In his speech today in Tulsa, Oklahoma, President Joe Biden said, “Only with truth can come healing and justice and repair.” I'd like to start this piece by discussing that truth.
100 years ago, a white mob of over 2,000 people launched what is widely believed to be the worst single incident of racial violence in American history. After a Black man was accused of an attempted sexual assault, a white mob was deputized by law enforcement to terrorize the Greenwood district in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in what would later be known as the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
This hub of economic prosperity in the post-Civil War era was known as "Black Wall Street." As many as 300 people were believed to be killed, 10,000 were displaced, and over 1,400 homes and businesses were looted and burned with at least $1.5 million worth of damage done (over $20 million in today's money). Firsthand accounts reported the use of mounted machine guns and even aircraft in the warlike assault. No one in the white mob was ever held accountable for this.
If this monstrous act of white supremacy wasn't enough, how the white community in Tulsa behaved afterwards caused decades of additional trauma. The Black community affected by this attack was promised a fund to rebuild. That fund never materialized. In fact, the community was blamed for the violence through a false characterization of the massacre as a "riot." Because of this, insurance companies denied claims from those who had their homes and businesses destroyed.
Why wasn't this massacre not well known to the entire country until recently? It was hidden from us. Although it's gotten more attention lately with depictions in shows like Watchmen and Lovecraft Country, there was a coordinated effort in Tulsa to bury the massacre. The white community was told not to discuss it in order to protect the reputation of Tulsa and the Black community was threatened with further retaliation if they spoke out. Tulsa officials sought to suppress the news of it, schools didn't teach it, and the massacre was largely ignored throughout the country.
This was a horrific crime against humanity, followed by a depraved cover-up and deprivation of justice for the Greenwood community and their descendants. While justice has not been served, the cover-up is being remedied with the truth being told.
Today, Joe Biden became the first president in American history to visit Greenwood to commemorate the Tulsa Massacre. Biden met privately with the victims of the massacre and their descendants, delivered a speech highlighting the brutality of the massacre, and announced new actions his administration is taking.
Biden went into detail, telling the full known story of the massacre and what was robbed of the people of Greenwood. He declared, unequivocally, “My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre.” That's important, especially given the nature of the insurance denials I mentioned earlier. Biden also mentioned that the threat of white supremacist terrorism remains, and cited the intelligence community's conclusion that white supremacy is the most lethal domestic extremist threat to the homeland. The simple act of the president of the United States telling the detailed, unadulterated truth was incredibly important — but the action that follows will be even more so.
Biden announced a new effort to combat racial discrimination in housing, from redlining to the discrimination in housing prices. Biden also pledged to increase the current 10 percent rate of federal contracts to disadvantaged businesses, including Black businesses, to 50 percent. He then pitched his current education and infrastructure proposals as being a form of assistance to close the racial wealth gap. Biden then went into an impassioned call for congressional action on voting rights legislation in response to the Republican Party's voter suppression bills, seemingly called out Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, and assigned Vice President Harris to lead that effort.
These are great announcements and a solid start, but true justice will only come if we follow the recommendations of the Tulsa Race Riot Commission that was formed in 1997 and dropped a report in 2001. Among the recommendations was a call for reparations for the families impacted by this massacre.
Unfortunately, the Tulsa Race Massacre is a microcosm of the generational wealth and opportunity robbed from Black Americans during slavery and after botched Reconstruction. The effects of this still reverberate today and need to be addressed in a robust, targeted manner. Biden's speech was excellent and important. Let's see if he follows it up with a sustained effort to fulfill his promises of true racial justice.
Reckoning with our history is the first step in rectifying it. This moment comes amid an attempt on the right to whitewash American history, from the impacts of slavery to the white supremacist violence of the January 6 insurrection that saw a Confederate battle flag waving in the Capitol building.
America is at its best when we recognize not only our greatness but our moral failures, and seek to rectify them. In spite of what critics of those who recognize America's past say, it’s not unpatriotic to right historical wrongs and seek to fully realize our stated ideals. In fact, there are few causes more patriotic than that.