Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:05)
Welcome to the Radical Imagination Podcast, where we dive into the stories and solutions that are fueling change. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. The United States is riddled with racial injustice. As a result, people of color have faced and continue to face brutality, barriers, and discrimination that prevent them from reaching their full potential.
Another deadly police shooting of an unarmed black man has led to protests and calls for accountability.
Tonight, a small city in Michigan finds itself in the middle of a fierce debate over racism and immigration.
Asian Americans are facing discrimination not felt since the Japanese-American internment camps during World War II.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (00:47)
The summer of 2020 kicked off a period of racial reckoning, Around the world people said Black Lives Matter. They said it with their feet. They said it with their hearts. And they said it with their voices.
Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (01:05)
But it wasn't just that. Black voters turned out in record numbers in the 2020 election and they were joined by young voters and people who were demanding action to achieve racial justice. President Joe Biden acted decisively to put his administration on the side of change. On January 20th, 2021, President Biden's first day in office, he signed an extraordinary order to prioritize and advance racial equity in the federal government. In today's episode, we're going to talk about what happens when government action starts to catch up with our radical imagination. To talk about this, we are joined by Michael McAfee, the C E O of PolicyLink, a Research and Action Institute, advancing Racial and Economic Equity. Michael stepped into the position of c e o after I stepped out of it five years ago. Under his extraordinary leadership, PolicyLink is playing a pivotal role in the implementation of the racial equity executive order. Michael, welcome to Radical Imagination.
Michael McAfee: (02:11)
Thank you for having me.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (02:12)
My pleasure. I'd like to start with the basics. What is an executive order? Why do presidents do them and what force do they have?
Michael McAfee: (02:21)
An executive order is a tool that the president has to direct the executive branch. It allows them to circumvent the process that usually would go through the house and the Senate. And it basically is their ability to pass a law while they are in office and have that law enforced at the executive level so that they can actually direct federal agencies to take particular actions. Now, the weakness of an executive order is that when that president is gone, that order can easily be rescinded. But at least if Congress is gridlocked, the President can act in terms of directing the executive branch to take action and only the executive branch.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (03:01)
And why do you think President Biden chose to immediately address racial equity with an Executive Order?
Michael McAfee: (03:09)
You know, President Biden was not doing Black people a favor when he implemented the racial equity executive order. That was the least he could do, 'cause if you go back and look at that election cycle, it was Black folks in South Carolina that resurrected his presidency, his candidacy. And so the reality is he did something that other presidents in the past didn't do. He centered us. He did a revolutionary act of using the word racial equity and codifying it in law. And more importantly, he didn't make us beg for a hearing.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (03:46)
That all sounds right and you've left out a piece. Not only have people of color, Black people in particular, poor people for sure been forgotten once people get in office. But the federal government has been part of a lot of harm. This isn't just, let's make sure we do the right thing going forward. There's is making up to do.
Michael McAfee: (04:10)
There's a lot of making up to do. You know, when we think about this work at PolicyLink, we talk about having a founder's orientation because we haven't asked ourselves, I don't believe, "What do our institutions need to be for flourishing, multiracial democracy?" We also have not asked ourselves even a more basic question, "Where are our institutions continuing to do harm and where are they in undercutting the investment that we say we want?" And so you're right, this is the least the federal government can do because you can't be accountable to the taxpayers when on one side of the house you're spending taxpayer money, but on the other side of the house, you're doing really destructive things. And this is a process to begin to rectify that. Now I say to people, this was just the start of a journey. This is a 20-plus year journey because to unravel the harms that will be done in complex markets like housing, water, and transportation, they're gonna take multi-sectoral interests coming together to advance an agenda and make progress on reversing the harms.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (05:10)
So we are at the point where the president has signed two Executive Orders and we'll get into them. It was part of the mandate of putting them in there that he had to address these issues. And the federal government has a deep responsibility for the harm that it has done for a decade upon decade upon decade. So now let's take it apart a little bit. What exactly did the first executive order do and require to happen within the federal government?
Michael McAfee: (05:36)
The first racial equity executive order directed federal agencies to develop plans for what they would do and to begin to develop that muscle to actually see where they were doing harm in communities and to begin to develop strategies for how they would rectify it.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (05:51)
I wanna hear more about what happened as a result of the first Executive Order, but then there's a second Executive Order. So could you talk about why we needed a second one? 'cause I'm sure there was still more to do on the first.
Michael McAfee: (06:04)
They really build off of each other. The first one stopped with do the plan. The second one says, you've done the plan. We want you to take action and we want you to have some level of public accountability. Lay that out and began to go through that process.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (06:16)
And is the second one just happening now? Or has that been completed too? In terms of laying out the accountability?
Angela Glover Blackwell: (06:23)
We're in the middle of that process right now. The federal agencies are designing the processes that they're going to implement. We're doing that.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (06:30)
I'm sure that when I look back on this, like so many things that I have witnessed, there'll be plenty to critique and plenty to be disappointed about. But I do think it's important to take this moment to say that to get the federal government to use the term racial equity, put the burden on agencies to say, "How do you plan to advance racial equity?" And then to have to have an implementation strategy for what you said was in your plan. That's a big deal.
