By Lawrence Wilson
President Joe Biden has ordered federal agencies to ensure delivery of equitable outcomes for all Americans, particularly people of color, women, LGBT persons, and other minorities.
The executive order, issued Feb. 16, sparks fresh debate over what it means for all Americans to receive equal protection under the law.
Biden signed a previous order mandating equity on his first day in office, Jan. 20, 2021, to address “systemic racism in our Nation’s policies and programs.”
This latest order has the broader aim of ensuring equity for religious minorities, women and girls, LGBT persons, and persons with disabilities, among others.
The president directed administrators to form Agency Equity Teams and create Annual Equity Plans to deliver equitable outcomes through government policies, programs, and activities.
That includes ongoing equity training and equity leadership development at all levels of the federal government, and embedding equity into all government processes.
Critics have claimed that equity initiatives subtly shift the government’s focus away from guaranteeing equality under the law to creating an equitable status in life.
Indeed, while the president’s order defines equity to mean fair and impartial treatment of people, the order repeatedly states the aim of producing equitable outcomes.
That echoes a statement made by Vice President Kamala Harris when seeking election in 2020.
Harris said in a Tweet: “So there’s a big difference between equality and equity. Equality suggests, ‘Oh everyone should get the same amount.’ . . . Equitable treatment means we all end up in the same place.”
Critics claim that is both discriminatory and dangerous.
“Equality means equal treatment, unbiased competition, and impartially judged outcomes. Equity means equal outcomes, achieved if necessary by unequal treatment, biased competition and preferential judging,” Charles Lipson emeritus professor of political science at the University of Chicago wrote in a 2021 op-ed.
“The Constitution does not promise material outcomes to groups,” Robert B. Charles, former assistant Secretary of State under Colin Powell, wrote for the Association of Mature America Citizens in 2021.
“Dividing America by groups, identifying them as materially different, and then pitting them against each other can only lead to self-destruction,” Charles wrote.
Others reacted positively to Biden’s equity initiative, seeing it as a long-overdue corrective.
“President Biden today is taking yet another step to advance racial equity, by signing a new executive order which will invest in underserved communities, address emerging civil rights risks, and improve economic opportunities in rural and urban communities. This is a big deal,” Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP, wrote on Twitter Feb. 16.
ReNika Moore, director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Program, hailed the president’s order for including women, LGBT people, and those with disabilities in addition to people of color.
“This [executive order] is a major step forward because it obligates federal agencies to focus resources, personnel, and enforcement tools on addressing discrimination both within the federal government and in the private sector,” Moore said in a Feb. 16 statement.
The president’s order takes note of the increasing degree to which citizens interact with government through artificial intelligence.
One aim of the order is to eliminate “algorithmic discrimination,” which occurs when people receive different outcomes from automated systems based solely on their minority status.
Algorithmic discrimination can refer to delivering unfavorable machine-generated results to minorities applying for mortgages, university admission, or health care.
“This so-called artificial intelligence is the engine of algorithms that are, in fact, far less smart than they are portrayed, and more discriminatory and unfair than big data wants you to know,” Karl Racine, then district attorney for Washington, wrote in 2021.
Biden’s order calls for the assessment of government data practices to ensure that they provide fair and impartial treatment.