Joe Biden on the campaign trail in Wisconsin. October 2020. Photo by Adam Schultz / Biden for President

‘You wanna dance, you gotta pay the band.’ President Biden responds to ‘the band’ regarding Black Cabinet nominees

People who saw the first film in the “Rocky” boxing series will remember the quote in the headline. As old as politics itself, it simply means, however far you go or how high you rise in politics or in life, you owe your success to those who helped you along the way.

For newly inaugurated President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the “band” is Black voters. Without them, Biden and Harris would not have won in the “battleground” states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. While in Georgia, a state that had not supported a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992, Black voter turnout contributed to transforming it from Republican “red” to Democratic “blue.”

During his victory speech, Biden told Black voters “You’ve always had my back, and I’ll have yours.” To see how his campaign promise could materialize, on December 8 of last year, Biden and Harris met virtually with representatives of seven “legacy” civil rights organizations. Member representation who attended wanted to find out how much of their federal policy agendas he would support.

The Zoom meeting was closed to the news media, but someone videotaped the meeting and sent the recording to The Intercept, an independent online news organization, which posted the recording on YouTube. Participants included Derrick Johnson, President and CEO of The NAACP; Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-counsel of The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund; Melanie Campbell, President and CEO of National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and Convenor, Black Women’s Roundtable; Reverend Al Sharpton, Founder and President of The National Action Network; Venita Gupta of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; and Kristen Clarke, President of the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

. . . .
In the U.S. Capitol Building’s Lyndon B. Johnson Room, Krista Clarke who then represented the National Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law spoke on a panel to discuss voting rights in America. Photo credit: Senate Democrats Flickr

During the conference, civil rights leaders urged Biden to use the full weight of his office to fight racism in the U.S. Among other things, they asked that he create a national database accessible to the public for tracking racially motivated police misconduct. Included in their asks, they requested that he issue a memorandum telling all federal agencies to hire or appoint a racially diverse staff. Added to requests, they suggested that he fill vacancies for federal circuit court judges with individuals who had not been prosecutors.

At times during the talk, the group expressed disappointment in what they viewed as the slow pace of Biden’s nominations. “People are getting anxious because they aren’t seeing enough of the progress, they thought they might have seen at this point,” said Johnson of the NAACP to Biden.

Also, leaders pushed Biden to nominate a Black person, possibly a Black woman, to be the U.S. Attorney General in charge of the Department of Justice. They called for someone whose experience and expertise was in civil rights law. That individual “should be someone who can turn compassion into concrete legislation,” said Sharpton of The National Action Network. He added, “We are not looking for better slave masters.”

“You shouldn’t be disappointed,” Biden retorted. “What I’ve done so far [regarding Cabinet nominations] is more than anybody has done this far . . . ”

“I ran [for President] because of that racist son of a gun who was President of the U.S.A.,” said Biden.

“You’ve never seen me shy away from [calling out] racism. In the middle of a {Presidential candidates’] debate, I called him [President Trump] a racist . . . I took on white supremacy . . . I’m the only white guy you know who did it. Period.”

“We’re on the exact same page,” Biden insisted.

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Biden assured the group that he plans to focus on such issues as the wealth gap between Black and white families, more federal funding for Black entrepreneurs, Black voting suppression, climate change, environmental injustice, and criminal justice reform.

But there are Black activists who believe that legislative “reforms” will not eliminate racial oppression against Black people, and that it would take changing the U.S. governing system from capitalism to socialism to do that.

“Biden already told us he’s not going to do anything, but carry out the legacy (of previous administrations),” longtime grassroots activist Ty DePasse told Ark Republic. DePasse, 71, is the principal associate at the Columbia, South Carolina-based CREO (Community-based Research, Education and Organizing).

“It’s clear that the (political) Left got Biden elected,” said DePasse. Despite Republican efforts to define government-led social programs as “Communist,” DePasse said most Americans would back universal health care, or “Medicare for All.” “People are hungry for it,” he said. “We should forget about what to call it (‘socialism’) and focus on what people want.

“We need to build our own institutions instead of trying to get ‘seats at the table.’ “ he said. “We’ve had dark faces in high places before, but it didn’t help us.” DePasse said any changes to the US governing system would be generated by community activists from the bottom up. “The anti-racism movement is global and multiracial. Community centered people like teachers, janitors, and gig economy workers could lead it.”

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Since the December 8 meeting, Biden has indeed nominated more “dark faces in high places.” Half of his Cabinet consists of women who are majority Black and other people of color. While his nominee for U.S. Attorney General, Merrick Garland, is white and is not known to have an extensive civil rights record, Vanita Gupta, who comes from Indian parents who migrated to the US, was nominated by the Department of Justice Associate Attorney General. Another woman with immigrant roots, Kristen Clarke, carries the nomination as the DOJ’s Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights.

There are also some returns to the oval office. Susan Rice, an African American who served as National Security Adviser under the Obama Administration, is Biden’s nominee to head his domestic policy council, which addresses policy matters like racial inequity.

On another note, there are new hires in significant positions. After the U.S. Senate confirmed Lloyd J. Austin III as the new Defense Secretary in late January, he ordered hundreds of Trump supporters to resign from the Pentagon advisory just days ago. Austin is the first Black man to serve in that capacity.

Margaret Summers has worked as a print and radio news reporter and a media relations professional. She lives in Washington, D.C.

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