Michael McAfee: (06:57)
It is. This is the unsexy work of governing. There's all sorts of critiques you can offer up about it, . But the reality is each generation has to figure out what their work is to do. The President did his job by saying, I'm gonna center and I'm gonna make it a priority. Now it's our job to finish that work and to hold the federal government accountable for delivering on that promise. And I think it's really important for us to, to think about that. It's easy to offer to critique, but the real question now is, "What does it look like for leaders who are already authorized to do something just to do their darn jobs." So taxpayers then don't have to come back and subsidize the consequence of not doing their job.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (07:37)
So we are in Oakland, California right now having this conversation for people in Oakland. In the communities that have suffered the neglect and harm, what might they expect that could change as a result of the impact from these executive orders?
Michael McAfee: (07:50)
Well, one of the most powerful, exciting things I saw come from the Executive Order that I, I got to see a little up close and personal, was some of the leadership out of FEMA and what they want to do. FEMA wants to center equity in the disaster response process. Think about how many times disasters happen. And it's often low-income communities, communities of color, where you see, we get the charity, we get the water bottles, we get the food lines, we get that type of assistance. But someone in my social economic status, we get the insurance agents coming out right away. We get that check coming out right away. FEMA has coordinated with State Farm as an example of insurance agency or somebody. I get my check, I've already started getting my house repaired, if you will, while you're still waiting to figure out if you're gonna even get assistance. FEMA recognizes that's a problem and is working to fix that so that those who are most impacted in communities actually get support first. That would be transformative 'cause that is not the way the process works today.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (08:55)
The person in me that has just been there, done everything so many times, even if you say the people who are impacted most, that doesn't necessarily mean the Black and Brown people. It seems to always be a way to get around serving the Black and Brown people. Is there anything in this that's going to make real, the racial equity, not just the sense of greater fairness?
Michael McAfee: (09:19)
Not yet, but that's the work of PolicyLink. See, the Executive Order is an aspiration. We can anticipate that it'll go away. If we get a change of administration that is not sympathetic, it will go away. You can see the heat in the country right now. So we shouldn't be startled by that. But our work now has to be to remake our governing institutions. This is why we're creating a new way of governing. This is why we call our agenda, our Racial Equity Governing Agenda. A Racial Equity Governing Agenda is really a new ideological perspective for the nation.
Michael McAfee: (09:57)
This is why we're working to create a legal and regulatory framework that would rival the 1965 Civil Rights Act. See, our legal and regulatory framework is stuck in 65 and why it's important. There are new things that are emerging that we need to require the federal government to do. And this is one of 'em. You know, there's too many laws that already say low income people, people of color. They're just not enforced. And a perfect example of that is if you think about the small little word that says Affirmatively Furthering Fair housing. We give local governments billions of dollars every year to do right by black and brown people and build housing that would be designed for them. And yet we don't enforce it. So this is a low-hanging piece of fruit right here, where if our federal government behaved right, municipalities would not be allowed to thumb their noses, build all these new communities of housing, and then have no way for Black and Brown folks to access them. And we don't even hold them accountable. They go right back and get their money again next year.
Michael McAfee: (11:03)
If we don't build strong institutions, we don't win. What we are suggesting now is you've gotta have institutions that want to take on this fight. And why I think Leaders of Color and our institutions are so well positioned to do so is for a fundamental problem. When I wake up every day, I'm not afraid of the all. I don't wake up afraid to serve white folks, Latin folks, Asian folks, whomever. And that is a superpower if we use it. So right now, we really do have to ask ourselves some fundamental questions. "Do we have the institutions to win? Do we have the institutions that want to be doing the right work to win? And more importantly, do we have the ecosystem to win?"
Angela Glover Blackwell: (11:46)
And do we collectively understand to whom we must be accountable? That's right. Because too often what happens when groups start to get more resources, they fall in love with everybody but the people who they said they were there to serve.
Michael McAfee: (12:02)
That is so true. And it's why in our work we've centered the 100 million living at 200% of poverty as our population. We've done that so that we can hold ourself accountable to the board for delivering on a couple of measures of success. And I think if organizations aren't doing that, they really aren't doing the work. Because you can be busy and irrelevant. And I would say right now, a lot of our institutions in America are busy but irrelevant because they, they may say that they say and they may care about issues related to that population, but the real question now is, will you fight for them? I'm not talking about charity. I'm talking about will you do the liberatory acts necessary to actually design a world so you don't have to pass out water bottles and they don't have to stand in food lines and they don't need welfare. That's what I'm talking about. Mm-hmm.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (12:55)
My last question you already touched on, but I wanna give you another moment. It often comes down to politics. 2024, there'll be an election. If the Biden administration doesn't continue, there's certainly no guarantees that these executive orders will remain, that there's any possibility of them being still a driver. As a matter of fact, if the Republicans are in, I think we can all be quite sure that they won't be. How do you feel about having invested what you will have invested by the time we get to 2024, knowing the fragility of all of this?
