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Viewpoint: How Biden Can Foster a More Inclusive America

Much like a company with a poor track record on diversity, equity and inclusion, the nation is looking for clear change absent a clear idea of how it will be accomplished.

From his first day in office, President Biden has issued a number of executive orders that dissolved harmful edicts from the Trump administration on issues of equity and inclusion, such as the highly symbolic and far-reaching order unveiled last September banning some types of diversity and inclusion trainings in the federal government, or the establishment of the counterfactual 1776 Commission. 

Before his inauguration, President Biden pledged not only to reverse Trump administration policies on issues of racial equity and justice, but also to improve—even to heal—our historical divisions around these matters. At the beginning of the Biden-Harris administration, we thus find ourselves, as a country, in the same situation as that of a company with a poor track record on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion: looking for clear change, yet not knowing exactly how this will be accomplished.

We see this uncertainty and confusion all the time inside the organizations we study. As researchers of diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) programs and best practices throughout the world, the one thing we have repeatedly witnessed is how this disconcertion can be replaced by transformative, meaningful change. However, this can only occur if one key element is enacted, namely when DE&I initiatives begin with, are strongly rooted in, and are accountable directly to one particular agent of change: the leader of the organization. This advice carries unequivocally to the governing of a nation. In order to repair the fabric of our society, it is imperative that such efforts start at the very top of our federal government, inside the White House. 

The president has already demonstrated that he understands this. When he recently spoke about his agenda, he specifically reiterated that “in the weeks ahead, I’ll be reaffirming the federal government’s commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.” However, to fully realize the promise of these intentions, Biden must go beyond rescinding Trump’s executive orders. He must take full advantage of the power and platform of the highest office in the nation and institute a number of additional actions that signal the time has come for a genuinely more inclusive America. He must:

1. Appoint a Chief DE&I ‘Tsar’ at the cabinet level and establish a White House DE&I Office to advance both symbolically and strategically the cause of inclusivity in and for our whole nation, and equip them with the appropriate resources needed to coordinate and ensure the critical direction of DE&I policies and initiatives across the entire government. This type of chief diversity officer appointment has been widely adopted over the past 15 to 20 years across both the corporate and non-profit world. The fact that our own federal government is behind the curve on instituting well-recognized, best-management practices already in play in the  private sector is no longer defensible.

2. Develop and publish a definitive Federal Diversity and Inclusion Guidance Statement to reaffirm the administration's position and outline a positive, inclusive national vision that commits to specific goals and actions for the entire federal government, at every operational level. Such an aspirational guide can go a long way toward normalizing this work and integrating DE&I perspectives into government operations, practice, and policy throughout every part of the federal institutional infrastructure.

3. Address past problematic issues in DE&I implementation that have allowed for attacks on the entire field such as the one just levied by the Trump administration. These problems include negative approaches that shame or blame entire groups of people, programs that address only cultural awareness issues and ignore effective action and metrics on concrete steps such as hiring and advancing a measurably more diverse workforce, and a lack of guidelines, standards and best practices for the entire field of DE&I training.

Our current divisive social environment has been exacerbated by ugly rhetoric that flourished under the previous administration. This has created an imperative for bold actions that intentionally cultivate pluralism and unity. As we would remark of any other CEO willing to make equity a key driver of organizational change, President Biden has started off on the right foot. But this agenda will not be accomplished without additional moves that may garner substantial political blowback. 

There is a lot more runway to cover ahead for proper liftoff. Now, the nation eagerly awaits resolute follow-through from the very top.

Susan S. Harmeling is an associate professor of Clinical Entrepreneurship and an expert in business ethics at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and co-founder of Equitas Advisory Group, a new venture whose mission is to foster equity of opportunity for all employees.

Charles M. Henderson is a global diversity and leadership consultant in Johannesburg, South Africa, and co-founder of Equitas Advisory Group. He is also hard at work on his memoir, Heroin to Harvard to Happiness

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