Biden tells racial justice meeting, ‘We’ve kept our promises,’ as he looks to energize Black voters

NEW YORK — President Joe Biden virtually addressed the Rev. Al Sharpton’s Racial Justice Conference on Friday, telling a sympathetic crowd “we kept our promises” as he steps up efforts to energize Black voters who will be crucial to his reelection this fall .

While addressing several hundred attendees at the annual National Action Network Convention in New York, Biden ticked off a long list of what he said were some of his administration’s most significant achievements for Black Americans. He detailed providing federal funding for public works to reconnect city neighborhoods that were divided decades ago when highways were built, and he also invested billions in historically black colleges and universities.

“Together, we kept our promises to make some of the most important investments in the Black American community ever,” Biden said. He also noted that he pardoned thousands of prisoners convicted of federal marijuana charges, fought racial discrimination in the real estate market and canceled the student loans of millions of Americans.

He called that “transformative change,” but said, “We know there is much more work to do.” He said he still hoped to sign major legislation expanding voting rights and the George Floyd Act, a police reform package named after a Black man whose killing by Minneapolis police in 2020 led to widespread protests for racial justice and calls for federal legislation .

Biden faces a November rematch with Republican former President Donald Trump, who has sought to step up his own appeal to Black voters.

Trump has suggested that his four criminal charges have increased his standing with members of the main voting bloc who see him as a victim of discrimination – likening his legal danger to the historical legacy of anti-black bias in the US legal system. The former president has also repeatedly compared himself to anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, arguing that federal and state prosecutors targeted him and his companies for political reasons.

While Biden has historically enjoyed strong support and approval from Black Democrats, 45% of Black Americans said they disapprove of the way Biden is handling his job as president in March, according to polling from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Just over half say they agree.

Biden did not mention Trump by name in his speech on Friday, but referred to key Republicans’ opposition to abortion rights and expanded access to the ballot box by emphasizing: “There are real threats we face.”

“There are more extreme voices who simply don’t want to see people of color in our country’s future,” the president said.

Terrence Floyd, George Floyd’s brother, said it meant a lot to hear Biden pledge that he would continue to pursue reforms in his sibling’s name.

“I appreciate that he is still adamant about passing that bill,” he said. “He has the Floyd family behind him.”

The law passed the then-Democratic-controlled House in 2021, but stalled in a Republican-majority Senate.

Others in the crowd were equally enthusiastic. About half the audience stood and applauded as the president approached the stage in a White House auditorium, which was seen on a livestream.

Biden’s virtual address capped a week of appearances by administration officials and other prominent local and national leaders. Vice President Kamala Harris personally addressed the convention last year.

Elaine Duval of New York City said she thought the president was sincere in his appeals to black voters and that she did not “think he has received the praise and credit he deserves.” But she also suggested that Biden missed an opportunity to address the suffering of Palestinians during Israel’s war with Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

“Oppression of any people is oppression of humanity,” Duval said. “And black people, the black race, we are used to oppression and subjugation. I wish he had said that, because they are our relatives. He should use the power of the presidency on that.”

As he travels the country campaigning for re-election, Biden has frequently confronted protesters who decried his administration’s handling of the war in Gaza.

Sharpton, who has regularly convened a small group of civil rights leaders at the White House on issues affecting Black Americans, introduced Biden by talking about his years of involvement with the National Action Network.

“I give that background so people won’t think he’s just doing his viral speech to get votes,” Sharpton said.

He also took a swipe at Trump, saying, “There are people who want our voters, who want to take us for granted and show us some gold sneakers and other silliness.”

“We want to know concrete things,” Sharpton said.

Franklin Malone, a member of NAN’s Washington chapter, said he would have liked to hear Biden speak more about addressing incarceration rates in the Black community, beyond marijuana offenders.

“We can push for what we need. But at least he’s on the right track,” Malone said. “Sometimes half a chicken is better than no chicken at all.”

Malone said Biden did not sound like a politician who takes the Black vote for granted, as Trump has suggested top Democrats do.

“The president is in a position to give us the power to empower him,” Malone said. ‘He needs our vote. We need him.”

__ Weissert reported from Washington.