'Changing the tone' is key: Civil rights groups urge Biden to make COVID-19, racial justice top priorities

Deborah Barfield Berry, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – With only weeks until a change in the nation’s leadership, civil rights leaders and advocacy groups are calling on President-elect Joe Biden to prioritize tackling COVID-19, systemic racism, food insecurities and other issues disproportionately impacting communities of color.

They also want to provide input as Biden crafts his agenda, selects people to head key agencies and fills top posts in his administration.

“The transition phase is perhaps one of the most important because it sets the tone for how everything else will operate,” said Derrick Johnson, president of the national NAACP. “We need to make sure the right voices are at the table.”

In a year where protestors called for racial justice in communities across the country and a pandemic has hit Black and Latino communities at disproportionate rates, civil rights leaders, advocates and lawmakers say it's urgent that the administration listen to their concerns and act. They’re hoping Biden signals his priorities early and say that list should include immigration changes, criminal justice reforms, an accurate Census and voting rights protections.

“It’s an important moment. Changing the tone is pretty key,’’ said Eric Rodriguez, senior vice president of Policy and Advocacy of UnidosUS, a nonpartisan group advocating for issues important to Latinos. “We’re reaching an exhaustion point.”

In this image from video, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden leads a conversation on racial justice with Art Acevedo, Jamira Burley, Gwen Carr, Derrick Johnson and Lori Lightfoot during the first night of the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.
In this image from video, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden leads a conversation on racial justice with Art Acevedo, Jamira Burley, Gwen Carr, Derrick Johnson and Lori Lightfoot during the first night of the Democratic National Convention on Monday, Aug. 17, 2020.

Leaders of several national civil rights groups, including the NAACP and the National Urban League, are disappointed a meeting they requested with Biden three weeks ago to discuss issues such as the pandemic and his appointments hasn’t happened.

“You’re talking about the kind of issues that are of major concern for Black people,’’ said Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, one of seven groups asking for the meeting. “We need to be… at his decision-making table. And the diversity needs to be reflected from the top, the Cabinet itself. Who is running the agencies? All of that matters.”

Melanie Campbell, center, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, talks to a group of Black women March 5 in front of the U.S. Capitol. The women attended a conference focused on the census, voting rights and health care.
Melanie Campbell, center, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, talks to a group of Black women March 5 in front of the U.S. Capitol. The women attended a conference focused on the census, voting rights and health care.

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'Return the favor' to voters of color

Some congressional lawmakers said they’re also concerned civil rights groups, which were key to get-out-the-vote efforts, haven’t been included in discussions with Biden.

Voters of color were key to winning swing states such as Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania.

"After you pop the champagne and all the high fives…you need to make sure you have all those groups around the table,’’ said Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Democrat from Mississippi and chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.

“You have to return the favor if you’re successful to the people who got you there,’’ Thompson said. “That’s politics 101.”

The top priority for civil rights groups and advocates is addressing COVID-19, which has disproportionately impacted communities of color.

Blacks, Hispanics, and Indigenous Americans are four times more likely to be hospitalized for COVID-19 than whites and more than. 2.5 nearly times more likely to die from it, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

People of color have also suffered financially. Many work in service industry jobs that were furloughed. And many work in health care making them vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

Biden set up a COVID-19 advisory board earlier this month and said on CNN Thursday he would ask Americans to wear masks for 100 days.

Campbell, who spent three weeks in intensive care battling COVID-19, said advocates want to ensure the administration not only addresses this pandemic, but is prepared for others.

"We should be able to engage with this ongoing president-elect that we helped get elected,” she said.

Bennie Thompson, Permanent Chair of the 2020 Democratic National Convention and congressman from Mississippi, remotely gives the Call to Order during the Democratic National Convention at the Wisconsin Center.
Bennie Thompson, Permanent Chair of the 2020 Democratic National Convention and congressman from Mississippi, remotely gives the Call to Order during the Democratic National Convention at the Wisconsin Center.

Biden officials said the administration is building a diverse team that would fulfill his promise of reflecting America.

Hispanics make up 18.5% of the nation's population, Blacks 13% and Asians 6%, according to the Census.

Biden recently named several people of color to top jobs, including Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., who will be a senior adviser and Symone Sanders, who will be a senior aide to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Three of nine top White House jobs Biden announced last month will be filled by Latinos.

Biden officials also noted that about half of the Cabinet positions announced have gone to people of color, including Alejandro Mayorkas, who was selected to head the Department of Homeland Security, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, nominated to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Alejandro Mayorkas is nominated to serve as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
Alejandro Mayorkas is nominated to serve as secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Democrat and former chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said while much of the focus has been on Biden’s Cabinet picks, more people of color should also be considered for other high-level posts.

“I don't think that we should be relegated to any one area of government,’’ she said.

Some senior members of the caucus, including Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, have touted Fudge for a Cabinet post, including Agriculture Secretary. “She would be an excellent addition to the administration,” said Thompson.

Reps. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Cedric Richmond of Louisiana arrived July 27, 2020 for the funeral of their colleague Georgia Rep. John Lewis. Thompson and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus are pushing for President-elect Joe Biden to pick Fudge to serve in his Cabinet. “I can see no better person in a cabinet position than Marica Fudge,” Thompson told USA TODAY, Dec. 2, 2020.
Reps. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, Marcia Fudge of Ohio and Cedric Richmond of Louisiana arrived July 27, 2020 for the funeral of their colleague Georgia Rep. John Lewis. Thompson and other members of the Congressional Black Caucus are pushing for President-elect Joe Biden to pick Fudge to serve in his Cabinet. “I can see no better person in a cabinet position than Marica Fudge,” Thompson told USA TODAY, Dec. 2, 2020.

Push to address systemic racism

Earlier this month, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus also called on Biden to include Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in his Cabinet and administration. Some suggestions included former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang for Commerce secretary.

Biden announced this week Neera Tanden, a South Asian American, as his choice to head the White House Office of Management and Budget.

In a letter to Biden’s transition team Wednesday, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus called on the administration to consider California Attorney General Xavier Becerra or Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, as U.S. Attorney General. The caucus met virtually Thursday with Biden's transition team.

"We look forward to working in partnership with President-Elect Biden to assemble the most diverse administration in American history,” the caucus said in a statement afterward.

UnidosUS and others are urging Biden to fill at least 20% of the top jobs and appointments with Latino candidates.

“We need to put people in positions of power and influence who understand our communities,’’ Rodriguez said.

Contributing: Nicholas Wu, John Fritze, Courtney Subramanian

Follow Deborah Berry on Twitter @dbgannett

Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, talked about her plans for a House subcommittee on elections in her office Jan. 11, 2018.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, talked about her plans for a House subcommittee on elections in her office Jan. 11, 2018.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden must tackle COVID-19, systemic racism first: Civil rights groups