Professor explains: Biden’s executive order on equity: a critical assessment



Gennady Shkliarevsky


Racial equity is one of the most important parts of the progressive agenda.  For several decades progressives have been calling for racial equity.  It figured prominently in their campaigns during the last elections.  Biden could not wait to get on with racial equity after the election.  On the day of his inauguration, he rushed to sign the Executive Order on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities, showing his eagerness to get on with this initiative.

The document is sweeping in its scope.  Its professed goal is to eliminate racism and other forms of discrimination and to end divisions and fragmentations in American society.  The executive order seeks to redress the systemic inequities that affect those who have been historically excluded and underserved in America.

The document includes a list of specific groups in this category.  This list is quite extensive and is worth citing in full.  It includes “Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.”  Finally, the executive order also describes the mechanism created by the government to ensure the implementation of the provisions of the executive order.

Documents that make such broad claims usually include a statement of universal principles that serve as their foundation.  Remarkably, however, Biden’s executive order has nothing to this effect in it.  Such conspicuous silence on something so important is a major source of problems with this document.  The lack of rational justification makes this document and its provisions appear to be subjective, arbitrary, and irrational.  One has legitimate concerns, for example, about the criteria used in identifying groups that have been, according to the document, marginalized and underserved.

There is also another source of concern regarding the objectivity and rationality of the executive order.  According to this document, the government and its bureaucracy are to play the primary role in formulating, designing, and implementing the policy of racial equity.  There is not as much as even a mention of any public involvement.  All the levers that control this policy are in the hands of the government.

Social and political scientists, including scholars of such stature as Roberto Michels and Max Weber, have repeatedly argued that government bureaucracies are not impartial bodies.  They have their own corporate mentality, ethos, and interests.  The corporate nature of the government undoubtedly affects its decisions and policies.

The policy of racial equity is certainly no exception in this sense.  The fact that the government is primarily responsible for formulating and implementing this policy suggests that the executive order makes no provisions that would help control bureaucratic parochialism and make sure that this policy is not subjective, arbitrary, and irrational.

The lack of a clear statement of universal principle or principles that would justify the progressive policy of racial equity makes the executive order appear subjective, arbitrary, and irrational.  Racism is a form of exclusion.  Selected inclusion, as proposed by the executive order, is not the way to eliminate exclusion because while including some, it excludes others, thus perpetuating divisions and fragmentation in society. The only way to eliminate exclusion—the professed goal of the executive order—is through universal inclusion and empowerment.  A selective inclusion is always tainted by subjective and arbitrary choices.

There are also other problems with the executive order.  Although perhaps less significant, they add, however, to the overall confusion of the document as a whole.  For example, it uses the term “equity.” The meaning of equity is the equality of outcomes.  Yet the document also emphasizes “equal opportunity” which means something totally different.  One can easily imagine a situation in which equal opportunities may lead to vastly unequal outcomes.

Confusion in public policy usually has serious consequences.  It inevitably leads to failure.  The confusion in the policy of racial equity is also likely to have this outcome.  Instead of unity, it will create more divisions and rivalries in our already increasingly fragmented society.


Dr. Gennady Shkliarevsky is a Professor Emeritus of History at Bard College, New York.

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