Can the Biden administration address the concerns of Black Lives Matter?

Can the Biden administration address the concerns of Black Lives Matter?
Source: Brandon Bell, Reuters
TMS reached out to several Black community leaders throughout the United States to ask what they would like the Biden administration to address and to discuss the role the Black Lives Matter movement has had in advancing Black causes in the country.

In two months, when President-elect Joe Biden takes the oath of office, he will become the leader of a divided country beset by countless challenges. While the COVID-19 pandemic may be Biden’s first priority, he will be unable to ignore other pressing national issues, including one that has been in focus for most of 2020: the calls for systemic change from Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists.

Nobody believes a Biden administration can single-handedly end racial inequality in America, but many in the Black community do feel they deserve the ear of the next president. Not only were Black voters instrumental in turning Georgia blue for the first time since 1992, but Biden’s running mate, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, is the first Black woman to occupy the office.

TMS reached out to several Black community leaders throughout the United States to ask what they would like the Biden administration to address and to discuss the role the BLM movement has had in advancing Black causes in the country. Their varied perspectives revealed one common theme: the belief that these systemic problems do not have easy solutions.

The role of BLM in a Biden administration

One of the biggest stories of 2020 has been the BLM protests that followed the police killings of multiple African Americans, including George Floyd, Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor and others. These deaths have spurred anger, despair and frustration in Black communities throughout the country, where disproportionate police force is viewed as just one symptom of systemic inequality.

The BLM movement has its critics, especially among the many conservatives who consider it a terrorist, anti-white organization.

However, BLM, which was founded in 2013 by three Black women – Patrisse Cullors, Alicia Garza and Opal Tometi – to address racial inequality, advocates for peaceful protest and has frequently received blame for violence and destructive acts committed by far-right, white supremacist groups.

Under the administration of President Donald Trump, who has been antagonistic to the BLM movement, Black activists have had little reason to expect governmental action on their policy goals. There is hope (albeit tempered) that in the Biden administration, Black voices and the Black Lives Matter movement will finally be heard in the White House.

Among those contacted by TMS was Kyra Kyles, the chief executive officer of YR Media, a national network designed to give young people, especially BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) youth, a voice. Kyles helps create pathways for young people to drive the national conversation and, ultimately, take their seat at the table as leaders in media, tech and creative industries.

“Black Lives Matter is more than just a movement. It is a statement of actual fact that, unfortunately, has been negated since the origins of the United States of America,” Kyles tells TMS. “Asking to be treated equally in the eyes of law enforcement seems a meager request and one that should not have to be made in 2020.”

Despite this seemingly modest goal, Kyles notes, the movement was “almost demonized out of existence a few short years ago.” It has been labeled “reverse racism” and dismissed as un-American. Yet, in Kyles’ view, this year was a turning point for the movement.

“We have multitudes of non-Black demonstrators and large corporations posting [Black Lives Matter] on their social media platforms, and some leaders who may have been afraid to alienate others by saying it, embracing it in political circles.”

Likewise, BLM has a champion in Christine Michel Carter, a senior contributor at ForbesWomen and the “#1 global voice for working moms.” Through her work as a marketer, writer and public speaker, Carter has been nationally recognized for her efforts in empowering working moms.

“I support the Black Lives Matter movement,” Carter says, “not simply because I am a Black woman but because I am the mother of two Black children. This was a monumental year for BLM. BLM activists seek to draw attention to the many ways in which Black people are treated unfairly in society and the ways in which institutions, laws and policies help to perpetuate that unfairness.”

If there’s a question of why the Biden administration would listen to the organization, Carter believes it would be wise to acknowledge how important the movement was in the 2020 election.

“BLM has also worked on voter registration and get-out-the-vote campaigns in Black communities, and we saw states flip from Republican to Democrat because of so many Black people voting. We also saw the highest voter turnout in our nation.”

Sitting down with Joe and Kamala

When Biden and Harris take office in January, they will not only have a multitude of issues on their plate, from COVID-19 to the struggling economy, they will also be swarmed by interest groups and lobbyists who want their attention. Considering how much will be on the new administration’s plate, TMS wanted to know what one issue our respondents would bring up if they had the opportunity.

“The reality of anti-blackness in this country,” was Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas’ answer. Douglas is the Canon Theologian at the Washington National Cathedral and Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Rev. Douglas is a renowned Black female faith leader and a leading expert on the intersection of the Black church and politics.

