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Racial justice activists say Biden's State of the Union address missed the mark

In President Biden's State of the Union address on Tuesday night, racial justice issues were not a focus.
Jim Lo Scalzo
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Pool/Getty Images
In President Biden's State of the Union address on Tuesday night, racial justice issues were not a focus.

In President Biden's first address to a joint session of Congress, in 2021, he pledged to root out systemic racism and to advance efforts to create a more equitable country. He said that the United States had "seen the knee of injustice on the neck of Black Americans" and declared that "now is our opportunity to make some real progress."

Roughly one year later, Biden returned to Capitol Hill to again address Congress. This time, those issues were not the focus.

"From a president who said that he would make race equity a linchpin of his administration, he didn't mention it," Cliff Albright, a cofounder of the group Black Voters Matter, said on a panel with other progressives who were responding to Biden's State of the Union address.

"I don't think he said 'race' or even the word 'Black' once, even when he was talking about the first Black woman potential Supreme Court justice who he nominated. If you look at the transcript of the speech, he doesn't use the word anywhere in the speech," Albright added.

Black voters were key in sending Biden to the White House and giving Democrats majorities in both the House and the Senate. Now, some activists who worked to mobilize their communities amid the racial justice protests of 2020 and a global pandemic say Biden's urgency and forceful language has been replaced by silence, as the president signals an election-year shift to the middle.

"You can't say that it's time for America to come together on race by ignoring race," said Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice group Color of Change.

During the speech, Biden made only passing mention of voting rights, an issue that energized the party in a yearlong push for federal legislation that ended in January. He made no mention of the fact that, if confirmed, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson would be the first Black woman to sit on the Supreme Court in its 233-year history.

He did not renew calls for police reform legislation, an issue on which bipartisan talks broke down last fall. Instead, he directly rebutted persistent Republican attacks that Democrats want to "defund the police."

You can't say that it's time for America to come together on race by ignoring race.

Robinson said that the White House was making a political miscalculation by deemphasizing issues of equity and justice in such a high-profile moment.

He and some other activists and strategists say they worry that some core Democratic voters, including voters of color and young voters, might not be as energized this year because of failures to make good on Biden's campaign promises on police reform, voting rights and other issues.

An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll conducted ahead of the State of the Union found that 54% of respondents said the president is not fulfilling his campaign promises.

"Racial justice is not charity. It's not the thing that a president should do to be nice to Black and brown folks. Racial justice is strategy," Robinson said. "The quicker the White House and other folks recognize the strategic power of engaging on racial justice to motivate, engage and deliver for the communities most impacted, the better off they will be and the better off the country will be."

The "defund" rebuttal

Biden's decision in his address to emphasize the need for more law enforcement funding — and to rebut calls for defunding the police — particularly stood out to some activists.

"We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities," Biden said in a line that received a standing ovation from members of a deeply divided Congress.

Amara Enyia, the policy and research coordinator for the Movement for Black Lives, said that in the speech, Biden was addressing white moderates and conservatives, in a "betrayal" of the party's base.

"Calling for funding the police is simply a political play to appease Republicans and to appease those who are afraid that their political futures may be on the line," she said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters this week that Biden has never supported efforts to defund police departments, despite "attempts to mischaracterize his position and the position of, frankly, a number of his Democratic colleagues."

Psaki also said that the president supports ensuring "police departments have the funding they need ... but that there also needs to be steps that are taken to ensure there are accountability measures put in place. "

Democratic strategist Joel Payne said Biden's speech was a "pretty clear course correction," and that he was charting a middle-of-the-road course in an election year.

"It feels like the president has decided to kind of revert back into what some people might think of as the original Biden, the Biden that we saw in the Senate for three decades and the Biden who for most of his public, political career was thought as a scion of the middle," Payne said.

He said that Biden's comments on police funding were a "very purposeful thing that needed to be said out loud so not only the president, but the president's allies could use that as a political chum."

But Payne also said the White House omitted some big issues that could have excited Black voters who turned out in 2020 and who Democrats need to turn out again this year.

Enyia, of the Movement for Black Lives, warned that Biden and Democrats "have to care more about your base than you care about wooing Republicans."

"If people don't feel that their material conditions, their lives have improved over the last year, it's going to be very hard to get them out to vote in the midterms. And that's even more dangerous for the Democratic Party," she said.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.