to be everyone’s job,” Biden said Tuesday in remarks at the White House before signing three memoranda and an executive order. Systemic racism, he said, has “plagued our nation for far, far too long.”

One memo directs the Department of Housing and Urban Development to review and change policies from the Trump administration that undermined protections under the Fair Housing Act, the White House said.

Biden wants to end mass incarceration, which disproportionately affects people of color, according to the White House. He ordered the attorney general not to renew contracts with privately operated detention facilities -- reversing the Trump administration’s approach -- saying those prisons profit from keeping inmates in less safe conditions.

The move may affect the country’s two largest operators of private prisons, GEO Group Inc. and CoreCivic Inc., which saw their share prices gain significantly after Trump was elected in 2016. Trump ended an Obama-era prohibition on the Justice Department’s use of private prisons and also expanded detention by federal immigration authorities.

Both companies slipped on the news. GEO Group fell about 8%, to $7.41, its lowest since March 11, 2009. CoreCivic fell about 6% to $6.26, its lowest price since Nov. 12, after Trump lost re-election.

GEO and CoreCivic have sought to diversify from federal contracts by signing deals with states to build and operate prisons.

Another Biden memo aims to empower Native American tribal self-determination, and another targets xenophobia against Asian Americans. The action directs the Department of Health and Human Services to consider issuing guidance to advance language access to the Asian American community in the federal government’s response to Covid-19.

The director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, Susan Rice, said at a briefing earlier Tuesday that Biden also intends to address moves by Republican-led state legislatures to roll back voting expansions that contributed to Trump’s loss.

“It’s a matter of real concern because we ought to be in the business of encouraging and enabling all Americans who are eligible to vote, to be able to vote,” she said.

The killings last year of Black people at the hands of law enforcement -- including George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky -- sparked protests that swept the country, drawing more attention to deep-seated racial disparities.

Biden said Floyd’s death was “the knee on the neck of justice.”

“In my view, it marked a turning point in this country’s attitude toward racial justice,” he said.

Biden also has indicated he wants to close the racial wealth gap in the U.S., and his economic team includes officials with experience on that issue. He hasn’t proposed specific policies on how to narrow the gap.

The coronavirus pandemic has drawn more attention to health and economic disparities that are affecting Black, Latino and Native American populations.

The end of 2020 brought the sharpest rise in the U.S. poverty rate since the 1960s, and disproportionately affected Black Americans, according to a study released Monday Economists Bruce Meyer, from the University of Chicago, and James Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame. The poverty rate for Black Americans is estimated to have jumped by 5.4 percentage points, or by 2.4 million individuals.

By focusing on racial discrimination, Biden is taking steps to deliver for the people who helped him win the White House. Black voters in particular helped Biden secure the Democratic party’s nomination and then the presidency in November, as well as two Senate seats for Georgia.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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