Michael McAfee: (13:33)
The beauty about growing up in a country that is racist is that I already know how to survive in it. I'm not dismayed because they're gonna be dismantled. I just said they will be if you get a different outcome on this election. But that was never the work in the first place. That was the start of the journey. The real question is, "What are those of us who own this nation going to do about it?" You know, whatever you wanna say about Grover Norquist. Grover Norquist had a powerful belief system and that belief system is that he could change the nature and the logic of the federal government to behave the way he wanted it to. He wanted to bend it to his will. No new taxes, no new taxes, no new taxes. It strangled the government and its ability to operate. Well. You know, we can change the nature and the logic as well to see the humanity of everyone, especially people who have been harmed the most and left behind Black folks, Brown folks.
Michael McAfee: (14:27)
So I've always said that racial equity executive orders were gravy. For us, the 20 plus year journey is for people of color to assert their right to be founders in this nation, to continue to perfect this democracy and to continue to have the audacity to believe that we can remake these institutions so that they serve everyone, especially us. That's our job. I feel this way even if we lose affirmative action hell, black folks ain't never been affirmed anyway, . So I don't know. Many of us sitting around worrying about what white folks gonna take away from us. We create, we build in spite of, and that is the spirit that we have to have in this moment. We can't be soft, we can't be passive, we can't be timid. It is time for us to manifest the strength that is necessary to continue to do what we've always had to do: to endure. This time, we're not just gonna survive. We're gonna own the nation, make it be what it needs to be for us and for everyone.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (15:37)
What I like about talking to you is that your hope comes through. You are clearly hopeful, but you're not dreamy and hopeful. You're clear-eyed and hopeful. How do you manage that?
Michael McAfee: (15:46)
This is an exercise where your heart and mind really have to decide what you care about and what you willing to fight for. I'm willing to fight for what we have often heard called the disinherited, the dispossessed and the disenfranchised. Those are the folks that Howard Thurman would say that we should care about: everyday people, everyday folks, those are my family members, those are my cousins, those are my relatives, those are my friends. That's who I wanna fight for. But I also know what I wanna build. I wanna build an institution that has the capability to take on these fights and win. And when I'm clear about what I wanna win on, I don't wanna win on charity. I want to win on designing our institution so that they work for everyone. That means we need to change our customs, our laws, our regulations, our institutions. They need to be remade for the flourishing, multiracial democracy that we have. Now, think about the power and the beauty of that work. We've not asked ourselves in years, what would it look like for every inhabitant of this country to occupy a core set of skills that would make them see everyone's humanity? That's a new ideological perspective. We've not called out just like we're putting out corporate standards and governing standards. We've not said, what is the standard? What is the equitable standard for governing institutions? That's the work that PolicyLink is putting out.
Michael McAfee: (17:07)
So this is a hopeful moment because if you've got an organization behind you, you can do the deep intellectual work and you can do the deep work in places to make sure that what you really think about is really what people want in community. So that's why I'm hopeful, 'cause I get to get up every day and do this work.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:28)
Michael, thank you for speaking with us.
Michael McAfee: (17:31)
It's a pleasure. Thank you.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:32)
Michael McAfee is the President and CEO of PolicyLink.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (17:40)
President Biden's action on racial equity is historic. As Michael talked about how we got here and what it means, one word echoed in my mind, power. The executive orders happened because millions of people refuse to keep accepting racial injustice. People committed to building a better future, joined in transformative solidarity, organized massive street protests, and voted decisively in 2020 and in the elections that followed, we compelled the nation government, civil society, and business to reckon with race and take action that bends the ark toward justice and fairness. But progress is fragile and executive order can change with a new administration. Laws and regulations can be overturned. To maintain momentum and sustain progress, we must claim our future, raise our voices, and use our collective power to build a radically inclusive, thriving, multiracial democracy, and a government that serves all.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (18:51)
Radical imagination is a PolicyLink podcast produced by Futuro Media. The Futuro Media team includes Marlon Bishop, Andreas Caballero, Nour Saudi, Stephanie Lebow, Julia Caruso and Andy Bosnick with help from Roxanna Agiri, Fernanda Santos, Juan Diego Ramirez, Roxanne Scott, and Gabriela Bias. The PolicyLink team includes Glenda Johnson, Loren Madden, Ferchil Ramos, Vanice Dunn, Perfecta Oxholm, Eugene Chan and Fran Smith. Our theme music was composed by Taka Yusuzawa and Alex Sugira. I'm your host, Angela Glover Blackwell. Join us again next time and in the meantime, you can find us firstname.lastname@example.org. Remember to subscribe and share.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (19:48)
Next time on Radical Imagination. Frontline communities leading collective action on climate change.
The community has been there longer. They are the experts of things that is happening in their community and things that are not.
Angela Glover Blackwell: (20:03)
That's next time on Radical Imagination.