Viewpoint: Biden uses Tulsa massacre centennial to advance economic justice agenda

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Karen Rubin, Columnist

It has been 100 years since the Tulsa race massacre in which whites murdered 300 African Americans, burned homes and businesses, left 10,000 homeless in the Greenwood neighborhood – called “Black Wall Street” for its prosperity – and then incarcerated them in detention camps.

Private planes were rained bombs on the neighborhood. No one was ever arrested, tried or held to account; insurance companies refused to pay on claims of the black homeowners. The headline in the Tulsa newspaper on June 1, 1921 read “Two Whites Dead in Race Riot.” Newspapers never reported the massacre and if Republicans have their way, no history book would even mention it and any teacher could be fired for discussing it.

After a summer of reckoning over criminal justice sparked by the blatant murder by police of George Floyd, a year of reckoning over access to health care, education, and infrastructure spotlighted by the coronavirus pandemic, and a season of reckoning over income inequalities due to systemic and institutional racism, there are new calls for reparations – the interest due on what should have been paid for generations of chattel slavery, compensation for reneging on payment of the 40 acres and a mule promised to freed slaves; and repayment with compounded interest for lynchings and burnings, including the Tulsa massacre.

On the centennial of the race massacre, President Biden visited Tulsa – the first president to acknowledge this horrific atrocity, this gigantic crack in the mirror of American “Exceptionalism” – and met with the three remaining survivors, aged 107, 106 and 100, and descendants whose families and fortunes were irrevocably derailed and destroyed.

“It wasn’t just the loss of life, but the loss of living, of wealth,” Biden declared.

Tulsa may be the starkest, most heinous example, but there have been so many others, and most horrifying of all, re-emerged today with the reconstitution of White Supremacy and domestic terrorism intended to intimidate, destroy lives and livelihoods.

But Biden is doing more than just giving long-overdue acknowledgment of the heinous, government-sanctioned crime – the institutional terror intended to keep people down and downtrodden. He is actually doing something to mitigate and rectify institutional racism that persists, despite Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s to prolong the great and growing socio-economic-political gap.

Whereas whites average $188,000 in wealth, blacks average a mere $24,000- basically a black person has 13 cents in wealth for every $1 that a white person has.

A big part of that is the disparity in housing – at first through segregation and later through redlining.

Homeownership is the single most significant factor in a household’s generational wealth – especially in a society where zipcode can determine your access to education, health care, voting rights.

But in contravention of the so-called Fair Housing Law, there are still “standards” and rules that make it harder, more expensive for blacks to buy a home: higher down payments, higher credit standards making obtaining a mortgage harder, with higher interest rates and higher insurance costs, while home values in “black” neighborhoods are systematically under-assessed compared to homes in white neighborhoods.

As a result, just 49 percent of Hispanic Americans and 45 percent of Black Americans own their own homes compared to 74 percent of White Americans. In fact, black homeownership is at a lower rate today than when the Fair Housing Act was enacted 50 years ago, Biden noted in his Tulsa speech.

As we have seen here on Long Island, thanks to Newsday’s investigative reporting, real estate agents have contributed to the disparity in the way they steer buyers to certain neighborhoods.

On the occasion of the Tulsa massacre centennial, the Biden Administration announced actions to redress racial discrimination in the housing market, including launching a first-of-its-kind interagency effort to address inequity in home appraisals and instructing Housing & Urban Development to conduct rulemaking to aggressively combat housing discrimination – effectively reversing Trump administration rules that disemboweled Congressional intent in enacting the Fair Housing Act.

Biden also is proposing a new Neighborhood Homes Tax Credit, a mechanism to incentivize private investment in the development and rehabilitation of affordable homes for low- and moderate-income homebuyers and homeowners.

Less likely to become reality is Biden’s hope to eliminate “exclusionary zoning laws” – like minimum lot sizes, mandatory parking requirements and prohibitions on multifamily housing – that inflate housing and construction costs, effectively locking families out of neighborhoods. Biden is calling on Congress to enact the Unlocking Possibilities Program, a $5 billion competitive grant program that awards jurisdictions that take concrete steps to eliminate barriers to affordable housing.

Biden also has a much more practical, effective way to promote prosperity among disadvantaged segments of society, using the government’s power of the purse.

The federal government is the largest consumer of goods in the world, but at present, only 10 percent of contracting dollars go to small businesses in disadvantaged communities. Biden would grow federal contracting with small disadvantaged businesses by 50 percent – effectively steering $100 billion into these communities over five years.

Biden would also use funding in the American Jobs Plan to create a $10 billion community revitalization fund to support civic infrastructure projects targeted to economically underserved, communities like Greenwood.

Another focus would be to reconnect neighborhoods that had been historically (and purposely) uprooted and cut off from jobs, schools and businesses when highways were built. Biden would allocate $15 billion toward the “Highway to Boulevards” movement to replace a freeway with more urban and accessible streets. This movement is already underway in 18 cities, among them, Rochester, NY.

The Department of Transportation also will establish a new ‘Thriving Communities” program, investing $5 billion to create affordable transportation options in historically marginalized communities.

These efforts are so much more practical, positive and will have greater impact on families than “reparations” could – a progressive fantasy that can only serve to undermine enactment of real solutions.

These measures, intended to equalize opportunity, through, yes, a kind of affirmative action for housing, infrastructure and investment, will lift up all of us.

“There is a view of America,” Biden noted, “as a zero-sum game: ‘If I hold you down, I lift myself up,’ instead of ‘If you do well, we all do well.”

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