Valerie Jarrett, a former White House advisor and longtime confidant of President Obama, joined North Carolina elected officials on a Zoom call on Thursday evening to tout Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” plan for racial equity.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the explosion of protests in response to the police killing of George Floyd framed Jarrett’s opening remarks during the 35-minute roundtable, which included Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, Fayetteville Mayor Mitch Colvin, NC Rep. Yvonne Holley and NC Rep. James Gailliard.
“These past few months have been especially difficult for Black and Brown Americans, who are dying from COVID-19 at far higher rates than anyone else,” Jarrett said. “Members of these communities have also disproportionately lost their jobs or had their hours slashed while so many others that are working essential jobs that are often unseen or underpaid… and while businesses across the country have been decimated, those owned by Black and Brown Americans, which once served as the beating hearts of our communities, have been more likely to shut their doors and to turn out their lights.
“And, of course, after the killing of George Floyd and so many others, we are also confronted with the legacy of systemic racism that has long been a stain on our nation. And the moment when we most need a leader to bring us together, unfortunately President Trump has been trying to divide us. This has been a disgraceful abdication of his responsibilities as president. But make no mistake: While the injustices and inequalities in our country have been exacerbated by President Trump’s time in office, they’re also as old as America itself. It’s long past time for us to come to terms with the fact that the United States has never fully lived up to the idea that our country was founded on — that all of us were created equal.”
The panelists generally echoed a comment by Jarrett that the COVID-19 pandemic had laid bare disparities that already exist within society. Jarrett’s acknowledgement of the protests against police brutality rendered Lyles and Colvin’s silence on the topic conspicuous. The ACLU of North Carolina recently sued the city of Charlotte over a June 2 incident in which its police force trapped protesters in a “kettling” maneuver and fired teargas, rubber bullets and flash-bang grenades at them. In Fayetteville, protesters set fire to the Market House, a building where slaves were sold. But in fairness to the local officials, the “Build Back Better” plan for which the Biden campaign sought their feedback is an economic plan, not a prescription for overhauling law enforcement.
Jarrett laid out the plan as a series of investments geared towards people of color.
“His small business opportunity plan will mobilize $150 billion to help make the entrepreneur’s dream of Black and Brown Americans a reality,” Jarrett said. “His housing plan will invest $650 billion to eliminate the racial housing gap, and so we can start to close the racial wealth gap that has been building over centuries. And his climate plan will award grants to Black and Brown communities, who we know are disproportionately harmed by the effects of climate change and pollution.”
While the Black North Carolina elected officials on the Zoom roundtable — moderated by Mayor Lyles — praised Biden’s plan, they generally offered few specifics about how it might help their constituents.
“What has happened over 200 years is we’ve shifted from explicit to implicit bias, and the structures have really not changed,” said Rep. James Gailliard, a pastor and state lawmaker from Rocky Mount. “What has jumped out for me around the Biden plan here is it touches on every area where inequity exists.”
On the issue of healthcare disparities, Gailliard said, “The reality is that ZIP code should not be the predictor of how long I live or the quality of life that I ought to be able to have. And I believe that the vice president’s plan addresses issues of equity as it relates to healthcare…. We got to look at issues of telehealth and issues of prevention and real conversations around social determinants of health, and I see this plan doing that. And I think it’s going to be a drastic improvement upon people’s lives.”
Mayor Colvin said the city of Fayetteville commissioned a study that found that “a significant number of people living in our community that were making an average wage [where] they couldn’t afford to live and pay the rent in our city.” He added, “I think the vice president’s plan — some of the critical points of that — one is raising the minimum pay wage, which is something that we’ve needed to do for some time. Seven or eight dollars an hour as a national standard is unacceptable. People can’t live off of that.”
Rep. Holley, a state lawmaker from Raleigh who is the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, said she’s not on board with Biden’s plan to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
“Some of the other panelists have hit upon it, with the living wage,” she said. “And I’m not saying increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, because what may be appropriate in Fayetteville may not be acceptable in Raleigh and may not work in Rocky Mount or some of the other areas of the state.”
But she said she supports the broad spirit of the Biden economic plan.
“One of the things this COVID had done is shown us how fragile our communities are,” Holley said. “And even before that they were falling through the cracks. Now, we have even middle-class people who are falling through the cracks. And this will put some emphasis in our communities that will shore up that bottom and go back to some basics first, like housing and food securities and jobs and workforce development. All of those things that are just critical right now, we have an opportunity to rebuild these institutions better than before.”
Holley’s comments captured the major theme of the Biden campaign, which is being pitched to voters as both a continuation of the Obama administration and responsive to the overlapping crises subsuming the country. As Jarrett said, “This is why President Biden sees this moment as an opportunity, not simply to help our country get back to where we were before the COVID-19 [pandemic] — that’s not where we want to be — or before Donald Trump was elected — but to build it back better — better than it’s ever been.”
Mayor Lyles seemed to seek approval from Jarrett, a Wilmington native, as the roundtable came to a close.
“I want you to recognize the passion, the strength, the courage, the knowledge that the panelists represent from North Carolina,” she said. “I hope that you’re still proud of this state, and I hope that you have seen and heard that we are ready for change.”
Jarrett, in turn, sought to reassure the state and local officials that the “Build Back Better” plan was responsive to the needs of North Carolinians.
“I am so confident that this plan developed by Vice President Biden reflects your interests,” she said. “And you know why? Because he listened to you in crafting it. This isn’t something that was done by a bunch of policy wonks in a vacuum. It was informed by the people whose lives it was intended to improve. And the conversation here tonight made more optimistic than ever that he’s getting it right.”
And, if not?
“And, look, we’ll evolve even further,” Jarrett said. “He’s open to all new and great ideas, and you know the door’s always open.”