NBC News screenshot

Difficult though it is to believe, Joe Biden yesterday became the first US president to go to Tulsa, Oklahoma, to mark an anniversary of the 1921 race massacre that leveled the city's Greenwood district, leaving as many as 300 Black residents dead, and thousands homeless and having lost everything. It took the centennial for a president to come. No one was ever arrested in the massacre, which was covered up by white officialdom for decades.

In his speech, Biden recounted the horror of the two-day rampage by white mobs, fueled by a false newspaper account suggesting that a 19-year-old Black man had attempted to rape a 17-year-old white elevator operator.

One hundred years ago, at this hour, on this first day of June smoke darkened the Tulsa sky, rising from 35 blocks of Greenwood that were left in ash and ember, razed in rubble. In less than 24 hours, 1,100 Black homes and businesses were lost. Insurance companies — they had insurance, many of them — rejected claims of damage. Ten thousand people were left destitute and homeless, placed in interment camps.

Biden drew applause from the crowd when he said "this was not a riot. This was a massacre." He noted that it was "among the worst in our history, but not the only one. And for too long, forgotten by our history. As soon as it happened there was a clear effort to erase it from our memory — our collective memories."

Here's the full speech:

A few highlights:


History Has To Be Honest

In a clear rebuke to Republican-led states that are banning discussions of race and history that might make white people uncomfortable, Biden said, "We can't just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know. We should know the good, the bad, everything. That's what great nations do. [...] I come here to fill the silence. Because in silence, wounds deepen."

Referring to the past year's reckoning with systemic racism in policing — and the backlash to the very idea that there's a problem — Biden said,

There's greater recognition that for too long we've allowed a narrow, cramped view of the promise of this nation to fester — the view that America is a zero-sum game, where there's only one winner. "If you succeed, I fail." "If you get ahead, I fall behind." "If you get a job, I lose mine.'" [That one, remember, got Jesse Helms reelected in 1990 — Dok] And maybe worst of all: "If I hold you down, I lift myself up." Instead of: "if you do well, we all do well."

It's The Generational Wealth, Stupid

Biden pointed out that the tragedy of Greenwood — and of the multitude of similar white raids on Black communities throughout the Jim Crow era — wasn't just the immediate loss of homes, belongings, and businesses, but a much greater loss, of the opportunity to pass on homes and businesses through the generations. And through policies like discriminatory lending, redlining, and building freeways that divided communities of color, the federal government actively participated in denying Black Americans the opportunities to build wealth. Repeating a point he'd made in his proclamation on the anniversary of the massacre, Biden noted that the people of Greenwood — and so many other places in the last century — never had a chance to rebuild.

This is fairly remarkable stuff for an American president to acknowledge, although as we noted yesterday, it's a core part of arguments for reparations: The harm done by slavery and segregation didn't just affect those who lived it, but all their descendants. The steps Biden announced yesterday — efforts to steer more federal contracts to small disadvantaged businesses, and to strengthen federal fair housing policy — represent just a start at closing the racial wealth gap.

Another Impossible Job For Kamala Harris

Biden then turned to Republican attacks on voting rights, promising to "fight like heck" (yes, he is Joe Biden) to preserve the right to vote. "This sacred right is under assault with incredible intensity like I've never seen," he said, "with an intensity and an aggressiveness we've not seen in a long, long time." Biden called the attempts to make voting harder "simply un-American," but noted that it's not unprecedented. You could certainly argue that, considering the events he was in Tulsa to mark, white supremacy is entirely too American.

Calling for June to be a "month of action on Capitol Hill," Biden announced that Vice President Kamala Harris will lead the effort in the Senate to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. The former would set national standards to ensure people can vote in federal elections, and the latter would restore the requirement that state changes in voting laws be cleared by the Justice Department, to make sure they don't restrict access to the ballot.

Yeah, Joe Manchin And Kyrsten Sinema, Biden Means You

While he was at it, Biden also took what seemed to be an off-text and slightly frustrated jab at Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema for their reluctance to move his legislative agenda forward.

I hear all the folks on TV saying, "Why doesn't Biden get this done?" Well, because Biden only has a majority of effectively four votes in the House, and a tie in the Senate — with two members of the Senate who vote more with my Republican friends.

Brace yourself for mutterings and flutterings from the civility police, and the inevitable fact checks pointing out that Manchin and Sinema don't actually vote more frequently with the Republicans. The Washington Post points out that Sinema at least supports the voting bills; Manchin has suggested he'd rather focus on the John Lewis Act and restoring the "preclearance" provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Manchin would apply preclearance to all states, mooting the Supreme Court's 2013 Shelby County decision, which nuked preclearance because it only applied to states with a history of voter suppression prior to 1965.

But Manchin and Sinema have both opposed doing away with the legislative filibuster, which in effect has given Senate Republicans a veto over virtually every part of Biden's agenda, so on that one, we'll go with fact check true.

Biden closed his Tulsa speech by coming back to the original American sin that led to the 1921 massacre, white supremacy, noting that the intelligence community has identified white supremacist extremism as "the most lethal threat to the homeland." He warned, as he has in other speeches, that

hate is never defeated. It only hides. It hides. It is given a little bit of oxygen, just a little bit of oxygen by its leaders, it comes out from under the rock like it was happening again, as if it never went away.

He ended on a hopeful note, pointing out that on the whole, young people today embrace diversity and reject hate, and offering the sort of goofy Joe Bidenish observation that one degree of social change is reflected in TV ads that feature lots of racially diverse couples. It wasn't really a scientific data point, he acknowledged, but he said advertisers aren't stupid, and know what images of America will catch on with consumers. "They're sellin' soap!" We figure the rightwing rage machine will be all over that one by dinnertime tonight.

[WaPo / White House / Vox]

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Doktor Zoom

Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.

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