Joe Biden vowed to “fight like heck” to bolster voting rights across America as the US president called for a narrowing of the racial wealth gap and a recognition of historical injustices on a visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma, the site of one of the most brutal attacks on a black community in American history.
Biden’s remarks on Tuesday in Greenwood, the Tulsa neighbourhood that was known as “Black Wall Street” before a white mob destroyed it during a two-day rampage in 1921, represented one of his most extensive speeches on race since becoming president.
The White House has attempted to heal America’s racial wounds that were exposed as Black Lives Matter protests escalated a year ago, including by infusing its agenda with policies to reduce racial inequity.
But its most pressing concern, shared by many Democrats, is an effort by Republicans to curb access to voting in many US states they control, including Georgia, Florida and Texas. Critics see it as a campaign to limit election participation among black and Hispanic people.
Democratic lawmakers in Texas on Sunday staged a late-night walkout from the state House of Representatives to block passage of a bill to restrict voting. Biden had already harshly criticised the legislation as “un-American”, while Jaime Harrison, the national party chair, called it “Jim Crow 2.0”, a reference to the system of discriminatory laws and policies that once prevailed in southern states.
However, Texas Republicans are expected to renew their push for the election overhaul bill in a special session of their state legislature, keeping the fight alive.
On a national level, Democrats in the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would crack down on state-level voting restrictions. But it is stalled in the Senate, where Biden’s party does not have the supermajority required to advance it under the upper chamber’s rules.
In his Tulsa speech, Biden called for a “month of action” in Congress on voting rights, enlisted vice-president Kamala Harris to reach an agreement and issued a thinly veiled criticism of two moderate Democrats for jeopardising his agenda.
“I’m going to fight like heck with every tool at my disposal,” the president said.
As Republicans have become emboldened to impose voting restrictions, Biden faces pressure from many within his party to call for a change in the Senate rules that would allow Democrats to pass national voting reform without any Republican support.
The attacks in Greenwood 100 years ago left 300 black people dead and thousands homeless. Biden met with community leaders and survivors of the massacre during his visit and recalled the horrors of the night.
He urged Americans to learn both the “good” and the “bad” of their history. “That’s what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides,” he said.
The White House has pushed for new measures to curb the racial wealth gap in America, including a crackdown on discrimination in home appraisals and a $100bn boost to federal contracts for small businesses in disadvantaged communities.
As part of its $2.3tn infrastructure plan, the White House has also tagged $15bn to revamp transport grids that divided black and white communities and contributed to racial inequities.
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