“I would suggest that they address the ways in which black communities suffer disproportionately from systemic and structural racism,” she adds.

Douglas’ answer is similar to that given by Elwood Watson, Ph.D., a history professor at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, Tennessee, as well as the author of Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America.

“As I see it, the most pressing issue facing Black Americans is systemic and systematic racism – economic, legal, educational, health, etc.” From the criminal justice system to disparities in health outcomes, educational opportunities, food resources, and economic realities, Watson contends that inequality is built into life for Black Americans.

“Pretty much in every area of life in America, a large number of Black Americans are marginalized and are on the short end of the stick,” he states.

Douglas believes this inequality is rooted in what she calls an “anti-Black narrative” that can be seen in everyday life. For example, the propensity for ostensible “non-racist” white people to call the police on Black people for no reason.

“This anti-Black narrative threatens the lives and livelihood of not only the 13% of this country’s population who are targeted by it,” Douglas explains, “but it also threatens the survival of the nation itself. Any narrative that dehumanizes or degrades another person is violent, and violence breeds violence.”

Douglas recommends that the Biden administration pursue the following actions:

·        “A national platform for historians, educators, political scientists and thought and faith leaders to lead the nation in reckoning with anti-Blackness and its consequences.

·        “A task force of social, political, economic, business and faith leaders to develop an urgent plan to address and eliminate poverty with all of its social comorbidities in this country.

·        “A reallocation of federal, state and local funding priorities to support safe communities as opposed to policing communities. This means shifting from community police to community responders such as social workers, mental health workers, pastors, teachers, etc., recognizing that every call does not require law enforcement.”

For her part, Kyles found the question difficult to concisely answer: “I feel disoriented when I think about the sheer amount of effort and determined leadership that will be needed to reverse a period of shamelessly transparent, virulent racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and transphobia, as well as a reckless disregard for the environment to name just a handful of issues.”

The issue Carter would like to discuss with the coming administration is one close to her heart: childcare.

“Childcare is absolutely an economic development opportunity. We need a solution that treats childcare just like we treat public school and healthcare: like an essential service, that is affordable and accessible for everyone.”

And while the issue of childcare isn’t specific to Black communities, Carter believes it is vital for addressing economic inequality.

“Childcare plays a critical role in people’s ability to work, but many lower-income households do not have the economic resources to afford high-quality childcare. Without question, childcare is often the second-largest monthly expense for families after their mortgage or rent payment.”

The make-up of the Biden cabinet

Much of what a Biden administration can do regarding these concerns will depend on its willingness to fight tough battles and address entrenched Washington resistance.

That will be especially true if the Democrats lose either or both of the Georgia Senate runoff elections in January. In that case, the Senate will remain in the hands of Republicans and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is likely to obstruct any Biden agenda.

In such a case, Biden can still accomplish some of his agenda with executive orders. What exactly that agenda will look like will probably be telegraphed by who he picks to be in his cabinet.

The presence of Harris – the first woman, Black person, and person of South Asian descent to be vice president – is already a major accomplishment. For Professor Watson, though, the hope is that the progress a Biden administration would bring won’t stop there.

One of his ideal choices for a Biden cabinet is Nina Turner, the Black progressive who served as a prominent campaign surrogate and spokesperson for both of Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential runs. Watson acknowledges that Turner would be unlikely to take (or be offered) the role, as she was critical of Biden. Nonetheless, he thinks she would be a valuable advocate in the administration.

If not Turner, Watson thinks both Representatives Barbara Lee and Karen Bass could be a good fit. Both are Black women from California who would help push for a more progressive agenda in the administration. And, unlike Senators Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, if they left their current post for a cabinet position, their replacements wouldn’t be picked by a Republican governor.

The future of Black activism and the Democratic Party

One of the common talking points during this campaign was the idea that the Democratic Party, which has won the vast majority of Black votes for decades, has taken Black voters for granted. This was the underlying assumption of the “Blexit” movement, an effort by the Black conservative pundit Candace Owens to get Black voters to leave the Democrats for Republicans.

That clearly did not happen, but that doesn’t mean there is not some validity behind the charge that Democrats have ignored their Black base.

Asked if the Democrats have taken the Black vote for granted, Watson states emphatically, “ABSOLUTELY!” He acknowledges that party members have promised that will change, but it’s yet to be seen. That is not to say that he supports Owens’ campaign.

