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Students of color at Penn have expressed mixed feelings towards the new Biden administration. 

Credit: Sukhmani Kaur

Like many other students of color around the nation, College junior Luke Coleman felt cynical in the days leading up to the 2020 presidential election. A Black biracial man, Coleman viewed his vote between two polarizing candidates as a choice between the lesser of two evils.

Although he voted for Joe Biden, who was inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States on Jan. 20, Coleman believed his decision to do so was inconsequential. At the time, he said it felt as if “people who look like [him] are really going to face pretty much no change at all.”

But when Biden was declared victorious against Republican incumbent Donald Trump, Coleman said he felt an unexpectedly overwhelming sense of patriotism.

Biden's win — coupled with his appointment a historically diverse Cabinet and of Kamala Harris as the nation's first woman, Black American, and Asian American to be vice president — served as a symbol of hope and relief after four years of turmoil in the White House. Although students of color said they largely settled for Biden, many remain cautiously optimistic of the new administration. 

Like Coleman, Wharton first-year Natasha Johnson said that as a Black woman she saw her vote this year as a vote against Trump, rather than a vote for Biden. She said she hopes that the Biden-Harris administration will hold true to its promises of racial equity and pandemic management during the upcoming four years so that she can be more enthusiastic to vote for them if they run again in 2024. 

Since assuming office, President Biden, a former Penn Presidential Professor of Practice, signed 45 executive orders, including instituting a reversal of Trump’s ‘Muslim ban,' rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, and creating a task force to reunite hundreds of families who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border by the Trump administration.

“I think the first executive orders are a really good sign in terms of what can be done in a short period of time," Coleman said, adding that he nevertheless believes these orders were surface-level and hopes that future policy would address issues more in-depth. He said rejoining the Paris Agreement may be a good start, but believes tougher action must be taken to address climate change.

Regarding Biden's executive order to end private prison contracts, College sophomore and Chicano student Andrés González-Bonillas said that though the action may seem like a large, progressive change, private prisons only account for less than 9% of incarcerated individuals. He also criticized the president for not including U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers in the order, where 81% of individuals are held in private prisons.

A self-described anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist, González-Bonillas said he does not view Biden much more highly than he did Trump. Although he voted for Biden, he said he believes more in local activism and does not stem his hope for progressive change from politicians.

College sophomore and College Republicans member Jay Allen, who is Black, said he was trying to remain optimistic in the face of the election outcome. Allen voted for Trump in the election, citing the former president’s platinum plan for Black Americans as well as several of Biden’s remarks about the Black community as determining factors of his choice. 

Although Allen’s preferred candidate lost the election, he said he hopes Biden will keep his promises regarding efforts toward racial equity. During his campaign, Biden promised to support a study of reparations for Black Americans, a Voting Rights Act amendment, and the decriminalization of marijuana. 

“It’s their time to prove whether they were all talk, or if they’re actually willing to do stuff," Allen said.

Allen, along with many other students, also expressed concerns about the economic and public health effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said he wants Biden to provide economic relief in the form of another stimulus check as well as create support for small businesses through loans and a payment protection plan. 

He also expressed the need for vaccine distribution to be expanded within Black communities, which have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. Black Americans currently suffer the highest COVID-19 death tolls at 1 in 750 — more than double that of white Americans.

Wharton junior Omer Qureshi, a Pakistani-American, believes that the Biden-Harris administration is more capable of handling the pandemic, comparing the president's current mask mandates with Trump's consistent downplaying of COVID-19 along with his widespread skepticism about face masks.

“When you see that your leader is unwilling to even engage in one of the most basic forms of precaution, I do think that makes a difference,” Qureshi said. “In a crisis of this scale, leadership at the top really matters.”

Biden must first find a way to unite people before implementing COVID-19 policies, Wharton first-year Rachael Patterson, a Black woman, said. She believes Trump left behind a divided nation where people lack faith in their political advisors, and that the general public must now work together to address the pandemic. 

Similar to Qureshi, Patterson believes the virus was treated as a political issue rather than a public health one under the previous administration. 

Coleman voiced a similar sentiment, explaining that he feared how certain disinformation spread by the former president, like one of Trump’s comments suggesting that injecting disinfectant may be a potential COVID-19 treatment, would affect people’s willingness to take the vaccine in the future.

“This idea of alternative facts that has come out of the [Trump] administration, I feel, has been damaging,” he said. According to The Washington Post, Trump made over 30,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency.

Wharton first-year Tahlea Salmon said that there were noticeable inconsistencies with how Trump-incited, right-wing mob rioters were treated during the Jan. 6 storming of the Capitol versus how peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters were treated during demonstrations over the summer. 

“The other side painted BLM protesters as dangerous when they were really the dangerous ones,” Salmon said, adding that she hopes Trump, who has now been impeached twice, is convicted and barred from running for office again.

While she was glad that Biden was elected, Salmon did not express too much hope that the administration would address issues important to her, such as healthcare reform and racial justice.

“I don’t really have faith that in the future there will be any extremely progressive executive orders,” she said. “I do think that it’s going to get back to a normal America, but I don’t know if it’s going to progress forward.”

Students nevertheless expressed joy at Harris' historic appointment as vice president, citing her ethnic background and female identity as a landmark moment. 

As a first-generation Jamaican American, Salmon said that she was excited to find out that the new vice president would be a Jamaican woman. 

“[It] makes you understand the type of spaces that we can get into even though we might not see a lot of representation," she said.

Kamala Harris became the first Black and South Asian woman to be sworn in as Vice President on Jan. 20, 2021.

College first-year Summer Maher agreed, saying that it was emotional seeing a woman sworn into the nation's second-highest office. Although Maher said she did not like Harris politically due to her record as a prosecutor, she believed that much of the attention surrounding Harris has been overly and unnecessarily negative, which she believes would not have been the case with a male politician. 

“I think they brand her the way that they do any woman who’s in a position of power,” Maher said.

Allen and several others were concerned over Harris’ record as a prosecutor and California Attorney General, citing actions like her anti-truancy program, which made it a misdemeanor for parents whose children were absent for at least 10% of school days. Though Harris has not spoken much about her past as a prosecutor, Patterson said she believes that being transparent about her past could be a step in the right direction toward addressing criminal justice issues on the national level.

Coleman, however, believes that the intersectionality of Harris’ identity could help create initiatives that place marginalized communities at the forefront of Biden’s political agenda.

Maher was also concerned about criminal justice, referring to actions like Biden's role in the 1994 crime bill

"We're not going to just accept his flaws and his past record in politics," she said.

While students were overall mostly relieved to have a less controversial figure in the White House, they are now focused on the future direction of the country.  

“I’m hopeful that [Biden and Harris] are going to do something effective and change the way that we’ve been living, but I also recognize that they alone can’t do it," Patterson said. "It’s going to be an effort from all of us as people, regardless of which political side that you’re a part of.”

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