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Three years after Floyd's death, a reckoning for Biden's agenda on race

WASHINGTON — Three years after the murder of George Floyd sparked global protests and led then-candidate Joe Biden to endorse a broad platform of racial justice initiatives, the president is under pressure to prove to Black voters that he enacted as much of his equity agenda as possible — and that he remains committed to delivering for his most loyal supporters in a second term.

While Biden continues to receive relatively high marks from Black voters, he has not yet convinced most that his policies have improved their lives, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll of more than 1,200 Black Americans.

About a third of Black Americans (34%) say Biden’s policies have helped Black people, while 14% say they have hurt and 49% think they have made no difference, according to the Post-Ipsos poll. As Biden prepares to campaign for reelection and seeks to rebuild the coalition that vaulted him to the presidency, he will need to convince more Black voters that his presidency has met both the expectations he set during his 2020 run and the cultural moment, Democratic strategists say.

“Black voters’ contribution to Democratic margins, especially in these battleground states, are critical to Democrats’ success,” said Terrance Woodbury, a Democratic pollster. “A red wave for Republicans doesn’t require a wave of Black voters voting Republican; it just requires a splintering of (our) coalition by 10,000 votes here or 20,000 votes there.”

Coalition must be strong

Racial justice issues present a key vulnerability that could prompt Democratic “slippage” in the 2024 presidential race, Woodbury added.

Inside the White House, the anniversary of Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police has become an annual occasion for Biden to reassure Black voters that he is working on racial justice issues. The president has marked the date each year with fresh action or comments on police reform.

“George Floyd’s murder exposed for many what Black and Brown communities have long known and experienced — that we must make a whole of society commitment to ensure that our nation lives up to its founding promise of fair and impartial justice for all under the law,” Biden said in a statement Thursday, calling on Congress to pursue “genuine solutions” on police accountability.

On Thursday, Biden also plans to mark the third anniversary by vetoing a bill passed by Congress aimed at overturning a D.C. policing overhaul, according to White House officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity ahead of the veto. The policing legislation, which includes many of the same proposals Biden has sought to enact at the federal level, was passed in response to Floyd’s murder.

Congress has the authority to overturn statutes passed by the D.C. Council, and it did so with the policing bill last week. The bipartisan vote offered a stark reminder of how the politics of race and criminal justice have changed since Floyd was killed May 25, 2020, and Biden embraced the Black Lives Matter movement amid a surge in national support for overhauling law enforcement practices.

In 2021, Biden asked Congress to send him policing legislation by May 25, telling Floyd’s family that he wanted to sign the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act on the anniversary of his murder.

After that bill failed in Congress, Biden marked the second anniversary last year by signing a series of executive actions aimed at implementing new accountability measures for federal law enforcement officers.

Facing growing opposition

Today, Biden faces a complex political landscape as he tries to advance his racial justice agenda amid a rising backlash against diversity initiatives and urban crime. Most of the Republican candidates vying to unseat Biden, including former president Donald Trump, have campaigned on the idea that Biden’s ongoing focus on racial issues is itself a form of racism.

In remarks this month to graduating students at Howard University, the president said “sinister forces” are trying to turn back the clock on racial progress. He acknowledged that many young Black voters are “frustrated that there are so many elected officials who refuse to pass a law that will do something” about police brutality.

But he also used the opportunity to tout his accomplishments for the Black community, including record-low unemployment and equity initiatives on health, climate, education, student loans, criminal justice and representation in government. He declared white supremacy “the most dangerous terrorist threat to our homeland.”

The Biden administration said Thursday it had made significant progress in implementing the sweeping executive orders Biden signed May 25, 2022, instructing the Justice Department to implement a ban on chokeholds and carotid restraints for federal officers, begin requiring agents to wear body cameras, and limit the use of “no-knock warrants,” among other measures.

A model for changes

Because they are presidential orders and not laws, those changes affect only federal officers and agents, not the thousands of local and state police departments across the country. Floyd was killed after local Minneapolis police officers knelt on his back and neck for more than nine minutes, suffocating him.

White House officials have said they believe the president’s actions can be a model for changes at the local level by demonstrating that police accountability and public safety can be appropriately balanced.

But the effort has not been without challenges. For example, the federal police accountability database Biden announced a year ago has not been officially launched.

“At this point, we don’t have a firm deadline yet on when the database will be online,” said one White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity ahead of the anniversary announcements.

Change has not come fast enough for Shauntey Singletary, a 34-year-old nurse practitioner from Rehoboth Beach, Del., who said that Biden has not done enough for the Black community.

Looking for evidence

“I haven’t really seen any change on any of the stuff that he was promoting when he was running for the presidency, or the things that he was saying that he was going to do for the Black community. I haven’t seen that occur,” Singletary said, noting that there have been several viral recordings of police violence against Black people in the years since Floyd was murdered. “Police brutality has not changed; it’s gotten worse.”

Asked what she would do in the case of a Trump-Biden rematch in 2024, Singletary sighed, likening the choice to “robbing Peter to pay Paul.” Pressed on the matter, she said, “I would definitely not vote for Trump.”

In a potentially positive sign for Biden, opposition to another Trump term is particularly strong among Black voters, the Post-Ipsos poll found. More than half say they would be “angry” if Trump were to return to the White House and nearly 8 in 10 say they would not consider voting for Trump against Biden.

