An expert's point of view on a current event.

Getting Human Rights Right

Before Biden can lead in the world, he’ll have to lead at home.

A volunteer with the pro-immigration group Families Belong Together attaches one of 600 teddy bears to a chain-link cage on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Nov 16.
A volunteer with the pro-immigration group Families Belong Together attaches one of 600 teddy bears to a chain-link cage on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., on Nov 16. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When he takes office, President-elect Joe Biden will face an extraordinary array of global challenges: the COVID-19 pandemic; deepening economic inequality exacerbated by the coronavirus; disproportionate influence of a handful of technology and social media companies in the public sphere; frayed relations with world leaders and global institutions; reduced trust in U.S. diplomacy; rising authoritarianism; and attacks on ethnic and religious minorities. To be truly effective on all those fronts, Biden must focus on addressing some key domestic challenges first. After all, the United States’ ability to lead in the world will rest in part on its capacity to get its own house in order.

The first challenge is immigration. President Donald Trump made immigration and attacks on immigrants a hallmark of his 2016 presidential campaign. His rhetoric and his administration’s policies on building a border wall, separating and detaining families at the U.S.-Mexican border, the overall treatment of asylum-seekers, the reduction in refugees welcomed to an all-time historical low, the ban on travelers from many Muslim-majority countries, attempts to abolish Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and countless attacks on Mexicans and other nationalities, were cruel and racist. With over 400 executive actions on immigration from the past four years to review and reverse, Biden must prioritize vulnerable asylum-seekers on the border, who suffered under policies and actions that were in violation of international and domestic law.

Revoking cruel and inhumane policies won’t be sufficient—Biden will need to complement that with new policies that are humane, just, and in accordance with international law. A pro-immigrant and refugee policy is an area where the administration should lead—whereby immigrants and refugees are not just framed as national security threats, but as assets.

Connected to this pivot on immigration is the need for a real “Marshall Plan” for Mexico and Central America. Trump’s efforts in Mexico and Central America focused on cutting aid and designating the region as safe to receive asylum seekers. The Northern Triangle—Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras—is plagued by entrenched corruption, poverty, violence, high rates of homicides and gang activity, and agricultural failure due to climate change. Recent efforts to invest in the region have been reactive—focusing on regional security and stemming migration—but coordinated investment in education, public health, agricultural development and diversification, sustainable development, and anti-corruption initiatives can be more effective. Most importantly, a focus on human rights, gender justice, and climate resilience are essential in ensuring that regional peace and human security.

The second area for focus should be race and reparations. This year’s Black Lives Matter protests focused on police violence but addressing entrenched racism must extend far beyond police reform. It must include investing in Black-led organizations and communities, reducing the militarization of the police and redirecting those resources to community development, abolishing the incarceration system that disproportionately affects Black Americans, and reparations for past harms—both slavery, and, when slavery ended, the new forms of discrimination white America found to keep Black America down, including the Jim Crow laws and beyond.

In the last few years, Georgetown University apologized to the descendants of 272 people who were enslaved by the university and sold in 1878 to pay off debts, while Wake Forest University’s president apologized for the school’s connection with slavery, saying, “I apologize for the exploitation and use of enslaved people—both those known and unknown—who helped create and build this university through no choice of their own.” Predecessor banks to modern institutions such as J.P. Morgan, Wells Fargo, and Citigroup had ties to slavery, often allowing enslaved people to be treated as collateral for loans and later perpetuating discriminatory practices such as redlining. Such banks are under pressure to apologize, as well as to provide reparations. But the issue of exploitation goes far beyond individual institutions: It implicates the entire nation.

Today, the net worth of a typical white family is ten times greater than a typical Black family, with inheritances and intergenerational transfers of wealth accounting for much of the racial wealth gap. Black Americans are incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites in state prisons and at least ten times in five states. Two out of three people currently in jail are not convicted of any crime—rather, they are in pre-trial detention—and Black Americans are disproportionately affected.

If the Biden administration passes H.R. 40—legislation seeking to establish a commission to study and propose reparations—it would be an important step in a national conversation around racial reckoning and in reimagining institutions, laws, and policies in order to eradicate the racial disparities that are often woven into their fabric. More immediate policy solutions to close the racial wealth gap such as “baby bonds” could help create trust accounts for newborns that could help build individual and family resilience and opportunity and enable individuals to access higher education, launch a businesses, pay for unexpected medical expenses, and the like. Meanwhile efforts to expand rules for the auto-expungement of past criminal records, such as Pennsylvania’s Clean Slate Law, can serve as a model to help individuals with criminal records to enter the workforce and housing market.

Biden’s third area for focus should be the role and power of technology in society. Although technology is truly global in its reach, many of the major technology companies are American. The spread of misinformation and disinformation on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube helped fuel the rise of white nationalism in recent years. It is only recently that Twitter has started posting warnings or clarifying messages on untrue posts, but labels like “this tweet is disputed and might be misleading” or “this claim about election fraud is disputed” are too little and too late. And even after former Trump operative Steve Bannon called for the beheading of Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Disease, on his podcast, which was shared on Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg told Facebook staff that Bannon should not be banned from the platform.

But the reach of technology goes far beyond media manipulation and disinformation about the pandemic and election. Between 2009 and 2019, the Silicon Six—Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft—had a gap of $100 billion in the taxes the owed and the taxes they actually paid. This “tax gap” has significant consequences for inequality and economic rights, and must be addressed if we wish to invest in better public health, education, and infrastructure. Regulation of technology must mean policies that protect: consumers and their privacy and data; respect for the dignity of all individuals and no room for hate speech, calls for violence, and disinformation; and ensuring tax compliance for technology companies.

Biden’s ability and strategy to effect change will depend, in part, on the run-off elections in Georgia and their impact on whether Republicans retain control over the Senate. They also depend on how quickly the nation can tackle the twin crises of the pandemic and a just economic recovery. He is facing a deeply polarized nation—divisions that are being stoked by the outgoing president. But Biden must remember that he was elected with 78 million votes, and that should be plenty of backing for him to repudiate the rhetoric and policy of the Trump administration.

Sushma Raman is the executive director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, host of the Justice Matters podcast, and co-author of The Coming Good Society: Why New Realities Demand New Rights. Twitter: @sushmaraman