Morality by Executive Order
President Biden’s action on racial equity and the question of governing morality
July 3, 1964. In the evening, on the day before the nation’s birthday, on the day before the country was poised to celebrate the American proposition “that all men are created equal,” three ministers were denied entrance to The Pickrick restaurant in Atlanta because they were black. The Revs. George Willis, Albert Dunn, and Woodrow Lewis were met in the parking lot. Lester Maddox, the cafeteria’s owner, rushed over to them, gun drawn.
“Get out of here now,” he said. “I have a right to protect my property and myself, and that’s what I’ll do.”
Men carrying ax handles followed Maddox, surrounding the three ministers before they could exit their 1963 automobile. Fists were raised and slammed down on the hood. Willis, Dunn, and Lewis had to make a decision. But they were faced with a false choice — safety or liberty; fried chicken or who knows what.
They chose safety. As Willis pulled out of the parking lot, he rolled down his window, “We are still hungry,” he said, “we’ll be back,” white fingers poking at his face.
Racial inequities in American society
Though no one integrated The Pickrick that day, Lester Maddox was drawn to court for violating George Willis, Albert Dunn, and Woodrow Lewis’s rights to equal treatment. Almost a century after the Civil War, the time had come to end legally enforceable, state-sponsored racial discrimination. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, many white Americans were forced to come to terms with a social structure that was a “politically strategic construction that reinforced the power of white patriarchy.” No longer could “whites only” signs hang inside shops, outside bathrooms, or on the fences surrounding city parks.
Although we’ve made a lot of racial progress since 1964, the history of racial discrimination isn’t in the past. It’s very much with us today. Dramatic inequities still exist across the white and black populations in this country. For example, in my hometown of St. Louis, African Americans are significantly more likely to be unemployed, living in poverty, and without education than their white counterparts. See the following:
As the table shows, we’ve advanced on educational attainment. According to a report on the health and well-being of African Americans in St. Louis, “opportunities opened up by the gains of the Civil Rights Movement no doubt contributed to this marked improvement in educational outcomes.” However, poverty gaps have remained persistent while gaps in unemployment have grown over the last forty years. In 2010, blacks in St. Louis had a 13% higher unemployment rate than whites and they were 22% more likely to be living in poverty.
But these racial inequities aren’t just St. Louis or former Jim Crow state problems. They are widespread. As a group of economists from The Federal Reserve Bank of San Fransisco points out:
More than half a century since the Civil Rights Act became law, U.S. workers continue to experience different levels of success depending on their race. Analysis using micro data on earnings shows that black men and women earn persistently lower wages compared with their white counterparts and that those gaps cannot be fully explained by differences in age, education, job type, or location. Especially troubling is the growing unexplained portion of the divergence for blacks relative to whites.
And it’s this “unexplained portion of the divergence” that brings me to President Joe Biden’s action on racial equity and the question of governing morality.
Racial equity and the role of government
On January 20, 2021, the day he was sworn into office, President Biden signed several executive orders to advance racial equity and to support underserved communities. As one of these orders makes clear:
Equal opportunity is the bedrock of American democracy, and our diversity is one of our country’s greatest strengths. But for too many, the American Dream remains out of reach. Entrenched disparities in our laws and public policies, and in our public and private institutions, have often denied that equal opportunity to individuals and communities.
Even though the president’s orders only apply to federal agencies, the administration is sending a strong message about the role of government: that it can support change; that it can shape people’s behavior; that it’s here to do good and improve lives. Under the Biden administration, the federal government matters and there’s a belief that it can make a tangible (positive) difference in addressing these problems.
When faced with questions about the systemic racism pervasive in our society, many Americans respond by saying, “it’s a matter of the heart.” And that’s true. It is a matter of the heart. But that doesn’t mean the government should do nothing. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a 1963 speech at Western Michigan University:
We must go on to say that while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless… so there is a need for executive orders. There is a need for judicial decrees. There is a need for civil rights legislation on the local scale within states and on the national scale from the federal government.
So, Biden’s executive action on racial injustice is a necessary step in the right direction. We can address moral issues with government action. And we must use the tools of government to help our society live up to the “all men are created equal” proposition outlined in the country’s founding document.
We must use government to address racial inequity
George Willis, Albert Dunn, and Woodrow Lewis never got their Pickrick fried chicken. But their actions that day confirmed what government can do. Their test of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped dismantle the Jim Crow south. And, ultimately, places like The Pickrick were forced to integrate or shut down.
We must continue to address racial inequity as long as it exist. And we must continue to use government to create a more justice and equitable society. Because, as President Biden pointed out in his remarks upon signing his executive orders on advancing racial equity:
The simple truth is, our soul will be troubled as long as systematic racism is allowed to persist… it’s corrosive, it’s destructive, and it’s costly. It costs every American, not just those who have felt the sting of racial injustice.
Our souls have been troubled for too long. We cannot continue to let racial injustice stand. We must wash away its stain so we can be all we can be. And so we can be all we should be.