Biden tells civil rights leaders he'll advance racial equity

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President-elect Joe Biden speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020, to announce his health care team. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

DETROIT – In a meeting with leaders of some of the nation’s top civil rights organizations, President-elect Joe Biden reaffirmed Tuesday that his administration will prioritize racial justice and assemble a diverse Cabinet that can tackle pressing equity issues.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, who will join the Biden administration as a senior adviser, also participated in the nearly two-hour virtual meeting with seven civil rights leaders. The talk touched on how racial justice will be a common thread as the Biden administration works to address policing and criminal justice reform, COVID-19, the nation’s racial wealth gap, voting rights and more.

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The meeting, which was closed to the news media, follows increasing pressure Biden has received to ensure that his Cabinet is diverse and representative of the nation. Black voters were a driving national force pushing the former vice president to victory over President Donald Trump. Other voters of color have also been credited with helping secure Biden’s win in battleground states like Arizona and Nevada.

“You cannot move the needle when it comes to racial justice in this country unless you have people at the table at the highest levels who have had lived experiences ... and there are Black people qualified for every single position in the government," National Urban League CEO Marc Morial told reporters after the meeting. ”We saw today a passionate Joe Biden and a passionate Kamala Harris. We will judge this administration by the actions it takes and by its results."

The civil rights leaders said they made clear that Biden's supporters expect him to deliver on his promises. They said Biden agreed to meet with them regularly to discuss progress on key issues.

“I said to him he must not take lightly that he is succeeding the most racist, bigoted administration in memory,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, president and founder of the National Action Network. “It is not even just about going forward. We must repair this damage that has been done by this administration.”

Biden has said he wants a diverse Cabinet, and some Black leaders have said he needs to do more to achieve that. Biden announced earlier Tuesday that he had selected retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin to be the nation’s first Black defense secretary. The Associated Press reported later Tuesday that Biden had also selected Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, as his housing and urban development secretary.

Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said they also discussed voting and the importance of support for legislation that will restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act, selecting an attorney general who has a strong civil rights background and diverse judge appointments.

“He was very assertive in assuring us that he intends to address issues of racial equity,” Ifill said. “He believes that we will be satisfied by his appointments in terms of racial diversity to the Cabinet, and he expressed his desire to have a robust partnership going forward.”

While representation matters, some Black leaders are urging Biden to ensure that all his Cabinet selections can deliver on policies to help Black Americans and people of color.

“When we talk to people, I do not think that we have heard from anyone that their primary focus is whether or not Joe Biden is appointing enough Black people in this administration," said Adrianne Shropshire, executive director of the BlackPAC. ”People want relief. People are still suffering and the election night victory did not change that for them."

Although Tuesday’s meeting with the Biden transition team seemed reserved for leaders of historic civil rights groups, other leaders are also in line for opportunities to lobby the incoming administration.

The Rev. William Barber II, who is a co-leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, an effort that centers poverty in the fight for racial justice, said he has been in touch with Biden’s campaign. He was not among the seven leaders in Tuesday’s meeting.

Barber told the AP that he wants to hold Biden to a promise the former vice president made this summer about election protection and issues of racial and economic inequality.

“It’s not about meeting with me,” Barber said in an interview on Tuesday. “It’s about meeting with us — we want to bring impacted people to the table.”


Associated Press writer Aaron Morrison contributed to this report from New York.


This story has been corrected to show that the name of the reverend is William Barber II, not William Barber III.