President Biden wants American unity: what can leaders learn from that challenge?
Rachael Wilson is the Managing Director of EW Group. Rachael supports businesses across a variety of industries to enhance staff engagement, boost customer satisfaction, innovate, win new clients, attract and retain the best talent and drive genuine cultural change.
It’s a new chapter in American politics. The authoritarian, controversial, and homogenous leadership that has characterised the last four years is on the way out, replaced by what American progressives hope will be a return to the kinder, more considered politics of administrations past.
It is hardly a stretch to say that non-white people bore the brunt of number 45. The Muslim and refugee travel ban, the wall, failing to criticise white supremacists, constant racist attacks on The Squad of progressive congresswomen, the vicious response to Black Lives Matter movement – these are just some of the multitude of rollbacks the Biden Administration has committed to reversing.
In the President’s Inaugural Address, he stated that “to overcome these challenges, to restore the soul and secure the future of America, requires so much more than words. It requires the most elusive of all things in a democracy: unity.”
What will this change of tack mean for diversity in America? What can leaders learn from the challenges set before the world’s most influential chief?
And what can the President learn from inclusive leadership?
What we learnt from President Biden’s speech
Unity was a central theme of the President’s Inaugural Address. Asking every American to come together in the cause of fighting anger, resentment, hatred, and extremism, he talked about delivering racial justice and reducing the “sting of systemic racism”, ensuring America was a leading force for good.
Acknowledging that divisions run deep, he talked of the constant battle between ideals and racism throughout American history, but asserted that unity had always prevailed.
Dignity, respect, and peace were the antidotes to chaos and violence. And he pleaded with Americans to listen and show respect to one another to work through disagreements, pledging to be a “President for all Americans”.
Biden’s address was broad – in many ways it was sure to be, given the range of challenges facing his country – but inclusion and diversity featured heavily. The only question now, is what can be done to heal division and drive such unity?
How can President Biden succeed? What can leaders learn from his approach?
Solving these problems and restoring the soul of the nation is possible, but it requires a step-change in approach. For any leader wanting to address diversity in their organisation, there are plenty of parallels that can be drawn – and the President’s performance will prove an exceptional example as the months and years go by.
Diversity in leadership positions
President Biden’s cabinet is forming up to be the most racially and gender diverse in US history – and almost double Trump’s – with countless firsts:
- Hispanic Homeland Security Chief, Alejandro Mayorkas
- Native American Cabinet Secretary, Deb Haaland
- Woman National Intelligence Director, Avril Haines
- Openly gay Cabinet Member, Pete Buiitgieg
- Transgender Senate Confirmee, Rachel Levine
- Multiracial woman Vice President, Kamala Harris
The cabinet is slightly more racially diverse than the US population (though slightly underrepresents Asian or Pacific Islander, Multiracial, and Native American people), however it is not as gender diverse, given that 46% of the cabinet are women compared to 51% of the country.
If change really is to occur, diversity across positions of power must continue – a lesson for any leader.
To combat America’s race crisis and improve equality, diversity, and inclusion across the US, the President’s team has announced a whole host of policies:
- Addressing racial housing and healthcare disparities
- An executive order on racial equality
- Forcing agencies to tackle barriers to equal opportunity
- Removing Trump’s order on stopping federal agencies running diversity and inclusion training
- A national police oversight body to reform police departments
- HR 40, a commission on examining reparations for slavery
- Safe Justice Act – reforming mandatory minimum sentences and increasing community policing funding
- Equality Act – adding gender identity and sexual orientation to civil rights laws
- Preventing violence against transgender people
- Letting trans people service in the military
- Providing guidance to trans students
- Ending the Muslim travel ban
- Allowing citizenship for 11 million undocumented migrants
- Ending construction of the border wall
- Removing permits for Keystone XL, which threatened Native American lands
It’s a long list; understandable, given the broad assault on diversity over the past four years, but the sheer number of challenges present call for sweeping change. It’s critical that the administration follows through.
If any leader wants to drive real diverse change, they need to be held accountable to their promises and actions. The same is going to be true for President Biden; all eyes – and importantly, those of his diverse base – will be firmly fixated on whether he delivers true change.
Any slip up is sure to be met with accusations that this is the same man whose chequered record on diversity was a key issue during the election campaign, so like any inclusive leader, this will boil down to the day-to-day running of a diverse coalition. Can he keep up the pace of action in the corridors of Washington without rolling back his agenda?
President Biden touched on Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and how he had stated “his whole soul was in” the act of doing so.
Authenticity is key to inclusive leadership. If you don’t truly believe in diversity and equality or have a personal narrative to back it up, efforts will come across as false.
Up until now, much of the President’s comments on diversity have focused on Vice President Kamala Harris and her background. Going forward, he needs to leverage his own authenticity with greater confidence. His whole soul truly must be up to the task.
The scale of the American diversity challenge
Even before the Trump administration burst its way through the doors of the White House, America has been systemically racist and gender unequal. Black Lives Matter shone a light on an issue that has been seething under the surface since the country’s conception, and the effects are no less clear today:
- Black American employment ratios are much lower than white or Hispanic people
- Black and Hispanic people are less likely to have high-paying jobs
- Mortgage application refusal rates are higher for all non-white people
- In 2019, white households in the US had 8 times the median wealth of Black households
- Imprisonment rates are much higher for Black and Hispanic people
- The Black poverty rate is more than double that of white people
- Black students are nearly half as likely to earn secondary course credits than white students
- On average, Asian women in the US earn 97% of every dollar earned by American white males; white women, 80%; Black women, 66%; and Hispanic women, 58%.
- Only 6.6% of CEOs, and 25.4% of board members, are female
Things have only worsened in the pandemic, which has exacerbated existing racial inequalities across the US:
- Black Americans were much more likely to lose their jobs
- Black people were 1.4 times more likely to catch COVID-19, 3.7 times more likely to be hospitalised, and 2.8 times more likely to be killed by the virus, than white people
- Native American people were 1.8 times more likely to catch, 4 times more likely to be hospitalised, and 2.6 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people
- Hispanic people were 1.4 times more likely to catch, 4.1 times more likely to be hospitalised, and 2.8 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than white people
- Black Americans make up 12% of the US workforce, but account for 17% of frontline employees
These sobering statistics and inequalities, many of which are intersectional, show the huge challenge facing President Biden. But that’s not all – these groups have explicitly put their trust in him.
Black Americans were crucial to the President’s election win, as well as the two key Georgia senate races that safeguarded his ability to drive forward his agenda. In 2020, exit polls showed Black Americans made up more than 50% of all Democratic voters in Georgia, where 33% of the population is Black, 20% in Michigan (14% of the state population), and 21% in Pennsylvania (12%).
And women – Black, Hispanic, and college educated whites – shifted decisively towards the Democratic party in 2020, with the voter gender gap between Biden and Trump standing between eight and 12 points.
Put simply, if Biden wants to bring America together, he needs to palpably improve the plight of the disenfranchised groups that put the weight of their votes behind him.
The next four years are hugely important for America, if not the world. Diversity is in the limelight, so it’s critical that the President, and leaders of all organisations, acts as an ally, doing what must be done to heal divisions and drive equality.