Biden, at Tulsa massacre event, promises to ramp up fight for voting rights
TULSA, Okla. - President Joe Biden promised Tuesday to "fight like heck" against Republican efforts to restrict voting, using the anniversary of a racist massacre here to respond to Democrats growing anxiety that his low-key approach was threatening fair elections and their own electoral future.
Biden announced he was tapping Vice President Kamala Harris to marshal an effort against the increasing array of Republican-led state laws that restrict voting in various ways, a campaign Biden condemned as "un-American."
"This sacred right is under assault with incredible intensity like I've never seen," Biden said, adding that June should be a "month of action" on Capitol Hill and taking what appeared to be a shot at Democratic Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, suggesting they often side with Republicans.
The president has been under pressure to show more urgency in the face of a GOP push that includes efforts to overturn the last presidential election, former president Donald Trump's false insistence that he won, and Republican resistance to Democrats' voting rights laws in Congress. Democrats in Texas over the weekend blocked a restrictive voting law, at least temporarily, by walking out of the statehouse.
Biden, the first president to visit Tulsa to commemorate the 1921 massacre, which included numerous atrocities and destroyed a prosperous Black community, delivered a searing speech that recounted the events in great detail and sought to "fill the silence" about the killing.
The massacre, which killed as many as 300 people and destroyed more than 1,250 homes, destroyed what was known as Black Wall Street, a thriving community of African Americans.
"For much too long, the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness," he said. "But just because history is silent, it doesn't mean that it did not take place."
Biden portrayed the effort to come to grips with the spasm of racist killing, and what it revealed about the bigotry and hatred in American life, as critical to a process of healing and rebuilding that is still underway in the country more broadly.
"We can't just choose what we want to know, and not what we should know," Biden said. "We should know the good, the bad - everything. That's what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides."
Biden's trip to Tulsa presented a vivid contrast with Trump's visit a year ago to hold a campaign rally as the coronavirus was raging across the country. Trump was met with protests, and Black residents urged him and Vice President Mike Pence not to visit the Greenwood District, where Biden spoke Tuesday, given what many African Americans viewed as their objectionable record on race.
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, a Republican, drove to Tulsa with his wife, Sarah, to greet Biden. Sarah Stitt had enlisted the Museum of the Bible to help Vernon AME Church preserve its "Book of Redemption," a ledger of Black families who contributed to rebuilding Greenwood after the 1921 destruction. The newly restored artifact was unveiled Monday.
The governor's relations with Black organizers in Tulsa have been strained. Stitt was booted from a commission on the massacre last month after signing legislation that critics said promoted opposition to the teaching of "critical race theory," the intellectual movement to examine the ways policies and laws perpetuate systemic racism.
Stitt said that the legislation was "politicized" and that he's long supported teaching the hard parts of Oklahoma history, including the Tulsa massacre and injustices against Native Americans.
"It was an honor to receive him to Oklahoma, and I'm glad that he was able to make this trip," Stitt said of Biden. "It was so important to Tulsa and to the racial reconciliation we've been praying for here for Oklahoma, specifically for Tulsa. So we're excited to have him."
Before his speech, Biden met with three survivors of the massacre, all more than a century old, and toured the Greenwood Cultural Center, which honors the city's Black community.
"We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened," Biden said. He added, "I come here to help fill the silence, because in silence, wounds deepen. And painful as it is, only in remembrance do wounds heal."
The trip to Tulsa comes after more than a year of unrest and protest in response to high-profile incidents of police brutality, punctuated by the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed in police custody in Minneapolis. Biden has promised to put racial equity at the center of his agenda, and the president has signed executive orders and tailored his legislative proposals to address it.
Tuesday's events brought together the long perspective of historical memory with the immediacy of political fights. The conflict over voting rights and restrictions is quickly becoming one of the defining battles of the post-Trump era, playing out across the country and in Washington.
Democrats argue that communities of color will be disproportionately hurt by the spate of new GOP laws, potentially dooming their hopes of keeping control of Congress in next year's midterm elections.
