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Joe Biden unveiled plans for addressing systemic racism that has put Black people and other nonwhite communities at an economic disadvantage, promising "bold, practical investments" to rebuild as the country struggles with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and as American streets are rocked by protests over racial injustice.
In a speech Tuesday afternoon in Wilmington, Del., the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee called for several programs aimed at shrinking the racial wealth gap, including setting aside for people of color 10% of a proposed $300-billion small-business assistance fund and shaping other policies on housing, infrastructure and clean energy specifically to benefit nonwhite communities.
Biden framed his agenda as continuing the legacy of two civil rights leaders who recently died, the Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis; Biden said he spoke with the congressman from Georgia just before his death July 17.
"He asked that we stay focused on the work left undone to heal this nation, to remain undaunted by the public health crisis and this economic crisis which has taken the blinders off and showed the systemic racism for what it is," Biden said.
The former vice president called on Congress to pass a new Voting Rights Act, which was reintroduced yesterday in Lewis' memory. If it is not passed before the election, he pledged to back the legislation if he becomes president.
Biden’s plan to address racial inequities is the final piece of a four-part “Build Back Better" plan to fix the U.S. economy, which has been ravaged by the COVID-19 outbreak and the displacement of millions of American workers.
Other elements of the agenda, rolled out over the last month, are a $700-billion proposal to reinvigorate the nation’s manufacturing sector, a $2-trillion effort to build renewable energy infrastructure, and a $775-billion overhaul of the nation’s system to care for children, the elderly and the disabled.
Biden said he introduced the proposals to make a proactive, progressive case for his candidacy. But he acknowledged that much of his appeal in this race may boil down to who he is not: President Trump.
"I'm running because Trump is the president, and I think our democracy is at stake, for real," Biden told reporters. Many people, he added, "view me as the antithesis of Trump, and I believe that I am."
Biden offered a scathing assessment of Trump's handling of the pandemic and civic unrest. He accused the president of stoking division for political gain.
"This isn’t about law and order. It’s about a strategy to revive a failing campaign,” he said. "Every instinct Trump has is to add fuel to any fire. And it's the last thing we need."
Biden's final economic policy plank is being unveiled at a time when many polls show the former vice president gaining on Trump on economic issues — the president's main remaining area of advantage.
For months, even as polls showed voters preferring Biden on most measures of leadership, they still preferred Trump to handle the economy. That edge has now all but vanished. The latest Washington Post/ABC poll, for example, found voters almost evenly divided on which candidate to trust on the economy, with Trump favored by 47% and Biden by 45%.
Biden enjoys broad support among Black voters, but he has drawn some fire from the African American community for offhand comments that have been regarded as racially insensitive. Recently, he called Trump the “first racist president,” overlooking the fact that many presidents owned slaves and supported segregation. He offended some Black people when, on “The Breakfast Club” radio show, he said that if Black people “have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.” He later apologized for the remark.
The GOP was quick to point out those comments and blamed Biden's 1994 crime bill for contributing to mass incarceration of Black and brown people.
"Joe Biden’s racist record has delivered nothing but bad policies that have hurt Black Americans. No speech can change his track record, no remarks can fix the fact that he has put the economic advancement of the entire Black community last for over four decades," Paris Dennard, an advisor to the Republican National Committee, said in a statement prior to the speech.
But Biden's Tuesday address gave him a new opportunity to highlight sharp contrasts on race between himself and Trump, who has shown sympathies for white supremacists and has been accused of stoking racial tensions for political purposes.
Biden's plan specifies how earlier proposals would be structured to help communities of color. His infrastructure proposal earmarks 40% of spending for disadvantaged communities. He plans to call for targeting more federal contracts to Black and Latino small businesses. And he will call on the Federal Reserve to do more to identify and address racial gaps in wealth, wages and jobs.
He also pointed to past criminal convictions as a barrier to upward mobility and pledged that, as president, he would have the federal government assist states to expunge ex-offenders' records.
"Getting caught for smoking marijuana when you're young surely shouldn't deny you the rest of your life being able to have a good-paying job, a career, a loan or the ability to rent an apartment," he said.
Biden's plan includes no mention of addressing racism through reparations to descendants of slaves — a proposal that is more of a political hot button.
Asked whether Biden would support legislation in Congress to set up a commission to study reparations, a senior campaign official said, “The vice president doesn’t have a problem with the study, but he believes there are things we can do right now — we do not have to wait on a study to tell us — to dramatically change the lives of Black and brown people in America.”
Biden reiterated that his choice for a running mate will be coming soon — the first week in August, to be precise.
"I promise, I'll let you know when I do" have a pick, he told a reporter.
Asked if he'd speak to the candidate face-to-face, he responded, "We'll see," and said masks will be a must for any in-person meetings if they happen. He revealed he has not been tested for the coronavirus.