Biden Visits Tulsa On 100th Anniversary Of Racist Terror That Killed Hundreds : The NPR Politics Podcast The White House announced a number of new orders aimed at tackling the racial wealth gap in connection with the visit. Centenarian survivors of the attack testified before Congress last month about the ongoing lack of justice and accountability for Black Americans harmed by racism.

This episode: White House correspondent Asma Khalid, national political correspondent Mara Liasson, and politics and racial justice correspondent Juana Summers.

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Biden Visits Tulsa On 100th Anniversary Of Racist Terror That Killed Hundreds

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IRENE: Hi, my name is Irene (ph), and I'm from Farmville, Va. I'm headed to my gap year internship at the Robert Russa Moton Museum. This podcast was recorded at...


2:06 p.m. Eastern Time on Tuesday, June 1.

IRENE: Things may have changed by the time you hear this, but I will still be sharing the story of Barbara Rose Johns and her student-led strike in 1951 for equality and education. Enjoy the show.


MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Yet another historical event we should pay more attention to.


KHALID: Well, hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. I'm covering the White House.

SUMMERS: I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics and racial justice.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: So President Biden is in Oklahoma today marking the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre. It's one of the worst moments of racial violence in U.S. history. In 1921, an armed white mob attacked a booming Black business district called Greenwood, destroying the area, burning businesses to the ground, leaving hundreds dead and nearly 10,000 people homeless. And, you know, for months, President Biden has been insisting that racial justice will be a pillar of his presidency, that somehow he'd help correct years and years of systemic racism. So let's begin by talking about what he's actually doing today.

SUMMERS: So President Biden is traveling to Greenwood, which was once known as Black Wall Street, as part of an effort to shine a light on that racist violence that happened there. Now, the White House says that Biden is the first president to visit Tulsa to commemorate this massacre. He plans to meet privately with survivors. They're all in their 100s now. He's going to tour the Greenwood Cultural Center and deliver remarks commemorating this massacre.

And I just have to say that, you know, this is such an incredibly violent, painful history in this country. And it's also history that was buried for many years. You know, we didn't talk about Greenwood in this way until really recently. I grew up in the Midwest. And this is not something I remember certainly being taught about in my history classes until I was in college.

LIASSON: Right. And when you talk about systemic racism, I mean, this was a prosperous Black community playing by the rules, making their own businesses, being good American capitalists. And it was destroyed. And after that, then the racism got more efficient and insidious because it was after Greenwood was destroyed, that redlining started. And African Americans were basically locked out of homeownership and access to credit. And that is what Joe Biden wants to try to reverse, that kind of systemic economic racism.

KHALID: You know, I think a lot of people see Joe Biden and they see him as a man of extraordinary empathy, right? He's known as kind of this empathizer in chief. And he's going to go to Tulsa and meet with some of the survivors of this racial massacre that happened a century ago. But I guess folks are still wondering, OK, well, what does that mean after that, right? Like, what's the concrete policy actions that he's going to bring about to rectify some of these wrongs?

LIASSON: Yeah, actually, he has a tremendous number of them. Some of them have already been embedded in his budget, in his American Jobs Plan. But the Biden administration has released a whole list of the things they are doing, the actions they're taking to try to close the racial wealth gap. One of the things they're doing is trying to close the disparity in home appraisals, how comparable homes in Black neighborhoods are routinely appraised as less valuable than comparable homes in white neighborhoods. There, he says he's going to use the federal government's purchasing power - this is something he can do without Congress - to spend more money on small and disadvantaged businesses. In other words, do more federal contracting with minority-owned businesses. Also, lots of grants and technical assistance to support urban planning that might include retrofitting existing transportation infrastructure.

People forget how much the American highway system did to bisect and really destroy a lot of minority neighborhoods. So there's a whole big, long list of things he wants to do. But also, he has said over and over again that racial equity is something that he thinks is woven throughout every single domestic policy that he has proposed.

SUMMERS: And, you know, as I think about this, I think there's just, like, some important societal context to put this in. This is obviously a trip and an announcement that is pegged to the 100-year anniversary of the massacre in Tulsa. But it also comes after a year in which this country has struggled openly and frankly, painfully over the intersection of race and justice, over issues of police brutality toward Black people and other people of color, all themes that are kind of interwoven into Biden's narrative of why he ran for president, of the themes he talked about, as we know, as a candidate. And so I think it's hard to separate him choosing to go to Greenwood in this moment and to unveil more policies, as Mara points out, that kind of get at these themes of race and equity from kind of the year that we that we find ourselves in.

KHALID: Juana, to that point about the year that we have seen, the year that we've witnessed, I think there are certainly activists out there who question why the country hasn't done more legislatively in particular, right? You know, you think of the police reform bill that still hasn't been passed in Congress, and there seems to be this momentum certainly on the left, I would say, to want to do something legislatively. And we don't see major legislative action yet around some of these issues of racial justice.

SUMMERS: I think that's a really good point. And you're absolutely right. I talk to a lot of activists who are very disappointed that they have not seen the Biden administration do more, whether it be on the issue of police brutality or on other issues, like cancelling student debt, which disproportionately impacts Black folks in this country. Just to take policing as one example, there are even activists that I talked to who say the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act, the bill that President Biden had said he wanted to sign by the first anniversary of Floyd's killing, which did not happen because negotiations are still going on. They say even that legislation so far does not meet the scope of the problem that we see in this country.

