The big problem with Biden’s speech in Tulsa

Though he offered a lot of empathy, the president stopped short of promising the most transformative solution to racism of all: reparations

Victoria Gagliardo-Silver
New York
Wednesday 02 June 2021 18:05

America has a shameful, whitewashed history. This past week, Joe Biden validated that with his speech on the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre — but he didn’t go anywhere near far enough.

“For much too long the history of what took place here was told in silence, cloaked in darkness,”  Biden said. “But just because history is silent, it doesn’t mean that it did not take place. And while darkness can hide much, it erases nothing… Some injustices are so heinous, so horrific, so grievous, they cannot be buried, no matter how hard people try.” He continued on to say that “only with truth can come healing.”

But what does Biden know of healing, when his policies have caused so much irreparable harm to the Black community? Acknowledgment isn’t accountability, especially after a century of silence. No promises of reparations and his long history of anti-Black legislation, supporting the police, and eulogizing racists heals nothing. Coming from Biden, I’d argue, an apology does more harm than good.

His words are beautiful, but empty.

Tulsa needs financial reparations, not just apologies. Racial violence has an economic impact that is hard to recover from, and perhaps Biden is afraid of making a full-throated defense of reparations after racism because of this. One wonders whether acknowledging racism’s financial consequences would make people look deeper into our president’s hyper-carceral policymaking and note that those affected by that deserve reparations as well. Whatever the reason, Biden needs to reconsider his position on reparations — whether local, national or tied to specific events — as more and more calls for financial restitution for victims of the state mount.

Time and time again, Biden will empathize and talk the talk about justice. But the policies he supported as a younger politician led to increased police power, and a country where cops do what they want, when they want. 979 Black people were shot to death by police in the last five years. I hope Biden considers how that might fit in to his political legacy. Considering he also made his name opposing racially integrating schools via busing, it’s a sad legacy indeed.

Try as he may, but Biden can not separate himself from his anti-Black past. But he can do better now — and he can do better for Tulsa.

In his speech, he recounted the specific violence in the Oklahoma town: “A murdered Black family draped over the fence of their home outside. An elderly couple knelt by their bed, praying to God with their heart and their soul, when they were shot in the back of their heads. Private planes dropping explosives.”

Apologies are a start, but they can’t heal a broken system or mend a community with a Black poverty rate of 35 percent. The economic impact of the Tulsa Race Massacre is still affecting Black families. Survivors from the massacre are still around; their children and grandchildren certainly are.

Imagine a Tulsa in which financial reparations were trialed. Imagine the enhanced prospect of Black families, the amount of people who would have breathing space to pay their rent or mortgage, their student loan or their grocery costs. Imagine the lives people who have suffered historical prejudice might be able to lead if they were given some breathing room. Imagine the improved relations with their wealthier white neighbors, many of whom have inherited generational wealth. Imagine the transformative effects a small amount of cash could have on a community bent out of shape by inequality.

Tulsa needs tangible support and resources to rebuild, not empathy and a fleeting visit from the president. Who better to facilitate this provision of resources than President Biden, who claims he wants to take accountability for the silence?

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