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In Tulsa, Biden takes step toward justice but must go further on wealth gap

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/3/2021 Maurice Mitchell
a person standing in front of a crowd: President Joe Biden delivers remarks to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 2021. © MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images President Joe Biden delivers remarks to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre at the Greenwood Cultural Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma on June 1, 2021.

President Joe Biden’s pledge to close America's racial wealth gap – made in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on Tuesday – represents an important step in the direction of justice. The city is where a white supremacist mob destroyed the prosperous Black neighborhood of Greenwood, killing nearly 300. And Biden, as he stated during his speech, is the first president to call out the horrors of those two days 100 years ago, while visiting the city in which they happened. 

His plan includes new measures to combat racial discrimination in housing, which remains one of the key drivers of wealth disparities. Homes were demolished by the hundreds during many massacres in U.S. history. Through redlining and other racist housing practices, governments and businesses denied Black people a major path toward homeownership and wealth. 

Biden's plan also includes substantial commitments to increase the share of federal contracting that goes to small, disadvantaged business owners. 

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However, most of what the president outlined are details of his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan. And while the plan does contain major commitments to racial justice and equity, they aren't enough. More must be done. 

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Among its most promising provisions are federal support for eliminating exclusionary zoning, which is used to prop up the home values of the already wealthy and have the effect of preventing Black, brown, poor and working-class Americans from accessing high-quality affordable housing.

The plan also features commitments to subsidize the renovation and rebuilding of old housing stock, which is disproportionately owned by Black people and which carry low property values and are located in communities that have suffered historically from disinvestment. 

But there are powerful measures the federal government could adopt that the president has not embraced, such as more direct forms of reparations. If the president really wants to close the racial wealth gap, he should embrace Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s Ultra-Millionaire Tax, because much of the racial wealth gap is caused by the extraordinary increase in the fortunes of the richest Americans, who are overwhelmingly white.

He could commit to erasing student debt, because this type of debt is disproportionately held by Black students. And as he provides support for H.R.40, which would study reparations, he can support providing land and money to the survivors of the Tulsa massacre and their descendants as well as other Black victims of institutional racism and government-sanctioned white mob violence. 

And while the president is correct that investment in infrastructure and job creation is crucial to combat the living legacies of Jim Crow, the irony is that he seems bent on engaging in unnecessary negotiations with Senate Republicans over his proposals. Republicans have made clear that they are only willing to agree to a package of public investments focused on the narrowest definition of “infrastructure,” namely roads and bridges.

They have specifically criticized the president for including investments focused on racial justice and climate change, claiming that these have nothing to do with infrastructure. It is hard to believe that Republicans will support the racial justice measures that Biden outlined in any bipartisan legislation.

Meanwhile, Biden has rightly criticized the same Republican Party for ramming through restrictions on voting rights at the state level, likening their actions to the Jim Crow laws that oppressed Black people in the era of the Tulsa massacre. And this same Republican Party just used the filibuster – itself the favorite tool of white supremacist Southern senators for blocking civil rights legislation in the Jim Crow era – to prevent the formation of a bipartisan commission to investigate the storming of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. 

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Biden has not shied away from identifying the connections between today’s GOP and the long and ugly history of white supremacist ideas and white supremacist violence in this country. Why, then, is he effectively giving the Republican Party a veto over his signature measures for addressing some of the most persistent legacies of that ugly history? 

As more than 100 leading scholars said in an open letter this week, the Republican Party is an anti-democratic party. So long as it remains one, Biden and Democrats in Congress should have no reservations about using the congressional majorities that the voters gave them to deliver on their commitments, very much including their commitments to racial justice.

Maurice Mitchell is the national director of the Working Families Party.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: In Tulsa, Biden takes step toward justice but must go further on wealth gap

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