So I think you're right, Asma, that there is a segment of people largely on the left who want to see more from their government to chip away at systemic racism, as President Biden promised, as a candidate. They're still waiting for him to fulfill that promise.

LIASSON: But are they waiting for him to fulfill it through things he can do on his own? Canceling student debt is certainly an example of that. But in terms of passing legislation, he can't do that unless he gets more than 50 Democratic senators.

SUMMERS: And I think a lot of those activists would argue that one of the things that could happen in order to get them to where they need to go on Capitol Hill, at least, is to abolish the filibuster, which they say is an immovable barricade toward getting a lot of the legislation that they want to see passed actually becoming law. And they - that is not something that we have seen an aggressive push for from the White House.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's take a quick break. And when we get back, we'll talk more about Tulsa.


KHALID: And we're back. Juana, let's talk some more about the reporting that you've done specifically about the living survivors of the Tulsa massacre. You know, these are folks who are obviously more than 100 years old, and they recently testified before Congress seeking reparations for what they experienced.

SUMMERS: That's right. They testified before a House Judiciary subcommittee that has been talking broadly about the issue of reparations. And it was really striking testimony. One of the survivors is Viola Fletcher, and she was 7 years old when the angry white mob descended on Greenwood and destroy it. Take a listen to how she recalls that violence today at the age of 107.


VIOLA FLETCHER: I still smell smoke and see fire. I still see Black businesses being burned. I still hear airplanes flying overhead. I hear the screams. I have lived through the massacre every day. Our country may forget this history, but I cannot.

SUMMERS: So these survivors are speaking out in their telling their stories now, but they're also asking to be made whole because no one was ever punished for this attack. And they say that they were never compensated.


FLETCHER: I am 107 years old and have never been seen justice. I pray that one day I will. I have been blessed with a long life and have seen the best and the worst of this country. I think about the terror, horror inflicted upon Black people in this country every day.

LIASSON: This was a terrorist attack on the accumulation of Black wealth. This was a place where Black Americans had accumulated wealth by investing in businesses and owning homes. That's the way wealth is created. You know, and even the Biden administration's factsheet on his policies say disparities in wealth compound like an interest rate. If you don't own a home, you can't pass it down to your children and you can't help them with the down payment on their home. And, you know, even today, 45% of Black Americans own their homes, 74% of white Americans own their homes. And things like Tulsa are why that is true today.

KHALID: You know, we began by talking about this push and pull that the Bush administration has - right? - in terms of him visiting Greenwood and announcing different moves through executive order and this kind of push that he has to do more specifically on the legislative front. And one of the things I've been struck by is when his administration has been asked if he backs reparations, it feels like they, you know, dance around that topic.

SUMMERS: Yeah. You know, one thing we've heard repeatedly from the administration is the fact that President Biden supports the commission on reparations. He supports the study of the issue. We haven't heard the White House to the state, as far as I have heard, say that they actually support reparations being allocated or what that might look like. And when I talk about that, I'm talking about the issue of reparations broadly, not necessarily the issue of reparations for the survivors of the Tulsa massacre. I think that the issues are a little bit different there.

KHALID: But even in regards to the Tulsa massacre - right? - He was asked about that, I think, just today. And I believe one of the White House spokeswoman said that he's honored to listen to the survivors and that he supports the study and reparations. I mean, even when asked directly about what happened in Tulsa, it feels like the pivot back to this idea of a study on reparations.

LIASSON: Well, Juana, do the proponents of reparations have a definition of what reparations are? Are they cash payments to people or are they investment in all sorts of programs to address racial inequities?

SUMMERS: Yeah. So from a congressional standpoint, if we kind of take a 30,000-foot look at this, much of the debate around reparations has been through the bill known as HR 40, that's making its way through the House right now. What it would do essentially is to create a commission that would consider providing Black Americans with reparations for slavery, as well as a national apology for the harm caused. But it does not, to Mara's point, prescribe what reparations would look like. That has been the subject of a lengthy and ongoing policy debate over the questions of who should benefit from reparations, what form they might take, how to pay for them.

For some proponents, it only means direct cash payments of varying sizes, while others would swoop in things like no interest loans for prospective Black homeowners, for example, or free college tuition. So there's not one neat answer. The goal is that through the truth and reconciliation process, the commission would provide a recommendation to the administration as to what this could look like if that commission did indeed become formed.

LIASSON: And meanwhile, in a case where reparations would be pretty simple and cut and dry, that is Tulsa. These people have the receipts. They owned the businesses. They owned the homes. We know exactly where they stood and probably what they were worth. The Oklahoma state legislature, which I understand has addressed this issue, has never made the victims whole or provided any sort of reparations.

SUMMERS: Yeah. And, you know, that's a point that each of those survivors that testified on Capitol Hill made over and over again, they were never compensated for the lives and property lost. And because Greenwood was destroyed, we'll also never know what Greenwood could have been, what could have been built, what that may have looked like today. So this is history that's being marked today, but it's also very much a present-day issue, too.

KHALID: All right. Well, let's leave it there for now. I'm Asma Khalid. I cover the White House.

SUMMERS: I'm Juana Summers. I cover politics and racial justice.

LIASSON: And I'm Mara Liasson, national political correspondent.

KHALID: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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