President Joe Biden would not be where he is without Black voters. Fittingly, he’s made some pretty weighty promises in his plan for Black America. We’re keeping track of them all in a biweekly series.
The president tweeted on Wednesday in the hours after his address to a joint session of Congress that “100 days ago, America’s house was on fire.”
Former President Donald Trump had incited an attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to influence results of the presidential election while the American people were dying, with COVID-19 vaccinations largely inaccessible. Well, 100 days into Biden’s administration, Black America’s house is still burning. The difference between his administration and that of his predecessor is that today’s White House is at least attempting change, giving powerful lip service to it, and backing up that lip service with actual funding, investigations into police departments, policy changes, and hiring.
Promising diversity in his Cabinet, then delivering
Of the about 1,500 agency appointees Biden has hired so far, 18% of them are Black, the White House said in its fact sheet on Biden’s time in office so far. “Lloyd Austin is the first Black Secretary of Defense,” the White House said. Stacey Dixon, who Biden nominated on April 21 as principal deputy director in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, will be the “highest-ranking Black woman in the intelligence community.”
Sue Gordon, who the Trump administration forced out of the position, complimented Dr. Dixon’s “deep technical skills” in an interview with The New York Times. “She delivers inclusive leadership based on ensuring equal access and equal opportunity,” Gordon said. “What I think she would say is you want to create a place where anyone with the drive and talent can succeed.” Gordon described a commitment to diversity not unlike what Biden promised and by many accounts, has been delivering. “I’m going to keep my commitment that the administration, both in the White House and outside in the Cabinet, is going to look like the country,” Biden told CNN the month before his inauguration.
The president, who selected as his running mate the first Black and Asian vice president, Kamala Harris, has gotten due praise for keeping his commitment to diversity; but of equally important, if not greater, interest for Black communities is his work to address inequity across the spectrum.
Making sure American Families Plan reaches Black families
Feasible through higher taxes on the wealthy, Biden detailed $1 trillion in federal funding and $800 billion in tax credits to make permanent elements of his coronavirus relief plan and significantly expand the federal government’s investment in education. The president released the spending in his American Families Plan on Wednesday. The plan dedicates $200 billion for universal preschool for all 3 and 4 year olds, $109 billion for two years of community college, and $46 billion for historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions. “President Biden is also calling for $9 billion to train, equip and diversify American teachers in order to ensure that our high school graduates are ready for success,” the White House said in a fact sheet about the plan.
Rep. Val Demings tweeted in response to news of the plan that she’s “sick and tired of leaving certain children behind … The #AmericanFamiliesPlan includes universal preschool and free community college. This is how we compete on the global stage: by unlocking ALL of America’s talent,” Demings said.
The president’s plan meets Democrats’ request to lower the age of eligibility for Medicare from 65 to 60. It promises a $15 an hour minimum wage for early child care providers and educators—more than four in 10 of whom are women of color—and it includes a $200 billion investment to make permanent lower premiums included in the coronavirus relief plan. “As a result, nine million people will save hundreds of dollars per year on their premiums, and four million uninsured people will gain coverage,” the White House explained.
Biden also signed an executive order on Tuesday to bump the minimum wage up to $15 an hour for federal contractors across the board. It’s a decision the Economic Policy Institute estimates will mean a raise for as many as 390,000 low-wage federal contractors, half of whom are Black or Hispanic, The Associated Press reported. Rep. Cori Bush, an activist turned congresswoman, added an essential reminder that aside from executive orders, for many of Biden’s proposals to be enacted, they have to make it through the Senate. “We passed a $15 minimum wage,” she tweeted. “How we gon get these to your desk without abolishing the Jim Crow filibuster?”
Calling on Biden to support end of filibuster
A filibuster is an operational instrument requiring 60 votes instead of a simple majority to stall or block a vote, and it has been used by Senate Republicans to delay civil rights legislation for decades. That didn’t stop with Biden’s election.
He called on Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation, including the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, in his address on Wednesday. The former, which passed the House, would expand ballot access by creating automatic voter registration throughout the country, restore the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expand early voting, and modernize voting systems. The latter would restore the Voting Rights Act and update the formula used to decide which states require preclearance from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia to change any element related to voting in a protected jurisdiction.
Still, Biden has repeatedly hesitated to support ending the filibuster threatening the proposed legislation. The closest he’s come recently is agreeing with former President Barack Obama’s assessment at the late Rep. John Lewis’ funeral that the Senate filibuster is a relic of the Jim Crow era. But even then, when asked about abolishing it, Biden stumbled. “Successful politics is the art of the possible,” he eventually said. “Let’s deal with the abuse first.”
Making vaccines accessible to Black communities
On the day of Biden’s inauguration, 4,380 people were dying daily of coronavirus complications on average, and Black people were disproportionately represented in that group. We accounted for 18.7% of overall coronavirus-related deaths despite representing only 12.5% of the U.S. population, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in a review of data from May to August of 2020.
“We had to act,” Biden said in a tweet sent just before his 100th day in office on Friday, “so we:
– Passed the American Rescue Plan
– Administered over 200 million shots
– Sent over 160 million relief checks
– Delivered food and rental assistance to millions
– Provided small business loans”
Biden’s decisions have helped spark an increase of more than 1 million people vaccinated for COVID-19, with the average daily vaccination count up to 2.67 million from about 1.5 million people who were vaccinated at the time of Biden’s inauguration, according to The Washington Post.
