There’s still work to be done.
This has become a common theme in the post-inauguration discourse, as some voters breathe a sigh of relief over the new Biden-Harris administration.
Some activists and organizers across the country are hopeful, saying the new administration is just a small step in the right direction, while others say it doesn't represent a changing tide, only a different, more pleasant, face of the same beast.
“One of my biggest concerns is mass incarceration. Me and a lot of organizers are like, ‘nothing has changed.’ We’re still going to keep doing the work we’re doing,” said Bethany Stewart, an organizer with the Philadelphia Community Bail Fund, which works to end cash bail in the city. “I think Biden and Kamala will do these really fluffy things rooted in respectability, but actually getting to the root of Black injustice? I don’t think they’ll come anywhere near that — no politician has before.”
Still, Biden has drawn praise for immediately taking steps to undo key Trump initiatives. United We Dream, an immigrant advocacy organization, called one Biden proposal the “most progressive immigration bill ever.” Public health officials have said Biden’s Covid-19 battle plan is “spot on.” And Biden’s plan to address climate change and rejoin the Paris Agreement has endeared him to activists. He’s also drawn praise for denouncing the white supremacy movement exacerbated under Donald Trump — a rare rebuke for an inaugural address. Meanwhile, the significance of Kamala Harris as the first woman, the first Black and the first South Asian vice president has taken center stage.
Organizers like Joshua Briond, of the Black Alliance for Peace and co-host of the Millennials Are Killing Capitalism podcast, said lauding Harris’ win cannot distract from the pervasiveness of white supremacy the country’s highest office has upheld through the centuries. The complexities of a post-Trump presidency in a nation steeped in racism and wracked by capitalism is not lost on organizers.
“One thing we have to do is dispel this myth of Trump being so unlike any other president in terms of actual policy," Briond said. "There’s this lack of understanding that we have done nothing about the conditions, the infrastructure, institutions and structures in place that have made Trump possible.”
Briond added: “All that has happened is there was a peaceful transition of power from Trump to a career politician, in Joe Biden, who has done far more violence than Trump has because he’s been … a politician for decades. We didn’t topple anything. All we did was replace one figurehead with another, we’ve done nothing about the institution. It’s not about the leader, it’s about the institutions and the structures and the systems of capitalism and white supremacy that we reside under that are the main forces of domination here.”
Scholars note that Trump’s presidency highlighted the nation’s reliance on white supremacist oppression and a new administration doesn’t necessarily represent a break from that tradition. As the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates recently declared: "Trumpism did not begin with Trump. ... To Trump, whiteness is neither notional nor symbolic but it is the very core of his power. In this, Trump is not singular." He added that presidents before Trump "carried whiteness like an ancestral talisman."
Critics have noted both Biden and Harris’ shortcomings for years, especially in areas where their policies and actions have had a clear affect on people and communities of color — like Biden’s participation in the 1994 crime bill and his record on school desegregation and Harris’ record in the criminal legal system. But the new administration still means sending off Trump, a president who blatantly insulted congresswomen of color, called Covid-19 “the Chinese virus,” made false voter fraud claims, has been accused of sexual assault, incited a far-right mob to storm the Capitol, and much, much more.
Grassroots organizers steadily met the needs of their communities during the Trump era, especially throughout the Covid-19 health crisis. This work, they say, hasn’t changed and won’t change even with a Democratic Congress and president. Activists like Jae Yates, of Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar, said they plan to hold Biden accountable, especially after making several campaign promises to communities of color, specifically Black Americans. Organizers and activists in Minneapolis gathered at a rally on Inauguration Day demanding policy changes under Biden and carrying a long list of demands, from immigrant rights to student loan forgiveness.
"Making sure that Biden is held accountable to fix what the previous Cabinet has done, and finally deliver on a lot of the promises Democrats make every election season, that's our goal," Yates said. "It's important to us to keep pressure on them. Even though a lot of us voted for Biden because we had no other option, Democrats need to do better by us right now. We still have the same demands that we've had since last year. Nothing has changed for us in that regard."
Inauguration Day was the first steps of a long journey, and it provoked mixed emotions in many who watched. Stewart, the Philadelphia organizer, said she harbored complex feelings that day, but that simply comes along with “being human.”
“Humanity is one big tension all the time," Stewart said. "There’s Black liberationist Bethany. And there’s the HBCU grad who sees herself in Kamala Harris. Wednesday was an internally embattled day. Parts of me teared up watching a woman who is Black like me … now she’s second in command.
"That did spark something in me. But the more realistic part of me knows that her being in that position doesn’t free me.”