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How Biden has — and hasn’t — harnessed the national reckoning on race

Biden’s policies for economic equality and criminal justice can do more to better meet America’s calls for racial justice.

Joe Biden participates in a virtual fundraising event from a makeshift studio at the Hotel DuPont on August 12, 2020, in Wilmington, Delaware.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Fabiola Cineas covers race and policy as a reporter for Vox. Before that, she was an editor and writer at Philadelphia magazine, where she covered business, tech, and the local economy.

June 2, 2020, was Joe Biden’s moment to rally America. The nation was reeling from days-long protests over the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man in Minneapolis, and the systemic racism that has long plagued the country.

Instead of addressing protesters’ calls, President Donald Trump had responded with his go-to “law and order” refrain a day earlier, just minutes after federal law enforcement tear-gassed peaceful protesters in front of the White House. Many in America — in the middle of a pandemic it was ill-equipped to handle — were frustrated, angry, and overwhelmed by its broken systems. If Biden wanted to prove he could be the leader to tackle inequality, now was the time to impart that message.

So on that June morning, from a lectern at Philadelphia City Hall, Biden called the moment an unmistakable “wake-up call.” He continued:

We can’t leave this moment thinking we can once again turn away and do nothing. We can’t. The moment has come for our nation to deal with systemic racism. To deal with the growing economic inequality in our nation. And to deal with the denial of the promise of this nation — to so many. ... It will take more than talk. We’ve had talk before. We’ve had protests before. Let us vow to make this, at last, an era of action to reverse systemic racism with long overdue and concrete changes.

Biden also took a knee that day as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with the movement; a week later, on June 9, he would virtually address the guests at Floyd’s funeral.

It seemed Biden had seized a tragic, emotional moment to be the anti-Trump — and speak to his allegiance to anti-racism — in a respectful way.

But although Biden had mastered the rhetoric, critics say he needs to do much more to signal his commitment to the national reckoning on race. For example, Biden has called for “real police reform” in various statements in the wake of Floyd’s death but has resisted calling to defund the police, a key rallying cry of protesters who demand the reallocation of policing budgets to social services and other types of public spending to help prevent deaths like Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s.

On the same day he addressed the guests at Floyd’s funeral, Biden reiterated his anti-defunding stance. “No, I don’t support defunding the police,” he said in an interview with CBS Evening News. “I support conditioning federal aid to police, based on whether or not they meet certain basic standards of decency and honorableness. And, in fact, are able to demonstrate they can protect the community and everybody in the community.”

There’s no question that Biden has shifted left since launching his presidential campaign in 2019. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen pointed out, the coronavirus, coupled with the federal government’s botched response, has moved Biden beyond his earlier “return to normalcy” rhetoric, realizing that pre-Trump normalcy is a low bar and won’t be enough to redress centuries of racial and economic inequality. And by selecting as his running mate Sen. Kamala Harris, who boasted some of the most progressive policies during her presidential run, Biden is continuing his leftward shift, Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote.

Moreover, through a series of unity task forces on a variety of key issues with progressives from Sen. Bernie Sanders’s camp, Biden has been forced to read the room — a room that’s often younger, less white, and more liberal. Biden’s team has considered a number of the task force’s recommendations so far. Still, there’s space to move left.

“Biden’s platform doesn’t have everything the movement has been calling for, and there are areas of clear difference. But the recommendations his campaign released are a powerful starting point,” Chiraag Bains, co-chair of the criminal justice task force and director of legal strategies at the progressive think tank Demos, told Vox.

Overall, Biden’s plans to address racial inequality across multiple sectors of American life would be the most progressive the Democratic Party has seen, but he risks falling short of the moment. The next few months are Biden’s chance to show he’s committed to serious systemic change, and it will be up to voters to judge whether he is up to the task.

Biden can do more to make up for his role in bolstering incarceration

Biden’s criminal justice plan, called “strengthening America’s commitment to justice,” pledges to rethink who America puts behind bars and how they’re treated when they’re in prison. The plan acknowledges from the outset that too many people are incarcerated in the United States and that too many of them are Black and brown.

