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Is Biden’s ‘Plan for Black America,’ pandering or progress?

By Askia Muhammad -Senior Editor- | Last updated: May 13, 2020 - 2:10:51 PM

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WASHINGTON—As the 2020 presidential race settles down to a battle between the incumbent Donald J. Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, Black voters are according to most polls decidedly hostile to Mr. Trump. Many Black leaders however, have made it clear that they won’t support Mr. Biden “just because.”

“The Black vote is not going to be for free,” hip hop music icon Sean “Diddy” Combs told supermodel Naomi Campbell on her web series “No Filter With Naomi.” “Nothing has changed for Black America. In order for us to vote for (Joe) Biden, we can’t be taken for granted like we always are because we’re supposed to be Democrats or because people are afraid of Trump. It’s business at this point. You know we can’t trust politicians,” said Mr. Combs.

On May 5, Mr. Biden released a 10-point program he called “Lift Every Voice,” in which he promised to be “unflinching in confronting the systemic racism in our country that is built into our laws, our policies, and our institutions.” Mr. Biden promised to take “aggressive action” to rip out inequities in housing, health care, education, the economy, the criminal justice system, and other areas of U.S. life.

The presumptive Democratic nominee followed the announcement with a phone conference with several national Black civil rights leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network; Melanie Campbell, convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable Public Police Network; Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP; Marc Morial, president and CEO of the National Urban League; and Congressional Black Caucus member Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) among others.

“Many in the civil rights community are looking for Biden to be bold around criminal justice reform, infrastructure development and education to lay the groundwork for more opportunity when it comes to jobs and better quality of life for communities most in need,” said the Rev. Sharpton in a statement.

“I also urge Biden to fulfill his commitment to appointing a Black woman to the Supreme Court as well as to prioritize diversity of experience and thought in his administration. The Black community knows that it is essential for a person of color to have the ear of the president.”

Ms. Melanie Campbell was also cautiously optimistic about the Biden plan. “There is so much at stake for Black women in this election and we are the voting block that is often the agent for change.”

Mr. Morial compared portions of the plan to the Urban League’s Main Street Marshall Plan. “When we consider the anemic rates of Black home ownership following the Great Recession—despite the gains made since the Housing Rights Act of 1968, housing affordability is a debilitating crisis in America. Homeowners and renters are in dire straits and every candidate for higher office should have a plan for averting foreclosures and evictions,” he said.

Despite objections to Mr. Biden’s apparent pandering to Black sensitivities borrowing part of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” the poem by James Weldon Johnson, put to music by James Rosamond Johnson and considered to be the Black National Anthem for the name of his plan, his outline received grudging support from Dr. Julianne Malveaux, an economist, and President Emerita of Bennett College for women.

“It does strike me as pandering,” Dr. Malveaux told The Final Call. “I mean, I think that there’s nothing wrong with anything he says, but we all know that with the disparities that we experienced, the answer to closing the gaps is targeting. (Rep.) Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) has done a good job putting that out there. The thing about Joe Biden, you know, we’re going to vote for him. He’s a Democrat and, he doesn’t mean Black folk any harm, but he’s not going to be aggressive about racial economic justice.”

Through his policies from education to housing, Mr. Biden will “ensure that Black families can build and sustain wealth for themselves and their communities.” The plan calls for up to $15,000 in federal down payment assistance for first time home buyers, and for an investment of $70 billion in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

“I’m especially excited,” said Dr. Malveaux. “I do like the whole notion of student loan forgiveness monies to the HBCUs. Those are good things. We have had those things on the table before,” she said.

“What I’d love to see is just something that explicitly deals with the wealth gap, because, well, who could be able to buy a house? You know, about 45 percent of all Black households own their home,” she continued. “It’s a classic neoliberal proposal and the proof is in whether or not Vice President Biden has the courage to fight for those ideas in the uphill slide. He’ll be going after four years of Trump, if he’s elected, and after the Covid-19” health pandemic.”

Mr. Biden “believes that every American should have access to affordable and quality health care,” the campaign announced, boasting that “3 million uninsured, non-elderly Black Americans gained coverage under Obamacare by the time President Obama and Vice President Biden left office. He will give Americans a new choice to purchase a public health insurance option like Medicare. He will automatically enroll individuals in the public option, without a premium.

“Joe will invest $1 trillion over ten years to rebuild our roads, bridges, railway, freight, and ports,” the campaign statement continued. “Joe will boost federal investments in low-income neighborhoods, which bear the brunt of our nation’s decaying infrastructure, to ensure that every American has access to clean drinking water, transportation that connects them to jobs, high-speed broadband, safe schools, and affordable housing.

“To tackle poverty, he will support applying Congressman James Clyburn’s 10-20-30 formula to all federal programs, which would allocate 10 percent of funding to counties where 20 percent or more of the population has been living below the poverty line for the last 30 years,” the campaign statement noted.

