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In Tulsa, Biden Is Talking About the Racial Wealth Gap — But Is It Enough?

Biden's plans to close the racial wealth gap are being highlighted on the centennial of the Tulsa Massacre. But are they enough?

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A century ago, violent mobs of white residents attacked Black residents and destroyed the thriving neighborhood of Greenwood, home to what was then known as Black Wall Street. They used firearms, arson, and even explosives dropped from planes to kill somewhere between 75 and 300 people, injure approximately a thousand more, and displace nearly 10,000 others, causing millions (in 2020 dollars) of losses for Tulsa’s black community. The massacre was widely ignored in popular American history for decades and has only recently begun to be recognized as the racist, violent event that it was.

Yesterday, the White House issued a proclamation recognizing the 100-year anniversary of the Tulsa Massacre.

“We honor the legacy of the Greenwood community, and of Black Wall Street, by reaffirming our commitment to advance racial justice through the whole of our government, and working to root out systemic racism from our laws, our policies, and our hearts,” it read in part.

Biden will also travel to Tulsa today, giving a speech on the anniversary of a particularly gruesome, violent, and devastating demonstration of American white supremacy to advocate for policies meant to ameliorate the effects of other forms of systemic racism, like the racial wealth gap.

Here’s what Biden’s racial wealth gap policies include

  • Growing federal contracting with small businesses from disadvantaged circumstances, many minority-owned, by 50 percent
  • A $10 billion community revitalization fund that will target economically underserved and underdeveloped communities like Greenwood, which never recovered from the massacre thanks to subsequent redlining, damaging highway construction, and other forms of racist policies
  • Competitive grants totaling $15 billion for neighborhoods economically harmed by previous transportation investments
  • Grants to support minority-owned small businesses totaling $31 billion
  • An interagency effort to address the inequity of home appraisal and to combat housing discrimination, strengthening protections weakened by the Trump administration
  • A neighborhood homes tax credit intended to attract private investment in the development of affordable homes
  • The Unlocking Possibilities Program, $5 billion in grants for jurisdictions that reduce barriers to low- and middle-income housing

But the priorities miss one major wealth-gap issue — student debt

While this list certainly represents steps in the right direction, it’s more of nibbling around the edges than a true path to eliminating the racial wealth gap, some say.

Student loan debt continues to suppress the economic prosperity of Black Americans across the nation. You cannot begin to address the racial wealth gap without addressing the student loan debt crisis. You just can’t address one without the other. Plain and simple. President Biden’s budget fails to address the student debt crisis,” NAACP president Derrick Johnson said in a statement.

Biden could wipe out billions in student debt with the stroke of a pen but has so far resisted calls from advocates and leaders of his own party to do so, repeatedly evincing a lack of understanding of the issue by focusing on Ivy League schools as those who would get bailouts who may not deserve them. The vast majority of graduates from ivies don’t have student debt, and Biden is ignoring the disproportionately negative impact of student debt on Black Americans.

Black bachelor’s degree recipients are more likely (85 vs. 69 percent) than white bachelor’s degree recipients to carry student debt, per CNBC. The average Black student borrower owes more ($34,000 vs. $30,000) than the average white student borrower. And black borrowers are more than three times more likely to default on their student loans.

“I call on the American people to reflect on the deep roots of racial terror in our Nation and recommit to the work of rooting out systemic racism across our country,” Biden said in his proclamation.

While it’s significant that he’s giving the anniversary the attention of the White House, and proposing policies pointed in the right direction, the president has yet to show that he’s willing to stake out policy positions like the widespread cancellation of student debt that would represent Biden taking his own words to heart.