The plan’s core principles focus on a reduction of the country’s number of inmates; dispelling racial, gender, and economic inequality in the criminal justice system; and shifting the focus to redemption and rehabilitation once the formerly incarcerated reenter society. But critics argue the plan can still do more to legalize some current offenses at the federal level (like cannabis use) and formally end protections such as qualified immunity that foster police abuse of power.

Biden’s reforms, many of which were released before the Black Lives Matter protests that followed Floyd’s death, include abolishing the death penalty, decriminalizing marijuana, eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent crime, and ending the cash bail system. Biden’s plan also boasts a $20 million grant program to accelerate criminal justice reform at the state and local levels. States will receive funding to address issues such as illiteracy and child abuse, both of which are correlated with incarceration, but they’ll have to eliminate mandatory minimums for nonviolent crimes, among other steps. Biden also plans to increase spending on education, mental health services, and research to decrease crime and incarceration levels.

“In my view, undoubtedly, Joe Biden has shifted his policy positions, not just in this moment of nationwide protest but in reaction to years of organizing,” Bains told Vox. Although Bains believes Biden’s platform is the most progressive criminal justice platform the Democratic Party has ever had, and points out that Biden has already accepted some of the group’s recommendations, the task force recommends dozens more policies that go beyond Biden’s published plan.

Some of those proposals include rewarding state and local governments for closing prisons and jails, investing the federal savings in Black and brown communities, repealing all mandatory minimum sentences (not just those for drug offenses), and investing in non-police responses to emergencies as well as restorative justice, Bains told Vox.

For activists, though, probably the touchiest subject in Biden’s criminal justice plan is that of police reform. While activists call for reducing the number of police officers and policing budgets, Biden’s framework would actually increase the number of police officers in Black and brown communities. He wants a $300 million investment in the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, which he helped spearhead in the 1990s, to reinvigorate community-oriented policing.

The program previously had mixed results, but Biden argues it never received sufficient funding to meet its original goals: creating communities where officers are walking the streets and engaging with community members instead of driving around in police cruisers. To receive funding, police departments will have to demonstrate that hired officers reflect the racial diversity of the communities they serve.

But research has shown that diversifying police forces also produces mixed results. And some studies show that more cops doesn’t automatically mean better policing. One 2016 study of New York City’s Operation Impact found that increased deployment in high-crime areas “had a statistically significant but relatively small association with a reduction in total crimes.” The surges also led officers to conduct more “investigative stops” for suspicious behavior. The report’s authors warned that such interventions “should pay careful attention that increased vigilance does not come at the cost of extra intrusion and burdens on local residents that have no crime reduction benefit.”

Relatedly, a more recent community policing study found that positive interactions with the police do improve people’s attitudes toward them, although the researchers also concluded that “positive non-enforcement police contact is no panacea for long-standing issues in policing that include police brutality, corruption, and racial bias.” Then there are the reports showing that police officers don’t actually spend most of their time doing what people assume they do, which is fighting crime.

Overall, Biden’s criminal justice plan does, however, work to reverse a number of the “tough on crime” policies he helped implement in the 1980s and ’90s and that have dogged him ever since.

“As a member of and head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, he wrote and was the key leader in passing policies that helped develop today’s punitive criminal justice system — escalating mass incarceration, the war on drugs, and more aggressive policing,” Vox’s German Lopez wrote. Biden’s plan is “an opportunity to make up for his mistakes of the past,” Lopez added.

But then there’s the question of whether any president will actually be able to reform the criminal justice system, since policy is largely driven at the state and local levels. Even if Biden were to pardon every person in federal prison, America would “still lead all but one country in incarceration,” Lopez wrote.

Biden’s plan for the economy focuses on inclusion, but it could do more to ensure fairness and support race-based measures

The racial wealth gap has been widening for years, according to a 2018 report from the Center for American Progress, a public policy organization. In 2007, just before the Great Recession, “the median wealth of blacks was nearly 14 percent that of whites,” but in 2016 it had fallen to less than 10 percent. The center also found that while Black people are less likely than whites to be homeowners and business owners (likely in part because of long-held practices such as redlining, the racist practice of denying mortgage loans to Black Americans and other communities of color), they have more debt than white people (likely because discrimination has left Black people with fewer resources for borrowing). Both are factors that continue to widen the gap.

