Black pastors and politicians challenged Joe Biden on Monday to outline what he would do as president to improve access to economic opportunity and overhaul the criminal justice system as violent protests swept the country.
In his first public campaign event in more than two months, Biden hosted a conversation with black leaders at the Bethel AME Church in Wilmington, Delaware, cutting a stark contrast with President Donald Trump, who has called for law and order to be imposed with force.
The presumptive Democratic nominee, who wore a mask throughout the event, spent the first part listening to about a dozen community leaders who pressed him to deliver on promises to address systemic racism.
After taking notes on their concerns, Biden spoke for 30 minutes, delivering a subdued and sometimes meandering speech that included part of his stump speech but also new, concrete proposals to address the injustices the leaders addressed.
He said he would set up a national police oversight board in his first 100 days as president and would ensure coronavirus relief efforts would “deal with institutional racism.” He said he would have more detailed economic plans next week, followed by a series of speeches to the nation.
Biden has the support of the vast majority of black voters, but the frustration that burst open over the last days about police brutality, the pandemic and the recession — all of which have hit African-Americans harder than the rest of the country — has challenged Biden to ensure that black voters turn out for him.
“I’ve never taken for granted” the black vote, Biden told the gathering at the church. “I’ve never ever done that. It has to be earned, earned every single time.”
But Delaware State Senator Darius Brown said the protests, which were sparked by the death of George Floyd after a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, were about deeper, longstanding issues of injustice.
“What African Americans are expressing over the past few days are the need for economic opportunity,” he said. “The African American community wants you to bring home the bacon for us.”
Brown noted that blacks did not share equally in the country’s recovery from the 2008-2009 economic crisis overseen by Biden as President Barack Obama’s vice president.
“The African American community did not experience the same economic opportunity as they did during the 90s,” he said.
Biden met with the leaders as cities around the country have endured days of protests, vandalism and looting.
“The Band-Aid has been ripped off by this pandemic and this president,” he said. “It’s been minorities. It’s been blacks. It’s been Hispanics” who have kept working, and getting ill during lockdowns.
“They are the ones out there making sure the grocery stores are open,” he said.
The Reverend Shanika Perry urged Biden to address his previous support for the 1994 Crime Bill that many black leaders fault for sending an outsize number of black men to prison.
“They have issues with the participation in that,” she said of her parishioners. “They want to know how you plan to undo the impacts of the mass incarceration.”
Noting that “representation matters,” she also called on Biden to name a black woman as his vice-presidential pick. “We have qualified black women who are capable of helping you lead this country.”
— With assistance by Magan Crane
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