‘This Is About Justice’: Biden Ties Economic Revival to Racial Equity


JULY 28, 2020

Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. released the fourth piece of his “Build Back Better” proposal in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday. Michelle V. Agins/NY Times

WILMINGTON, DELAWARE — Joseph R. Biden Jr. unveiled wide-ranging plans on Tuesday to address systemic racism in the nation’s economy, saying this year’s election was about “understanding people’s struggles” and pledging to tear down barriers for minority-owned businesses.

In an address near his home in Wilmington, Mr. Biden made the argument that racial justice is central to his overall policy vision in areas like housing, infrastructure and support for small businesses, while aiming to draw a stark contrast with a president who has regularly inflamed racial tensions.

“This election is not just about voting against Donald Trump,” Mr. Biden said, standing before four American flags in a community center gym. “It’s about rising to this moment of crisis, understanding people’s struggles and building a future worthy of their courage and their ambition to overcome.”

Mr. Biden’s plan is the fourth piece of his “Build Back Better” proposal, an economic agenda that also encompasses manufacturing, climate and infrastructure, and caregiving plans. It takes aim at Mr. Trump’s stewardship of the economy and his impact on working families, a potential vulnerability that has emerged during the coronavirus crisis.

The speech on Tuesday came with just under 100 days until Election Day, amid a searing national debate over racism in American society. Mr. Biden continues to hold a substantial lead over President Trump in national polls, and with each successive economic rollout, he has been trying to counter one of Mr. Trump’s enduring sources of voter support.

The plan fell short of some of the most ambitious proposals promoted by the left wing of the Democratic Party. Mr. Biden, for instance, did not embrace reparations for slavery or endorse “baby bonds,” a government-run savings program for children championed during the primary by Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey. Campaign officials said Mr. Biden had not ruled out eventually accepting such a plan, and that he was not opposed to a study of reparations.

But the proposal he released on Tuesday did emphasize the importance of closing the racial wealth gap, and outlined multiple prescriptions for doing so. Mr. Biden laid out plans for a small-business opportunity fund to help make financing available to minority business owners, and he proposed to triple the goal for awarding federal contracts to small disadvantaged businesses, to at least 15 percent from 5 percent. The plan also seeks to improve the opportunity zone program that was created as part of the 2017 tax overhaul.

“In good times, communities of color still lag,” Mr. Biden said. “In bad times, they get hit first, and the hardest. And in recovery, they take the longest to bounce back. This is about justice.”

In recent months, as the country has grappled with devastating public health and economic problems and a growing outcry over racial injustice, Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, has increasingly called for ambitious measures to address the nation’s challenges. He has sometimes gone far beyond the instincts toward relatively incremental change that guided him in the primary campaign, at least compared with many of his Democratic opponents.

As he seeks to unite and energize his party around his candidacy, he has sought input from a broad range of experts and officials, including from a series of task forces assembled with Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, his liberal primary rival.

But Mr. Biden, the former vice president, continues to confront a lack of enthusiasm from some progressive voters, and while he won the primary with strong support from African-American voters — in particular, older ones — he faces challenges generating excitement among some younger voters of color. In the primary campaign, he was not the choice of many liberal activists of color, and he still faces skepticism from some of them about whether he can sufficiently address their concerns.

Mr. Trump, for his part, has sought to portray Mr. Biden as hostage to an extreme left wing of the Democratic Party, whose extravagant spending would wreck the nation’s economy.

The plan Mr. Biden unveiled touched on a wide range of economic issues. It emphasizes support for small-business owners of color, promising that he will “leverage more than $150 billion in new capital and opportunities for small businesses that have been structurally excluded for generations,” including by increasing access to venture capital and low-interest business loans.

Mr. Biden, who has long faced anger from some voters over his leading role in the 1994 crime bill, which many experts link to mass incarceration, also addressed some criminal justice matters in the plan. He would aim to help states improve their criminal justice data infrastructure so they can automatically seal criminal records for certain nonviolent offenders.

The plan also suggested that he would try to amend the Federal Reserve Act “to require the Fed to regularly report on current data and trends in racial economic gaps — and what actions the Fed is taking through its monetary and regulatory policies to close these gaps.”

The Fed, which influences the speed of economic growth and the unemployment rate with its interest rate policies, already regularly discusses racial and ethnic economic outcomes in its reports and testimonies. It has shied away from targeting any specific group’s unemployment rate when setting monetary policy, despite a growing chorus suggesting that it ought to consider targeting the Black jobless rate, which has historically remained higher for longer.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, the civil rights leader, called Mr. Biden’s overarching proposal promising, but said he wanted to see Mr. Biden call for more far-reaching proposals to ensure that Black Americans frequently do business with the government.

“It’s the right direction,” he said. “I just want to see more, and I intend to push for more.”

Aimee Allison, the founder of She the People, a political advocacy group focused on women of color, said that the Biden campaign was taking encouraging steps on issues of economic, racial and gender “justice,” as she put it.

“Progressives, we had other candidates in the primary that we would look at as carrying some of these messages,” said Ms. Allison, who was often a Biden critic in the primary and said there are still issues he must address. “Now, the Biden campaign has showed an openness and willingness.”

A number of the policies highlighted in Mr. Biden’s proposal were already announced as part of other plans, like a housing proposal that would provide a tax credit of up to $15,000 for first-time home buyers, and a goal that disadvantaged communities receive 40 percent of the benefits of spending on clean energy infrastructure.

In contrast to the previous economic plans Mr. Biden outlined, which focused on major, transformational changes to certain sectors of the American economy, the proposal he unveiled on Tuesday was a broader effort seeking to emphasize the idea that racial justice is integral to his policy vision.

He began his address by invoking two icons of the civil rights era who recently died, Representative John Lewis and the Rev. C.T. Vivian, recounting the time he walked over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., with Mr. Lewis, and a conversation the two men had before Mr. Lewis died.

“He asked that we stay focused on the work left undone to heal this nation,” Mr. Biden said. “To remain undaunted by the public health crisis and the economic crisis that’s taken the blinders off in this crisis and showed the systemic racism for what it is. ”

In his speech and in a subsequent question-and-answer session with reporters, Mr. Biden repeatedly lashed out at his opponent’s stewardship of the crises facing the country.

He also forcefully rebuffed Mr. Trump’s attempts to cast Mr. Biden as soft on law enforcement, as protesters clash with federal agents in Portland, Ore. Peaceful protesters, Mr. Biden said, “should be protected and arsonists and anarchists should be prosecuted, and local law enforcement can do that.”

And Mr. Biden accused Mr. Trump of “trying to scare the hell out of the suburbs” by implying that Obama-era policies were “causing you to end up, by implication, having those Black neighbors next to you.”

“That’s supposed to scare people,” Mr. Biden said.

Asked about his vice-presidential selection process, Mr. Biden revealed little, saying he would have a choice in the first week in August.

Courtesy/Source: NY Times