As Prepared For Delivery:
Good evening, it’s an honor to join this virtual town hall at such an important crossroads in our nation’s history. I’d like to thank President Johnson for the invitation to speak tonight and all of you who are staff, members, and supporters of the NAACP for your tireless and vital advocacy for justice. The legacy you continue to uphold is in no small part why I’m here addressing you tonight, as a representative of the most diverse Administration this country has ever seen. And to Congresswomen Beatty and Bass, and Secretary-designate Fudge, thank you for every day showing the world what we can accomplish when we have effective, powerful, Black women in leadership.
I am here not only to speak about the Biden Administration’s commitment to advancing racial justice and equity, but to ask for your partnership and support in implementing an equity agenda whose ambition matches the urgency of this moment.
Last week, President Biden began to turn the page on a divisive and destructive period in American history. He took office at a time of crisis that has tested our strength and our unity: a relentless pandemic, a flagging economy, the universal threat of climate change, the persistent stain of racial injustice. No one has been untouched by these crises, but like so many times before, Black and brown communities have carried the heaviest share of the burden. We have fallen ill and died of COVID in greater numbers due to lack of access to quality healthcare. We have watched 40 percent of our small businesses shut down, and now 1 in 10 Black Americans is unemployed. And while George Floyd and Breonna Taylor’s murders belatedly awakened too many in our nation to the fact of systemic racism, for us these tragedies were yet another painful reminder of an all-too-familiar reality.
It is not enough to simply recover and try to rinse our hands of the prior Administration. As President Biden has said so many times, we must build back better than before. That is why the equity agenda is not just a question of policy, it is the bedrock on which we will build a government that serves all people. Racial equity is our economy, our neighborhoods, our very democracy. It is the opportunity for every child to realize the promise of America.
President Biden’s commitment to equity is broad and deep. On Day One, he signed an executive order mandating a whole-of-government effort to embed racial equity across federal policies, programs, and laws. That starts with a review of our government institutions to dismantle systemic racism where it exists and advance equity where we are falling short. Every agency will be required to place equity at the core of their mission to ensure that government resources are reaching marginalized communities. And, under the Biden Administration, the federal government will become a national model on diversity and inclusion—from hiring and procurement to data and access. We must and will hold ourselves accountable.
Yesterday, the President signed a set of executive actions advancing justice and equity with immediate impact. He directed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to advance fair housing rules and combat housing discrimination. He tasked all agencies to fight xenophobia against our Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and strengthen federal engagement with Native Tribes. And he directed the Attorney General not to renew contracts with private prisons, taking profit out of our criminal justice system.
Now we are focused on passing a comprehensive pandemic response package to deliver needed relief to the American people. The President’s proposed American Rescue Plan puts equity at the heart of our national strategy to combat this health and economic crisis. It would cut the poverty rate for Black families by more than a third and boost the earnings of millions of Black workers. It commits $20 billion to expand access to vaccines, PPE, and healthcare providers in our hard-hit communities of color. With estimates showing that up to 40 percent of Black-owned businesses have been forced to close, our plan provides direct aid to small businesses and increases the value of unemployment insurance. The American Rescue Plan promises immediate relief to working families and lays the foundation for a long-term, equitable recovery. We need your support to get this done.
Throughout this effort, we must remember that racial equity is not just an issue for Black and brown communities, it is vital to building a society that expands opportunity for all Americans. Investing in rent relief, student loan relief, nutrition, child care, public education, and healthcare access will directly benefit people of color who have been left behind by a system built on discrimination. But it will also spark a rising tide of economic and job growth to lift up all communities facing hardship, persistent poverty, and deferred justice.
Racial discrimination has cost the U.S. an estimated $16 trillion over the past two decades; closing that income and opportunity gap could add $5 trillion to the economy and 6 million new jobs over the next five years. A dollar invested in equity is a dollar invested in the vitality, health, and unity of our nation. Despite our stark political divisions, we are still one country, and we rise and fall together.
All of these actions are just a down payment on what will be an unrelenting march forward. Redressing historic inequities requires the kind of historic commitment that President Biden has made. My pledge to you is that we will not shy away from the challenge. Under my leadership, the Domestic Policy Council will make racial equity a primary focus. I have assembled a highly qualified team to drive this agenda, led by Catherine Lhamon, who brings extensive civil rights experience from across all levels of government. I will also have the support of every White House office and US government agency in this work, as President Biden has made it clear that advancing equity is everyone’s job.
My own family story, like so many of yours, is one of generations of Americans standing strong in the face of racism to claim their right to equality and opportunity. My great grandfather escaped slavery in South Carolina to fight for his freedom in the Union Army. He went on to earn a college degree and founded the Bordentown School in New Jersey, which educated Black kids for nearly 70 years. And while my father Emmett Rice grew up in the heart of Jim Crow, he served his country with the Tuskegee Airmen and overcame the barriers of segregation to ultimately sit on the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve.
My mother was the child of immigrants from Jamaica, who raised their five children in Portland, ME, and sent them all to college on a maid and a janitor’s salary. She dedicated her career to helping other poor kids have the same opportunity to be educated that she did. My mother Lois Rice was known as the “mother of the Pell Grant program,” which has enabled more than 80 million Americans to attend college.
My grandparents and parents’ struggle, service, and sacrifice inspire me to this day. Their refusal to give up on a country that all too often gave up on them. That is why we cannot be satisfied with the pace of our progress. When prejudice still holds so many back, when your zip code determines your future, when Black Americans continue to lose their lives due to the color of their skin, how can we say to our children that we are doing enough? From Reconstruction to the Civil Rights era to the 2020 election, Black workers, families, and voters have never stopped pushing this country forward and demanding we live up to our greatest ideals. President Biden is determined to do all he can to see their vision realized.
The painful crises we are facing as a nation have laid bare our collective failure to build an equitable society. We now have the chance to shape a recovery that charts a different course to build back better, but we cannot do it alone. If we are to succeed, we need all of you leading the charge alongside us. Let’s, again, change this country together.