When it comes to the percent of Black people receiving vaccinations, however, we are still 1.6 times less likely than white people to receive them, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported in data from 42 states and Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. At the end of March, Biden’s administration committed to allocating almost $10 billion to address that disparity along with vaccine inequities related to income and geography.
Data from states reporting the highest percents of vaccine distribution to Black people already point to progress made along the lines of disproportionality. Whereas Black people represented a 16.5% share of COVID-19 vaccinations in Maryland as of Jan. 19, they represented a 24% share in the state by April 26, a point at which the District of Columbia exceeded Maryland’s report. Black people represented a 36% share of vaccinations in Washington, D.C., Kaiser reported.
Activists and health experts aren’t settling for that progress, though, and they’re demanding that Biden refuse to settle too. Access is the central issue. Despite an increase in demand, vaccination rates for Black and brown people in Philadelphia are still half of what they are for the city’s white residents, NPR reported. “There are a lot of ways Dr. Kent Bream would describe the lines of people waiting, sometimes for hours, for COVID-19 vaccines at his community health clinic in West Philadelphia. Eager. Impatient. Frustrated, even. But ‘hesitant’ doesn’t come to mind,” the news organization reported.
Rep. Joyce Beatty, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, made sure Biden understood the point clearly during a meeting between the president and leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus in April. “Now, are there some people who remember the Tuskegee experiment or Henrietta Lacks? All of us here remember that, but guess what? All of us here are vaccinated,” Beatty said. “We want to dispel this notion of hesitancy.” She announced a campaign with the NAACP and Urban League to get more people vaccinated in Black communities. Beatty also addressed a problem that for many Black people is the key barometer they will be using to measure Biden’s success as president, and that’s criminal justice reform.
Stopping police from killing Black men, women, and children
It isn’t exactly lost on activists or journalists that the president met their calls to defund police with a promise to authorize more funding to the tune of $300 million to hire and train police officers on a community policing approach. Slate magazine writer Aaron Stagoff-Belfort wrote of the community policing initiative as a failed approach to policing after the death of Michael Brown. An 18-year-old Black man, Brown was shot at least six times and killed by a white police officer on Aug. 9, 2014 in Ferguson, Missouri. Despite the repeated narrative that Brown was suspected of robbing a convenience store, officers admitted they had no knowledge of Brown’s alleged involvement and had only stopped him for walking in the street. And since Brown’s death, there hasn’t exactly been a drop in Black men or women killed by police.
Stagoff-Belfort wrote that the story of the Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policing Services “is darker than a benign police reform proven ineffective … It has expanded the federal government’s capacity to bankroll some of the more harmful misadventures in modern American policing,” he wrote. The journalist listed as examples COPS grants used to hire officers for SWAT raids and a survey revealing that 60% of COPS officers spent “some, little, or no time on community problem-solving.” Political scientist and Princeton University professor Naomi Murakawa detailed the survey in her book, The First Civil Right. She wrote last October following the death of George Floyd at the hands of former Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin: “The more police brutalize and kill, the greater their budgets for training, hiring, and hardware.”
It’s a discrepancy Biden has not addressed so far, and until he does, it will likely remain an asterisk on any criminal justice reform measures he has outlined. Yes, he’s brought attention to Floyd’s death, as well as that of Daunte Wright, which happened some 10 miles away from the Chauvin trial, and that of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by police while she was sleeping in her own home in Louisville, Kentucky. Yes, Attorney General Merrick Garland’s commitment to launch pattern or practice investigations into the Minneapolis Police Department and the Louisville Police Department are absolutely necessary.
But accountability is what happens after Black people are killed. It has not prevented their deaths. Defunding police, or more accurately repurposing a portion of their budgets for social services and mental health resources, is not a radical concept. It relies on a capitalistic logic long proven to effect change in this country—that logic being where the money goes, so does change.
Until Biden starts repurposing the federal government’s investment in police departments and addressing the heart of the Defund the Police movement’s aims instead of the unsavory marketing elements, the highest grade he can earn is a B+. Denying just how racist the American people are isn’t helping his grade either.
Denying America is racist
Both Biden and Harris agreed with Republican Sen. Tim Scott’s assessment that the nation is not racist in interviews last week. Meanwhile, Scott, of South Carolina, is the nation’s only Black Republican senator and the first Black person to represent a southern state in the Senate since the Reconstruction era. Harris is the first Black vice president to serve the country ever. Both politicians have repeatedly detailed incidents of being discriminated against, yet somehow the country’s top leaders are joining Scott in attempting to separate racist systems and institutions from the people who created and uphold them. Scott initially made the claim that Americans are not racist in a rebuttal to Biden’s address to Congress. “America is not a racist country,” Scott said. “It’s wrong to try to use our painful past to try to dishonestly shut down debates in the present.”
His stance isn’t exactly shocking, but I expected more from Biden and Harris. “No, I don’t think the American people are racist,” Biden said when asked to address Scott’s remarks in an NBC interview. “But I think after 400 years African Americans have been left in a position where they’re so far behind the eight ball in terms of education, health, in terms of opportunity.” Harris similarly maintained that she doesn’t think America is “a racist country but we also do have to speak truth about the history of racism in our country and its existence today.”
Speaking the truth does not equate to denying reality. While no one would expect Harris or Biden to falsely claim that every American is racist, no honest assessment of the country can separate wrongdoing from the wrongdoers. There is no racist policing system without racist cops, no racist school systems without racist crafters of education policy, and no racist criminal justice system without racist prosecutors. America is as racist as the systems it upholds, and that will not change until we change the hearts and minds of the American people. Denial does not get us there.
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