WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden and two of his top cabinet members on Wednesday promised U.S. economic and criminal justice reforms that would benefit Black communities at a conference organized by longtime activist Al Sharpton.
It is high time to respond to a “cry for justice 400 years in the making,” Biden said in videotaped remarks to civil rights organizers and activists, referring to the beginning of U.S. slavery on the continent in the 17th century.
Attorney General Merrick Garland, the top U.S. law enforcement official, spoke about reforming the criminal justice system, cracking down on police misconduct and ending mass incarceration and federal use of private prisons. The Justice Department’s civil rights division “will work hard to ensure accountability for law enforcement misconduct,” Garland said.
After the fatal police shooting of a young Black man named Duante Wright in Minnesota on Sunday, the Democratic president – elected with strong support from Black voters – faces renewed pressure to live up to campaign promises to reform policing.
Biden, speaking a day earlier before meeting with members of the Congressional Black Caucus, referred to what he called the “God awful shooting” of Wright and said every part of his administration is focused on improved equity.
“This is a profound economic and moral challenge,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told the conference, underscoring her personal and lifelong commitment to reversing the persistent disparities in wealth and employment that plague Black communities through targeted policies and programs.
“I know we won’t complete the job in my tenure, but my goal is that years from now, people see a difference,” she said.
Kristen Clarke, Biden’s nominee to lead the Justice Department’s civil rights division, fended off attacks by Republicans during her Senate confirmation hearing on Wednesday, saying she does not support defunding the police while promising to find common ground with law enforcement.
The department will “prioritize investigating whether government agencies are engaging in patterns or practices that deprive individuals of their federal or constitutional rights,” Garland said. It also will direct funds to police to departments nationwide to promote “policing policies that benefit communities and enhance trust,” Garland added.
He said his department will also revamp criminal charging policies to make sentences proportional to the crime, and look anew at an existing law with provisions for sentencing reforms.
Biden told the conference that his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief plan passed by Congress is projected to cut poverty in the Black community by 37%, and said his $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal would deliver more tangible results. It aims to replace every lead drinking water pipe in the country and deliver high-speed internet to every American home.
“We have so much work to do, from criminal justice to police reform to addressing health disparities to voting rights, but I know that together we’re going to continue to make extraordinary progress,” Biden told the largely online annual convention of the National Action Network.
Biden also renewed his criticism of efforts by Republican-controlled legislatures in many states to enact restrictive voting policies, He called the measures a “backsliding into the days of Jim Crow,” referring to laws put in place in Southern states in the decades after the 1861-65 U.S. Civil War to legalize racial segregation and disenfranchise Black citizens.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal and Jan Wolfe; Additional reporting by Heather Timmons; Editing by Will Dunham and Aurora Ellis)