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Biden Tells Racial Justice Meeting, 'We've Kept Our Promises'

That includes pardoning thousands of inmates convicted on federal marijuana charges.

President Joe Biden speaks to the National Action Network Convention remotely from the South Court Auditorium of the White House, Friday, April 12, 2024, in Washington.
President Joe Biden speaks to the National Action Network Convention remotely from the South Court Auditorium of the White House, Friday, April 12, 2024, in Washington.
AP Photo/Alex Brandon

NEW YORK (AP) β€” President Joe Biden virtually addressed the Rev. Al Sharpton's racial justice conference on Friday, telling a sympathetic crowd "we've kept our promises" as he ramps up efforts to energize Black voters who will be vital to his reelection bid this fall.

Addressing several hundred attendees at the annual National Action Network Convention in New York, Biden ticked through a long list of what he said were some of his administration's key accomplishments for Black Americans. He detailed providing federal public works funding to reconnect city neighborhoods that were divided decades ago when highways were built, and also investing billions in historically Black colleges and universities.

"Together, we've kept our promises to make some of the most significant investments in the Black American community ever," Biden said. He also noted his pardoning thousands of inmates convicted on federal marijuana charges, combating racial discrimination in the real estate market and canceling student debts for millions of Americans.

He called that "transformational change" but said, "We know there's 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 for a Black man whose murder by Minneapolis police in 2020 sparked widespread racial justice protests and calls for federal legislation.

Biden is facing a November rematch with Republican former President Donald Trump, who has tried to step up his own a ppeal to Black voters.

Trump has suggested that his four criminal indictments have boosted his standing with members of the key voting bloc because they see him as a victim of discrimination β€” comparing his legal jeopardy to the historic legacy of anti-Black prejudice in the U.S. legal system. The former president has also repeatedly compared himself to anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, arguing that federal and state prosecutors have targeted him and his businesses for political reasons.

Although Biden historically enjoys high 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 by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Just over half said they approve.

Biden didn't mention Trump by name in his speech Friday, but referred to opposition by top Republicans to abortion rights and expanded access to the ballot box in stressing, "There are real threats we face."

"There are more extreme voices out there who simply don't want to see people of color in the future of our country," the president said.

Terrence Floyd, George Floyd's brother, said it meant a lot to hear Biden pledge to keep pursuing reforms in his sibling's name.

"For him to still be adamant on passing that bill, I appreciate it," he said. "He's got the Floyd family behind him."

The act passed the then-Democrat-controlled House in 2021, but stalled in a Senate where Republicans held a majority.

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

Biden's virtual speech capped a week of appearances from administration officials and other prominent local and national leaders. Vice President Kamala Harris addressed the convention in person last year.

Elaine Duval, of New York City, said she found the president to be genuine in his appeals to Black voters and that she doesn't "think that he has gotten the praise and merit that he deserves." But she also suggested that Biden missed an opportunity to address the suffering of Palestinians amid Israel's war with Hamas in the Gaza strip.

"Oppression of any people anywhere is oppression of humanity," Duval said. "And Black people, the Black race, we have been used to oppression and subjugation. I wish he had mentioned that because they are our kinfolk. He should bring the power of the presidency to bear upon that."

As he travels the country campaigning for reelection, Biden has frequently faced protesters decrying 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 recounting his years of engagement 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 those that want our voters, that want to take us for granted and show us some gold sneakers and other foolishness."

"We want to know about 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 press for what we need. But at least he's on the right track," Malone said. "Sometimes a half a chicken is better than no chicken at all."

Malone said Biden didn't sound like a politician taking the Black vote for granted, as Trump has suggested top Democrats do.

"The president is in a position to empower us to empower him," Malone said. "He needs our vote. We need him."

__ Weissert reported from Washington.

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