Biden and Racial Justice

Terry H. Schwadron

Feb. 1, 2023

It seems clear that we will be hearing renewed pleas from President Joe Biden at his State of the Union address next week to address racial justice in America.

However divergent from the practical details of winning legislation, Biden likely will — and should — recommit to an agenda that talks about diversity in the country and those who are consistently being left behind, ignored, or directly brutalized in our society because of Difference.

It is a would-be call to action in the name of morality in a time when those appeals to our better selves are at odds with a rowdy and active defense against the culture of “woke.”

However open or disguised the backlash to a more just and open society and our promises to ourselves of civil and human rights, the force of resistance is strong — and now in charge of at least the House of Representatives.

The lesson of the brutal police slaying in Memphis — like so many of its predecessors — is proving a clarion to look anew at policing protections. The plethora of election denials and challenges based specifically on voting in Black- and Brown-majority districts across the nation is crying out for attention. The continuing discrepancies among race and class identity in housing, education, entertainment, industry, college admissions across a wide number of geographies remain real problems, even as many of these are under attack from a right-leaning Supreme Court and Republican governors.

The list of problems is long. The attempts by even an avowedly caring Biden administration to bring Congress along kicking and scratching to accept an agenda of social caring is valiant but lacking in enough success to matter.

That repeated but mis-used political poll statistic about whether the country is “going in the right direction” fails to heed the obvious answer that it is not going well if you are Black, Brown, or non-white and Christian.

The Promise and the Record

As The Hill notes, racial justice was at the forefront of Biden’s agenda when he took office two years ago. There were promises that proved too difficult to get by a split Senate that now are difficult because of a recalcitrant House and a slew of state houses controlled by Republicans.

Despite signing an executive order on advancing racial equity, critics and opponents alike could agree that there has been less progress than what was promised, and a whole lot more incidents of racially based injustice.

So, it seems likely we will hear a call for renewal of a civil rights spirit as a major theme of the state of the union address. Somehow, we need to face voting rights, policing changes, affirmative action, housing and education concerns and the recognition that our hate crimes against gays, Jews, Muslims, Asian-Americans, transgender people, and racial groups are spiraling.

Saying so won’t provide the congressional votes for change. As we see with topics as disparate as abortion rights, marijuana usage, prison, and criminal justice reforms, among other issues, true change depends on national agreement to confirm that these are real and achievable goals that we all must strive to achieve. It’s about more than laws.

We have laws about police who prove abusive that have resulted in the filing of murder and assault charges against five fired Memphis cops. But adoption of a John Lewis policing law, a minimal move, is not going to eliminate measurable evil from police attitudes towards Black citizens.

Efforts Now Under Attack

In criminal justice, Biden pledged to reduce the number of incarcerated people, He has pardoned nine individuals, as well as a blanket pardon for those arrested on federal charges of simple possession of marijuana — a rare charge. At the same time, we’re hearing from groups across the political spectrum that bail changes that free non-felony arrestees to await trial are insufficient to stop a perceived rise in serious crimes.

Blacks still are imprisoned at far higher rates than whites, particularly for drugs, and marijuana remains illegal in most states. A promised Task Force on Prosecutorial Discretion never was convened, likely now a victim of political campaigns hyping crime.

On White supremacy issues, identified by Biden as a top concern, we have yet to see action to declare domestic terrorism a specific crime despite the rising threats and continuing mass shootings. It was a white supremacist gunman who attacked a supermarket in a predominantly Black area of Buffalo, killing 10, last year, as well as a group of 31 Patriot Front stopped on their way to a Pride parade in Iowa.

The continuing increase in hate crimes against Asian and Pacific Islander communities are continuing, as are anti-Semitic attacks. The Department of Justice has named an officer to expedite reporting of hate crimes, but no one would see the federal government as an effective enforcer.

Clearly, Republicans have targeted any social service programs aimed at addressing racial wealth and achievement gaps in housing, education, affirmative action — even diversity and inclusion training programs by private companies and universities, never mind just public spending. Issues from forgiveness of student loans to housing subsidies to attitudes on school voucher programs that allow public school money to drift to parochial and private school tuitions are in the sights of Republican opponents.

The day-to-day realities are in collision with a country that is demographically changing to assure that there will be no white majority. Our politics are in collision with a nation that has struggled to keep expansion of civil rights as a guide.

Yes, expect that Biden is going to deliver a big reminder — and a menu for committing ourselves to civil rights that his opponents will not like one bit. In a variety of ways, this question of American identity is at the heart of our national divide.




Journalist, musician, community volunteer

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