'Racism is in the bones of our nation': Will Joe Biden answer the 'cry' for racial justice?
Activists are hopeful but cautious as president acknowledges ground shifted in the US after the police killing of George Floyd
Last modified on Mon 25 Jan 2021 03.02 EST
In his first few minutes as America’s new president, Joe Biden made a promise so sweeping that it almost seemed to deny history. “We can deliver racial justice,” Biden pledged to his factious nation. It wasn’t a commitment presented in any detail as he moved on to asserting that America would again be the leading force for good in the world, a claim that draws its own scrutiny.
But Biden acknowledged that the ground has shifted over demands for racial justice in the US following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last May and the violent white nationalism of Donald Trump.
“A cry for racial justice some 400 years in the making moves us. The dream of justice for all will be deferred no longer,” said Biden. “And now, a rise in political extremism, white supremacy, domestic terrorism that we must confront and we will defeat.”
The coronavirus pandemic has compounded the urgency given its disproportionate toll on minority communities because of economic inequality and a healthcare system that underserves the poor. But what does it mean to deliver racial justice? And how far does any American president have the power to do such a thing?
The anger that burst out of Minneapolis and fueled a surge in Black Lives Matter protests after video of a police officer squeezing the life out of Floyd by kneeling on his neck for nearly nine minutes drew an unusual degree of support across the country. Opinion polls showed most Americans were outraged by the killing and backed police reform, even if that diminished with the violence that accompanied some of the protests and with calls to “defund the police”.
But Jeanelle Austin, an African American activist who lives a few blocks from where Floyd was killed and who tends his memorial constructed piecemeal in the street, said that the early promises of police reform in Minneapolis have come to little.
“Nothing has really changed. That’s why we’re still filling the street,” she said. “They’ve only offered verbiage in terms of what they want to do or the ideas that they have. We haven’t seen anything concrete in terms of reforming the Minneapolis police department.”
Shortly after Floyd’s death, Minneapolis city council voted to dismantle the city’s police force and to replace it with a system that shifted away from the use of armed officers in non-life threatening situations. But the police department remains in place albeit with an $8m cut in funding, less than 5% of the total budget, redirected to violence prevention and the recruitment of mental health specialists.
The city council also backed away from cutting the number of police officers after the city’s mayor threatened to veto the measure because of a recent surge in gun violence. Austin, director of the Racial Agency Initiative, hasn’t given up on forcing change locally but is looking to Biden to make the difference.
“Racism is deep within the DNA and the bones of the structures of our nation, and so it is a tall order for any one person to change it. Now, the president has a lot more power than anyone else to be able to set right some of the systems and policies and structures,” she said.
“It will be interesting to see which systems Biden plans on addressing head on because race impacts everything. The police, the education system, the financial system, the housing system, the criminal justice system, the health care system. He’s going to have to decide what he’s going to push.”
Within hours of taking office, Biden signed an executive order “on advancing racial equity” requiring federal agencies to investigate whether their policies create barriers in areas such as access to housing and food assistance.
Arisha Hatch, vice-president of Color of Change, a civil rights group, welcomed the “shift in tone” but said the new president will be held to account by African American voters who delivered victories in cities that decided the election.
“What we’re hoping for is longer term systemic change which will carry us beyond the executive orders issued over the next several days,” she said.
“I don’t take for granted that change is hard. My hope is that we’re in and surviving through a transformational moment. My hope is that people are looking for and moving towards serious change, that they understand the desperate and urgent need that people have. And that they understand their ability to stay in power will be determined by their ability to deliver over the next years.”
How to deliver is widely debated. Hatch wants to see Biden immediately address the pressing issues of the pandemic’s impact on the black community and police reform. Others, including Dreisen Heath of Human Rights Watch’s US programme, want to see a deeper reckoning.
“What Biden could do first is make good on his promise to study reparations for the black community. Legislation is already in place that would establish an expert federal commission to study the legacy of slavery, not just the slave trade, but the ongoing impacts in ongoing harms that are visible in access in lack of access to healthcare, lack of access to food, lack of access to housing, and so forth. And that commission would develop direct proposals for how to provide redress and repair,” said Heath.
Austin is hopeful but cautious. She wants to take Biden’s commitments at face value but Barack Obama’s presidency serves as a warning about putting too much confidence in one leader to bring about change. She said that continued popular protest and pressure will be required to keep the political momentum.
Still, Austin draws hope from Biden appointing the most diverse cabinet in US history and the election of Kamala Harris as vice-president.
“She is very important because Biden is still a white man. He has been groomed to view the world through the lens of a white male. Now is also the most powerful man in our country and we’re still looking at white male power,” she said.
“So Vice-President Kamala Harris is huge in terms of being able to advise the president as to an experience that he has never had; he has never lived in a black body. He doesn’t know firsthand what it is like to be black in America. But it’s also going to be crucial for her to listen because she still doesn’t embody everybody’s experience. There are certain privileges that she has had, that other people who may even look like her had never had.”
Still, given last year’s Black Lives Matter protests, Heath said the demand for police reform will remain to the fore, and she is concerned about Biden’s track record. “We want to keep military grade equipment out of our communities, we want to hold police departments, prosecutors offices and jails and prisons accountable for discriminatory and unlawful practices,” said Heath.
“Biden has his own legacy of being an ally to law enforcement, of increasing the policing footprint. We want to see that footprint decrease and ending close involvement with people experiencing mental health crises, ending any police involvement in enforcement of immigration laws, not having police work as social workers in a capacity that they’re not trained to do.” Heath pointed to the 21st century policing plan created after the unrest in Ferguson, Missouri following the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer.
A former Minneapolis mayor RT Rybak, is pushing for his city to embrace that plan.
“My hope is that it won’t just be about status quo. The 21st century policing plan is to my mind a playbook with specific steps on training, hiring, mental health. One of the key pieces would be would be national effort to create a new type of community service officer and recruit young people of colour into that that new style of public safety officer,” he said.
“Part of the problem with dealing with policing is it’s convenient to isolate that issue, but it’s so deeply tied to every other part of injustice in our society. Housing, economic opportunity and education. An administration focused on racial justice is probably the most important thing we can do to have peace in our communities, because you can’t have that without justice.”