The Biden plan would also invest in a “clean energy revolution and environmental justice; strengthen the right to vote; strengthen the country’s commitment to justice; and work to end violence against women.

“No, they’re good,” said Dr. Malveaux. “They’re good ideas that are finally in the middle of the mainstream. Continuing Obamacare and expanding it, that’s a great idea. We know how many people don’t have health insurance,” she said.

“Investing through housing? I need to see more specifics about that,” she continued. “But again, it’s a good idea. The question, the proof is in the details. You know what Joe Biden was giving us isn’t the typical neoliberal fix. There’s nothing exciting, different or dare I say revolutionary about that,” added Dr. Malveaux.

“Now it’s better than what we would get from Trump. Be clear, much better than what we’re getting from Trump. But I’m just hoping at some point some flash comes to that man and he can excite people about voting for him. I think that’s the issue.”

Mr. Biden certainly has his critics among those who are quick to point out his history of supporting legislation that ill-effected the Black community. Nina Turner, the former Ohio state senator and supporter of former Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders earlier this year in an op-ed published on questioned “Will our community side with former Vice President Joe Biden, who has repeatedly betrayed Black voters to side with Republican lawmakers and undermine our progress?” Ms. Turner pointed to several instances in Mr. Biden’s legislative career that targeted Blacks, and not in a good way touting his willingness to work with segregationist Republican Senator Strom Thurmond.

Bankole Thompson in an article he wrote on titled, “Biden must offer policies, not pander to Blacks,” stated, “The fact that Biden chose the title of an anthem that was written during a period when this nation openly and defiantly refused to affirm the humanity of Blacks shows the extent to which Biden is willing to pander to the African American community in a crucial election.”

In the article, he quoted longtime Benton Harbor, Michigan, activist Rev. Edward Pinkney who noted that Black voters “should not roll over for Biden.”

“We need to hold him accountable. We need to push him harder to show us how he is going to address our issues, not just name it after the Black anthem. I want the promises he is making to us in writing and notarized, so it would be a sworn statement,” Mr. Thompson quoted Rev. Pinkney as stating.

Blacks have a right to be skeptical of Mr. Biden observed Mr. Thompson. He certainly owes Black voters who overwhelmingly voted for him in the South Carolina primary earlier this year, effectively resurrecting his campaign which had been by all accounts dead in the water. But there are serious questions including if his campaign is carrying any momentum as the Democratic National Convention approaches and heading toward the November elections.

“We know he’s better than Trump, but can he excite people about voting for him?” Which leads to the choice of a running mate. Mr. Biden has already promised his choice would be a woman, and there has been much conjecture about prominent Black women, namely Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Stacey Abrams, who lost a narrow race for governor of Georgia in a contest she has yet to concede, which was marred by charges of rampant voter suppression by the GOP victor.

But if a Black woman is not chosen, it would not be a disqualifier, said Dr. Malveaux who stated Harris, Abrams and also Senator Elizabeth Warren are all qualified.

“But here’s why I think that the pick has to be strategic and I don’t think that he has to pick a Black woman. I think he has to pick the person who balances his ticket and makes it easier for him to win. I don’t know who that is. It could be Warren, could be Kamala.

“Because, pretend you’re a 60-year-old White man. And you know that he’s in his late seventies. The vice president, if anything happens is going to be the president. And you see a Stacey and Kamala and (Sen.) Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), which one of those is most acceptable to you? “asked Dr. Malveaux.

“Given that we live in a context of predatory capitalism that’s just a question I carry around. Although so many people are so sick of Trump. But anyway, I mean, I want him to pick a good running mate, and while I would love to see Stacey or Elizabeth, if there’s someone who better balances the ticket, I’m good with that,” Dr. Malveaux concluded.

But for critics who question whether Mr. Biden’s “Plan for Black America” goes far enough, there are valid issues remaining.

“The plan rightly identifies the criminal justice and prison systems, and drug enforcement, as disproportionately targeting Black Americans. But its proposed solutions either don’t go far enough or are likely to create their own harms,” stated Alexander Lekhtman in an article on titled, “Joe Biden’s Unwelcome Plan to Expand Coerced Treatment and Drug Courts.”

Part of the plan calls for ending the federal crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparity—a law Mr. Biden wrote and co-sponsored—and decriminalizing the use of cannabis and automatically expunging all prior cannabis convictions and other disproportionate disparities that unjustly target Blacks, explained Mr. Lekhtman. Mr. Biden’s plan would end incarceration for drug use alone and divert individuals to drug courts and “coerced” treatment, a strategy that Mr. Lekhtman questions. Some of these involuntary programs have been found to be potentially harmful and punitive in dealing with patients, he argued.

“Though Joe Biden’s drug policy and criminal justice plans are an improvement over existing laws—including laws, we should remember, that he himself helped pass—his plans risk perpetuating the harms of the War on Drugs and mass incarceration through different means,” writes Mr. Lekhtman. (Final Call staff contributed to this report.)