“For one thing,” he says of her, “Owens is the wrong messenger to spearhead such a suggestion. This is a woman who enlisted the support of her local NAACP in Stamford, Connecticut and successfully sued for racial harassment. Several years later, she suddenly states the ridiculous assertion that ‘racism is no longer a major problem in America.’”

To Rev. Douglas, finding alignment with political parties is less important than nurturing Black leadership.

“The energy of leaders within the Black community should not be spent trying to encourage Black people to be a part of any particular political party (as if the failure of racial progress has to do with Black people’s political naiveté). Rather, the energy of Black leadership should be spent pushing political leadership – regardless of party – to be accountable to a vision of justice that would address racialized inequities in this country.”

While Black leaders like Harris, Turner, Lee and Bass can play a part in the growth of Black leadership in the country, Kyles sees the future in the youth she works with at YR Media as well as in the many young Black activists around the country.

She highlights Mari Copeny (“aka Little Miss Flint”) and Isha Clarke as two young women who are doing important environmental advocacy. She also mentions Naomi Wadler, an anti-gun violence advocate whose speech about the disproportionate murders of Black women and girls was used in a scene in the recent HBO series “Lovecraft County.”

Kyles also points to Carlile Pittman and Miracle Boyd as important young leaders in the fight against gun violence and police injustice. Pittman co-founded GoodKids MadCity (GKMC), a Chicago-based organization that fights gun violence and police brutality. Boyd, whose work involves several collectives including GKMC, was recently struck by a Chicago Police Officer while protesting. She suffered broken teeth from the confrontation but continues her work.

And then there is Estafany Hernandez who works with Chicago’s Southwest Suburban Immigration Project. Kyles explains that the teenager has “worked on providing information about the 2020 Census, pushing for voter registration, and DACA.”

A long fight ahead

The problems currently facing Black America are extensive and multifaceted, and the solutions therefore won’t be simple. Even if Biden does keep his campaign promise to address systemic racism, the issues go far beyond any one administration. Even President Barack Obama, the first Black president, didn’t magically make racism go away.

“It saddens me to know,” Kyles laments, “instead of feeling hope through the racial progress embodied in the Obama administration, far too many in this country were repelled by the idea of sustained achievement for those in so-called minority groups to the point that it allowed for a leap in the opposite direction.”

The defeat of Trump has been celebrated by Black activists. Yet, for some, the fact that Biden, as a senator, helped pass the controversial 1994 crime bill doesn’t make him much better. Many critics of the bill, one of Biden’s signature pieces of legislation, say it’s responsible for the high incarceration rates of Black people and the resulting harm caused to the Black community.

Nonetheless, Douglas expresses hope that Biden is a man who can recognize mistakes and learn from them.

“It is notable,” she says, “that President-Elect Biden admitted that he made a mistake in supporting this bill.” Still, the bill was fatally flawed, Douglas believes.

“To be sure this bill tried to address a symptom, that being rising crime in various communities, but not the problem itself. The way to foster safer communities is not through punitive policing and mass incarceration, rather it is through addressing the realities of violence which beset the community, such as poverty and the lack of life options that comes with that.”

Part of the reason the fight for racial equality will be such a long and difficult process is that the issues go back generations. That is also the reason, Kyles believes, why the issues cannot be addressed through purely economic policies, but instead must be addressed directly.

“The lines that lead back to school segregation, redlining, voter suppression, predatory loans, and unequal sentencing guidelines are crystal clear and reflected in current reality.”

As an example, Kyles discusses a property she owns in the predominantly Black Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville. She explains that her property is worth far less than a comparable home just blocks away in a predominantly white community.

“The policies that created this situation where an African American resident’s home isn’t worth that of a non-Black resident’s home were not colorblind so nor will the solutions be colorblind. One of my hopes is that a similar amount of the ingenuity that fueled these biased, disproportionately harmful policies be applied to correct them. That is the only way we will have even the faintest chance of an equitable society.”

All of which is to say that while the Biden administration can and will be expected to play a part in addressing the concerns of Black Americans, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Especially because the issues are far-reaching and involve more than just matters that directly affect Black communities.

Kyles says she wishes she could sit down with Biden and Harris and discuss many other topics, too, including the separations of families at the border, DACA, COVID-19 and other issues that specifically harm the younger generations.

“I’d clearly need to make at least a dozen appointments in the four years to come,” she adds.

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