The House has passed a sweeping voting rights bill that is aimed in part at counteracting the GOP-led measures that have cropped up in various states. But in the Senate, Manchin has voiced opposition to the bill, and because that chamber is split 50-50 between the parties, his stance is enough to hamstring the legislation.
Biden said he would "fight with every tool at my disposal" to get the law passed. He added that "the current assault is not just an echo of distant history - in 2020, we faced restrictive laws, lawsuits, threats of intimidation, voter purges and more."
It was the sort of forceful language many Democrats and activists hoped Biden would use long ago. The president at one point took something of a defensive tone.
"I hear all the folks on TV saying, 'Why didn't Biden get this done?' " he said. "Because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House and two in the Senate, with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends."
That was an apparent reference to Manchin and Sinema, although Sinema supports the Democrats' bill and neither senator votes more often with Republicans. Biden did not specify how he would ramp up his efforts, adding only that he would have more to say on the subject later.
The Democrats' bill includes national standards for voter registration and mail-in voting, as well also provisions that Republicans consider much too far afield, such as a requirement that states create nonpartisan redistricting commissions.
In tapping Harris to oversee the voting rights efforts, Biden has tasked her with another difficult issue, in addition to leading the administration's work on the root causes of immigration in Latin America. The vice president said she would be meeting with voting rights groups, community organizations and the private sector in the coming days and weeks.
"The work ahead of us is to make voting accessible to all American voters, and to make sure every vote is counted through a free, fair, and transparent process," Harris said in a statement. "This is the work of democracy."
As he commemorated the massacre, Biden also outlined new steps to close the wealth gap between Black and White Americans. According to a report by the Center for American Progress, the median wealth of White households was $189,100 in 2019 compared with $24,100 for Black households. The gap widened in 2020 as the pandemic hit minority communities harder than White ones, according to the report.
The president detailed a raft of policies intended to bolster homeownership and help minority small businesses and entrepreneurs, including using federal purchasing power to pump more money into minority-owned businesses and setting aside $10 billion in infrastructure funds to rebuild disadvantaged neighborhoods. He also plans to shore up the Fair Housing Act in ways that would allow the agency to better enforce the law, with the goal of increasing Black homeownership.
The policies - some of which had already been announced - were intended to show that the president was taking action, not just engaging in a commemoration, to support the Black community in Tulsa and elsewhere. The policies will affect the entire country, but they are designed to boost communities like Tulsa, administration officials said during a conference call with reporters Monday night.
But Biden's proposals drew immediate criticism from the nation's most prominent civil rights group, the NAACP, whose leader complained that they omitted the canceling of student debt, one of the most effective ways to shrink the wealth gap, according to some researchers.
"Components of the plan are encouraging, but it fails to address the student loan debt crisis that disproportionately affects African Americans," said Derrick Johnson, president of the NAACP. "You cannot begin to address the racial wealth gap without addressing the student loan debt crisis."
Although he applauded Biden's focus on homeownership as a way to build wealth, Johnson said many African Americans would not qualify for the necessary loans because of a high debt-to-income ratio. That's particularly true, he said, among government workers.
"That must be addressed if there is going to be a question of dealing with the racial wealth gap," Johnson said. He supports cutting as much $50,000 per person in student debt but said it is not a "magic number."
During his campaign, Biden said he supported erasing $10,000 per person in federal student debt, but he has done little publicly to move forward on that in the early phase of his presidency. Administration aides were pressed repeatedly about omitting student loan forgiveness from the president's plan Monday night.
"I certainly appreciate the interest in the topic, and it's useful to hear a sustained interest on this call," an administration official told reporters Monday.
In April, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain said Biden had requested a memo to determine whether the administration has the ability to wipe out student debt via executive action, as many activists have said. At the time, Klain said the memo would be done in "weeks."
But administration officials said Monday there was no update about the status of the memo.
As Biden pitched his agenda, he urged Americans to reckon with their country's history, saying there is a need to address the century-long impacts of events like the Tulsa massacre on modern Black communities.
"Chronic underinvestment from state and federal governments denied Greenwood even just a chance to rebuild," he said. "We must find the courage to change the things we know we can change. That's what Vice President Harris and I are focused on, along with our entire administration."