Biden’s Build Back Better plan, released in July, looks to address this gap, calling broadly for providing better jobs to working families and the “mobilization of effort and resources ... to advance racial equity across the American economy.”

The plan centers inclusion as the only way to ensure that “every American enjoys a fair return for their work and an equal chance to get ahead” through an economy where “Black, Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), and Native American workers and families are finally welcomed as full participants.” The plan also includes policies meant to boost small businesses in communities of color, increase access to homeownership and affordable housing, and increase job access and pay equity, among other measures.

On the small-business front, Biden plans to foster small-business creation in economically disadvantaged communities, including funneling $50 billion in public-private venture capital to entrepreneurs of color and increasing access to $100 billion in low-interest business loans. Biden’s plan for reopening the economy includes a “restart package” to help small-business owners rehire and retain workers in the wake of the coronavirus.

The policy proposal also recognizes how communities of color are disproportionately impacted by “failures in our housing market, with homeownership rates for Black and Latino individuals falling far below the rate for white individuals.” To address this, Biden wants to introduce a new Homeowner and Renter’s Bill of Rights and end redlining by holding financial institutions responsible for discriminatory practices, among other efforts.

Felicia Wong, president and CEO of the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank, said Biden’s rhetoric is useful because “he recognizes the need to reverse economic disparities and the impact of racist systems through deliberately inclusionary practices.” To Wong, Biden’s team has some good ideas, like a “focus on the right to organize, which builds power for all workers, including workers of color; raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and ending the tipped wage; [and] requiring the Federal Reserve to focus on racialized wealth disparities.”

Many ideas in the Build Back Better plan “simply tinker around the edges in a system that has always been broken for Black Americans and for many people of color,” Wong told Vox. “Those ideas don’t yet meet the bar we must continue to set for ourselves.”

The Roosevelt Institute released a nine-point policy report at the beginning of August, which contains the ideas it calls the “true new deal for the Covid-19 era.” The report advocates for an ambitious progressive agenda that includes canceling all student, housing, and medical debts, as well as creating a federal jobs guarantee.

Biden supports canceling up to $10,000 in student loan debt per borrower “to help families weather” the coronavirus pandemic, as recommended by his education task force, as well as making public colleges and universities tuition-free for students whose families earn below $125,000. But he doesn’t back broader debt forgiveness.

Before the pandemic hit, Biden released his Lift Every Voice plan, a platform also geared toward closing the wealth gap between Black and white Americans. Biden says his team created the plan because it recognizes that “race-neutral policies are not a sufficient response to race-based disparities.”

The plan promises to close the wealth and income gaps by expanding high-quality education, ending health disparities by race, countering environmental injustice, and making the right to vote and the right to equal protection “real for African Americans.” But according to Duke University economist William A. Darity Jr., the plan isn’t specific enough when it comes to lifting Black voices.

“It simply is very, very difficult to construct a plan of action that is universal or solely means-tested that will reduce markedly the Black-white gulf in wealth,” Darity told Vox. “Elimination of the racial wealth gap, which amounts to about an $800,000 difference in net worth between the average Black and white household ... will require a project targeted at substantially increasing Black assets, a project directed specifically at Black American descendants of persons enslaved in the United States.”

Biden’s stance on reparations remains unclear

Reparations became a brief focus of debate in 2019 during the Democratic primary and has gotten more attention recently as a way to address serious economic disparities between Black and white Americans.

Biden’s economic platform for Black people raises questions about his stance on reparations. Biden has only said he will support a study on reparations to contend with “the original sin of slavery, and the centuries-long campaign of violence, fear, and trauma wrought upon African American people in this country.” In the meantime, Biden says his plans for education and climate change, among other issues, can begin to reverse systemic racism.

Biden was once a reparations skeptic, and it’s not clear if he’s changed his mind on the issue. “I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the Black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the Black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race,’” the candidate said in 1975.

