The White House on Tuesday declined to say if President Joe Biden supported reparations for victims of the Tulsa Race Massacre after a star-studded anniversary memorial was canceled over the issue.
Deputy Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre, speaking to reporters on Air Force One during the flight to Tulsa, didn't answer when asked Biden's thoughts on payments to survivors. She merely stated his previous position - that he supports a study on reparations.
'President Biden believes we have to take core steps right now to fight systemic racism,' she said. 'He also supports a study, as we've said before, for reparations, but believes that first and foremost, the task in front of us is ... to root out systemic racism where it exists right now.'
'Remember & Rise,' a high-profile event scheduled for Monday in Tulsa to close out the commemoration of the massacre, was canceled just days before. Singer-songwriter John Legend was set to headline and it was to feature a keynote speech from Stacey Abrams.
The star-studded tribute was called off after a lawyer representing survivors of the massacre demanded $1 million for each of them to appear, as well as a $50 million reparations fund for descendants.
The commission behind the event say they hope to reschedule and expressed disappointment over the cancelation.
The Tulsa Race Massacre - which left up to 300 people dead and burned the city's prosperous black neighborhood known as Greenwood to the ground on May 31 and June 1, 1921 - is one of the starkest examples of black wealth being decimated.
Jean-Pierre said Biden was visiting the city to make sure the massacre, one of the worst - and largely overlooked - acts of racial violence in American history, was not forgotten. He is the first president to mark the occasion.
'There are survivors of that violence who are still forced to fight for recognition,' she said. 'And that is the focus of what the president wants to do. He wants to make sure that this is on record, this is not forgotten - a story that has not been told is told. And, you know, it is an indictment of systemic racism that these survivors have been forced to fight for literally 100 years to have their humanity recognized, and to have justice served, and justice and fairness still eludes them.'
Also called the Black Wall Street Massacre, more than 10,000 were left homeless in the aftermath and over 100 businesses were destroyed in the prosperous black neighborhood. According to the Tulsa Race Riot Report of 2001, an estimated $1,470,711 was incurred in damage - equal to about $20 million today.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre Centennial Commission - a predominately black group - has raised more than $30 million, including $20 million for the construction of the Greenwood Rising museum, as a way to memorialize the riot.
But some of Tulsa's black residents question whether the money should be used for reparations instead. Damario Solomon-Simmons, a lawyer who represents the survivors in a lawsuit against the city, has argued for cash benefits for survivors.
Kevin Matthews, a Black state senator, founded the commission, which offered $100,000 paid directly to each survivor and $2 million to establish a reparation fund. He said their initial offer was accepted but they later came back with their bigger ask. The lawyers for the survivors said the original offer was tentative.
Biden on the Tulsa massacre: "we do ourselves no favors, pretending that none of this happened. ... We can't just learn what we want to know, but what we should know ... the good, the bad ...everything. That's what great nations do. They come to terms with their dark sides."— Joy-Ann (Pro-Democracy) Reid 😷 (@JoyAnnReid) June 1, 2021
The argument led to the eventual cancelation of Monday's event.
Biden, while in Tulsa on Tuesday, will detail his plans to build black wealth and narrow the racial income gap.
His proposal focuses on two key creators of wealth: homeownership and small business ownership.
As part of his plan, the Department of Housing and Urban Development will propose new regulations 'to root out discrimination in the appraisal and homebuying process,' according to a White House fact sheet, in a bid to boost black home ownership.
The administration also is seeking to address disparities that result in black-owned homes being appraised at tens of thousands of dollars less than comparable homes owned by whites.
And the president vowed to use the power of federal contracts to invest $100 billion over five years into minority-owned businesses by increasing the share of federal contracts awarded to those businesses by 50% by 2026.
Additionally, under his American Jobs Plan that has yet to be passed by Congress, Biden has proposed giving $10 billion in grants to under served communities along with an additional $20 billion in grants for infrastructure and affordable housing.
The wealth gap between whites and blacks has grown over the past two decades: from about $100,000 in 1992 to $154,000 in 2016, according to a recent study from McKinsey. The study also found that almost 70 percent of middle-class black children are likely to fall out of the middle class as adults.
Speaking to reporters on Air Force One, Jean-Pierre down played criticism from NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who told The Washington Post that student debt cancellation should be part of the proposal.
'Components of the plan are encouraging, but it fails to address the student loan debt crisis that disproportionately affects African Americans,' he said. 'You cannot begin to address the racial wealth gap without addressing the student loan debt crisis.'
Jean-Pierre countered by arguing the American Families Plan, which has yet to pass Congress, contains $46 billion for historically black colleges and universities.
'These institutions are critical to helping underrepresented students move to the top of the income ladder. And so President Biden is calling for historic investment in affordability, through subsidized tuition and expanding institutional and grants,' she said.
In a White House proclamation on Monday in honor the 100th anniversary of the massacre, Biden called on Americans to reflect on the 'roots of racial terror.'
Powerful moment with the Tulsa massacre survivors, after Biden’s speech. pic.twitter.com/phjBAQlZQ6— Jeff Mason (@jeffmason1) June 1, 2021
'I call upon the people of the United States to commemorate the tremendous loss of life and security that occurred over those 2 days in 1921, to celebrate the bravery and resilience of those who survived and sought to rebuild their lives again, and commit together to eradicate systemic racism and help to rebuild communities and lives that have been destroyed by it,' the president declared a day before his planned visit to Tulsa.
'Today, on this solemn centennial of the Tulsa Race Massacre, 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's visit on Tuesday takes place during a national reckoning on racial justice and as Congress debates police reform in the wake of George Floyd's murder.
His trip is also in stark contrast to the most recent visit to Tulsa by a president, when Donald Trump resumed his campaign rallies there last year amid a surge in coronavirus cases.
Trump was criticized for originally scheduling his return rally on the date of Juneteenth - the anniversary of the end of slavery - and he battled local health officials who worried about the pandemic.
Additionally, his rally was announced in the weeks following the murder of George Floyd by white cop Derek Chauvin, which reignited the Black Lives Matter movement last summer.
The rally was a bust - with the stadium filled with rows of empty seats and the overflow area outside shut down when the crowds didn't materialize. Three weeks after the rally Oklahoma saw a record rise in COVID cases.
During his visit, Biden will give remarks at the Greenwood Cultural Center, where he will talk about his proposal to close the racial wealth gap. He will also meet privately with survivors of the massacre.
One of those survivors is a 107-year-old grandmother named Viola Fletcher. She was just seven years old when she witnessed the carnage.
'The night of the massacre, I was awakened by my family. My parents and five siblings were there. I was told we had to leave and that was it. I will never forget the violence of the White mob when we left our home,' Fletcher said at a House Judiciary hearing earlier this month. Some lawmakers have ramped up calls for reparations for survivors and their families in the lead-up to the 100th anniversary.
'I still see black men being shot, black bodies lying in the street. I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams,' she said.
Fletcher and the two other survivors still alive today, 100-year-old Hughes Van Ellis and 106-year-old Lessie Benningfield Randle, as well as victims' descendants, were honored at a ceremony in Tulsa on Monday. Fletcher and Ellis, who are siblings, were present.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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