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When It Comes To Race, Biden Faces Pressure On Two Fronts


President Biden has pledged to help end the epidemic of Black men being killed by police. But he's also presented himself as an ally of the law enforcement community. NPR's Juana Summers takes a look at the line the president is walking.

JUANA SUMMERS, BYLINE: When Joe Biden offered his condolences to George Floyd's loved ones in a video played at Floyd's funeral last year, he posed a question - why do so many Black people in America wake up knowing they could lose their lives?


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Now is the time for racial justice. That's the answer we must give to our children when they ask, why? Because when there is justice for George Floyd, we will truly be on our way to racial justice in America.

SUMMERS: Aside from the policing-overhaul bill that carries George Floyd's name that has stalled in Congress, Biden does not have a clear agenda to deliver on his promise of making real change in policing in communities of color. Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence of Michigan was one of a group of Black lawmakers that met with Biden at the White House last week. She says the president constantly weighs the impact of his words.

BRENDA LAWRENCE: We have been very much made aware of these issues in the Black community. But for him to acknowledge them and to share with us his understanding was very, very powerful and hopeful.

SUMMERS: But the way in which Biden initially spoke about the killing of Daunte Wright raised questions about the president's understanding of the issues at the intersection of race, justice and policing. Take a listen to what Biden told reporters the day after Wright was shot during a traffic stop last week.


BIDEN: Question is, was it an accident? Was it intentional? That remains to be determined by a full-blown investigation. But in the meantime, I want to make it clear again - there is absolutely no justification, none, for looting, no justification for violence.

JAMAAL BOWMAN: It rips, it tears at the fabric of my soul, quite frankly. It really does because the instinct is to assume that the person who was killed did something wrong and may have deserved it.

SUMMERS: That was New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman responding to Biden. He says he wants to hear Biden demonstrate his empathy.

BOWMAN: We need to see the same urgency and feel the same urgency from the president when it comes to Black lives. And from all of us as elected officials, as leaders, do we value Black life more than we value property?

SUMMERS: The video of former police officer Derek Chauvin with his knee on George Floyd's neck in the final moments of his life sparked protests across the country last year. That racial reckoning changed the course of the presidential campaign. Biden was elected after naming systemic racism as one of four major crises facing the nation. And voters put him into office, along with Kamala Harris, the nation's first Black and Asian vice president.

Aimee Allison is a political organizer and the founder of She the People. She says that if the White House does not directly address these issues, many people who turned out for Biden in 2020 may not do so again.

AIMEE ALLISON: I think at this point, where the constant barrage and news of the violence and dehumanization of Black people or brown people at the hands of government employees - please - you know, there's just a - there is a sense that something must be done.

SUMMERS: But Biden has also projected himself as an ally of police, leaving him facing pressure on two fronts. Jim Pasco is the executive director of the Fraternal Order of Police and has been meeting with administration officials. Though the group supported former President Trump in the general election, Pasco says he believes the president is well suited to bringing together groups that don't see eye to eye.

JIM PASCO: He has - still has enough credibility in the law enforcement community and, I believe, credibility in the civil rights community to ideally position him to at least try, with the potential for success, to get everybody together on issues.

SUMMERS: The conclusion of the Chauvin trial could compound a moment of intense pain over police killings in this country, and in responding, the president may try to heal the soul of a divided nation. But he also appears caught in a double bind.

Juana Summers, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.

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