Darity agrees that setting up a commission to study reparations is a good start “since the prelude to Japanese American reparations was the report Personal Justice Denied, produced by the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians,” he told Vox. Yet “the quality of a report generated by a commission to study Black American reparations will be contingent upon who is appointed to the commission,” he added. Biden can go a step further by sharing who would make up the commission.

When pressed about reparations during a virtual town hall event with the NAACP in June, Biden suggested that reparations for Black Americans should extend to reparations for Native Americans. Biden’s statement is “a frequently used diversionary and dilution strategy,” Darity told Vox.

“A central problem is the claim for reparations for Black American descendants of US slavery is intended to achieve the material conditions for full citizenship, while the Native American claim for reparations is intended to achieve sovereignty,” Darity said. “Therefore, the claims cannot be merged or collapsed onto one another.”

The past few months have forced Biden to grapple with issues he has less thorough plans for

Biden has laid out specific policies for other racial groups — Latino Americans, Native Americans, Asian American and Pacific Islanders — though they are not as detailed as his broader plan for communities of color as a whole, and there is much overlap between them. There are general promises for environmental justice, a reduction in gun violence, better education access, and increasing these groups’ representation in government. But most notable is Biden’s plan to introduce pointed immigration reform on behalf of the Latinx community, distancing himself from the high deportation rate of the Obama years and the anti-immigration policies of the Trump administration, and his plan to support Indian Country by defending tribal sovereignty.

Biden’s immigration plan, which was scrutinized by a Biden-Sanders unity task force, would call on Congress to reinstate DACA, the program that defers deportation for some immigrants, and offer citizenship for undocumented immigrants, including those who were brought to the country as children. During a virtual town hall event on immigration with the APIA community in late June, Biden said, “On day one I’m gonna send the legislative immigration reform bill to Congress to provide a path to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants who contribute so much to this country.”

Biden’s plans do not address a key progressive demand: defunding or abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The calls to abolish ICE have remained strong over the past few months as the agency deployed personnel to aid local law enforcement in its response to social justice protests. Still, the task force managed to move Biden away from his earlier promise to fund regulations at the border with Mexico, a measure that served to attract Republican voters and lawmakers, according to the Marshall Project.

Meanwhile, Biden’s plan for Indian Country states that “tribal homelands are at the heart of tribal sovereignty and self-governance,” which is why he is committing to restoring tribal lands and protecting their natural and cultural resources “honoring the role of tribal governments.” The coronavirus has had the most deleterious effect on Indian Country, but that didn’t stop the Trump administration from stripping back the sovereignty of certain tribes over their own land. The task force emphasized that the next administration must “commit to upholding leasing and rights-of-way regulations that strengthen tribal sovereignty and ensure tribal consent on projects involving land in which tribes own even a fractional interest.”

The global reckoning on race has also forced Biden to weigh in on the Confederate monuments controversy. In late June, Biden said it is the responsibility of elected officials to move statues that celebrate the Confederacy’s quest to uphold slavery to a suitable place, like a museum, where people can study their history. “They don’t belong in public places,” Biden said at a press conference.

At the same conference, he drew a distinction between those Confederate statues and other monuments to historical figures like Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder, and Christopher Columbus, who launched the American slave trade and the American Indian genocide. It’s a distinction that puts him out of step with activists who are calling for a broader reckoning with America’s racist past.

“There’s an obligation that the government protect those monuments,” Biden said. “That’s a remembrance. It is not dealing with revering somebody who had that view. They had much broader views. They may have things in their past that are now and then distasteful. ... For example, toppling the Christopher Columbus statue, the George Washington statue, or etc., I think that is something that the government has an opportunity and responsibility to protect from happening.”

This week, Biden is poised to accept the Democratic Party’s nomination, which gives him just over two more months to campaign until Election Day. As the past few months have shown, a lot can happen in that time. That means there’s time to meet activists and progressive thinkers on more of their demands and recommendations. But it is clear he has to balance the desires of the moderate wing of the Democratic base as well, a side he has long identified with.

Activists say Biden could surprise them, though. “Most importantly, Biden has shown he has the capacity to listen, reflect, and be persuaded,” Bains told Vox. “Those are qualities we could really use in a president right now. And I think it speaks to the continuing influence that the movement could have.”

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