Joe Biden arguably owes his presidential success to Black Americans. Now, Black leaders expect the president to keep his promise of prioritizing their concerns from the start of his term.
Black Americans, Democrats’ most reliable voting bloc, punched above their weight to save American democracy and deliver Joe Biden the 2020 presidential victory. Black voters came out in historic numbers, backing Biden at polls and via crucial mail-in ballots, flipping Georgia blue, and handing Democrats the power to course-correct the Senate. Now, they look to Biden to prioritize policies and legislation that they’ve floated which benefit Black communities—and to begin sooner rather than later.
It’s a vow Biden campaigned on in the summer of 2020 when America was in the midst of its most massive civil rights protests in history. On the campaign trail in Delaware, he vowed to address institutional racism and establish a national police oversight board in his first 100 days in office as he met with community leaders.
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Months later, Biden showed consistency, assembling a White House team that “looks like America.” The incoming cabinet is historically diverse, with the most women and Latino members than any previous administration. However, as the nation claws its way past four years of civil rights rollbacks, inhumane policies, and bigoted rhetoric, the moment also demands substantive, systemic change, the kind outlined in Biden’s Plan for Black America.
“I don’t think we can move forward unless we take aggressive action to rip out the insidious race-based inequalities that corrupt every part of our society,” Biden said during a virtual discussion with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf.
The president-elect’s plan to improve racial equity emphasizes creating a fair criminal justice system, addressing systemic misconduct in police departments, creating a task force to tackle discrimination in the justice system, and reforming sentencing. Black leaders across the political spectrum have tendered legislative and policy proposals to accomplish these goals, focusing on enforcing existing laws, ratifying new legislation, and providing reparations to address ills as old as the nation itself. With them as guidance, Biden could broaden access to the dream America has long promised is available for all.
Enforce Existing Laws
Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states, “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Sherrilyn Ifill and a cadre of Black and brown leaders met with Biden in December to cement his commitment to anti-racist policies. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund president stressed the need for Biden to put the weight of his office behind voting rights legislation and to promote judges from diverse backgrounds.
She said the nation could make immeasurable progress just by enforcing Title IV so that, among other things, “law enforcement that engage in discrimination do not get money from the federal government. I’d like to see a really aggressive move to re-up pattern-or-practice investigations of police departments,” she told The.Ink.
Nina Turner, former Ohio state senator and 2020 presidential campaign manager to Sen. Bernie Sanders, told The.Ink that America needs a reckoning beyond its policing practices.
“Black officers get the same training as white colleagues, and you don’t see them gunning down unarmed white boys,” she said. “Law enforcement is a reflection of the larger society. We’ve got to understand the history of policing in this country and also understand that we can write a new history.”
Embrace New Legislation
The Breathe Act, called “modern-day civil rights legislation” by Black Lives Matter CEO Patrice Cullors, was developed by a coalition of progressive Black-led organizations following George Floyd’s murder. Reps. Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib announced their support for the wide-ranging legislation, which has four major sections.
The first section calls for taking federal funding from incarceration and police programs, ending life sentencing and mandatory minimum sentences, and decriminalizing and retroactively expunging drug convictions. The second portion would pay for data-proven approaches to community safety, such as sending mental health teams and other social services to respond to 911 calls. It also repeals juvenile convictions and wipes out court debts.
The third focuses on subsidizing social equity by increasing educational and community support: Funding schools in high-need areas, providing more comprehensive services for students, fighting environmental racism and pioneering universal basic income are a few of its aims. The fourth and final section seeks to expand voter participation by restoring voting rights to incarcerated citizens, allowing undocumented immigrants to participate in local elections where they pay taxes, reducing big donor influence on politics, and providing more accountability for police.
“I think those programs that they’re suggesting eliminating only look radical if we really ignore the fact that there has been tremendous pressure to meaningfully reform this criminal justice system,” University of Michigan professor and criminal justice expert Heather Ann Thompson said. “Every radical piece of legislation that we’ve ever passed in this country, it has passed on the heels of the kinds of grassroots protests that we saw on the streets. The will of the people indicates that if they just keep putting a Band-Aid on it, these protests are not going to go away.”
Time for Reparations
The United States has had several instances of making reparations—a systematic method of repayment for injustice—to several groups of citizens. Native Americans have received land rights and billions of dollars in benefits and programs for being forcibly exiled and subjected to the federal government’s genocidal policies. Congress gave a formal apology and monetary compensation to Japanese Americans who suffered internment during World War II. And under the Marshall Plan, the United States pushed for Jewish people to receive reparations for the Holocaust.
According to the Brookings Institute, Black Americans remain the only group that has never received compensation for enslavement or state-sanctioned discrimination. These practices enriched the nation: In 1860, Black American labor was valued at over $3 billion — more than was invested in factories and railroads combined. In 1861, cotton produced by enslaved Southern Blacks was valued at $250 million. Subsequent years saw losses from anti-Black housing, transportation, business, criminal justice, and education policies.
Introduced in 2019, H.R. 40 would create a commission to study and develop reparation proposals for Black Americans. The Act’s supporters, initially few, grew to more than 140 members of Congress as the protests of 2020 heightened calls for increasing equity. In Biden’s plan, the president-elect voices support for studies.
Still, when concrete figures are introduced, some balk at the price tag. William Darity, an economist and professor of public policy at Duke University, estimated a true reparations program in today’s dollars could cost between $10 and 12 trillion.
But making the American Dream an accessible reality requires the government to restore the same wealth that it denied Black citizens and address racial disparities in education, housing, and business ownership.
“For decades, Black people have shown up time and time again for a country that consistently tells us that our lives don’t matter,” Mary Hooks, a founding member of Black Lives Matter Atlanta and co-director of Southerners on New Ground, told USA Today. “Beyond a cheap thank you, we need this administration to be bold and unapologetic about paying that debt through enacting policy changes. …. Lastly, we need reparations for the descendants of Africans both here and abroad, period.”