At the same time, excitement for another Biden term is muted, with 17% saying they would be “enthusiastic” if Biden were reelected and 48% saying they would be “satisfied but not enthusiastic.” Only 8% of Black Americans say they would be “angry” if Biden were reelected.

About two-thirds of Black Americans (66%) approve of how Biden is handling his job as president, down slightly from the 70% who said the same in 2022. For comparison, a recent Post-ABC News poll of Americans overall found that 36% approved of Biden’s job as president, while some other polls show him in the low 40s.

Charles, a 61-year-old government contractor from Gaithersburg, Md., said he “approved somewhat” of the president and that he thought Biden’s policies have helped Black people.

“Biden’s been able, from the White House, to resist the kinds of retrograde policies that are being pushed by the House,” he said in an interview, declining to give his last name for privacy reasons. “Culture can’t change very quickly, but putting a wall up against retrograde policies proposed by Republicans is what he has done.”

White House officials blamed Republicans for blocking much of Biden’s equity agenda, including on policing, an area in which bipartisan discussions broke down in late 2021 over legislation that would have banned chokeholds and created new police accountability measures on a national basis.

Ben Crump, a prominent civil rights attorney who represented Floyd’s family, said that even though the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act has not passed, Biden should continue using the bully pulpit to call for action at the state and local level. With Republicans in control of the House, Democrats and civil rights activists have little hope that a federal policing bill could pass before the next election.

Biden’s decision to veto Congress’s rejection of D.C.’s policing overhaul allows him to use his presidential authority to influence policy at the municipal level, where Crump said much of the action on police reform is now taking place. The D.C. legislation restricts certain use-of-force tactics, prevents the hiring of officers with past misconduct, and expands public access to police disciplinary records and body-camera footage in excessive-force incidents, among other things.

The GOP-controlled House voted to reject the legislation last month, and the disapproval resolution passed the Senate last week by a vote of 56-43. Several Democrats crossed the aisle to support the Republican legislation, citing rising crime and other concerns.

Biden said that while he did not agree with everything in the D.C. legislation, he did not support Congress’s move to block “common-sense police reforms” at the local level.

Crump said Biden should continue to speak out against police brutality in local cases, if only to bolster his own political standing. “He can never use his bully pulpit enough,” he said. “Especially when he goes into the 2024 election, they’re going to need a big Black voter turnout. It would be good for them to demonstrate that he did all that he could do to help the Black community on such an important point issue to us.”

The Post-Ipsos poll was conducted through the Ipsos KnowledgePanel from April 28 through May 12 among a random national sample of 1,225 non-Hispanic Black adults. Results have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

City partners with Temple University to stem lifeguard shortage

The city of Philadelphia’s Parks and Recreation Department has announced a partnership with Temple University that would incentivize currently enrolled Temple students to become lifeguards by offering course credit.

On Thursday, department Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell shared the first details about the “innovative partnership” between Parks and Rec and Temple’s College of Public Health that is aimed at stemming what has become a national shortage in lifeguards for public pools, according to a news release.

“This first-of-its-kind partnership provides a unique opportunity to Temple students to explore the field of kinesiology while lifeguarding with the city,” said Ott Lovell. “Our lifeguards are crucial to providing city residents the safe, fun summer they deserve.”

The new program, which involves collaboration between PPR and Temple University’s Kinesiology Physical Activity Program (KPAP), would allow Temple students to earn three college credit hours provided they become certified and work as a city lifeguard over the summer.

Students at Temple will be incentivized to attend the city’s free lifeguard training that is available seven days a week at various locations around the city, and could be given the opportunity to work at one of six public pools that are located within a mile of Temple’s campus.

In order to pass the department’s Lifeguard Screening Test, students will be challenged to: swim 300 yards nonstop in either freestyle or breaststroke, tread water for two minutes using only one’s legs, and retrieving a 10-pound brick from a deep well within a minute and 40 seconds.

“Lifeguards are certified first-responders whose training requires them to acquire a detailed knowledge of life-saving heart health,” said Jack V. Sears, KPAP program director.

“Parks and Rec offers this incredible Red Cross certification to our students, and in return we are able to help staff the city’s free public pools — a true win-win for Temple and its neighbors in the surrounding community.”

The city is encouraging interested Temple students to enroll in a lifeguard training course by June 1 in order to take advantage of the initiative.

The city needs more than 400 lifeguards to open all of its pools. Without the necessary staffing, not as many pools could open or many would open with limited hours.

Earlier this year, the city started offering bonuses of up to $1,000 to become a lifeguard to boost recruitment.

Last summer, a lifeguard shortage kept about a third of the nation’s over 300,000 public swimming pools closed, or partially open. According to the American Lifeguard Association’s director of health and safety B.J. Fisher, the situation could be just as bad this year.

Philadelphia superintendent unveils 5-year strategic plan

A new curriculum, a pilot program for year-round education for 10 schools, recruiting and retaining teachers and student and staff safety are among the priorities in School District of Philadelphia superintendent Tony Watlington Sr. five-year strategic plan.

Watlington presented his plan to the Board of Education, the school district’s governing body, Thursday. The board will vote on the plan June 1. If the plan is implemented it will launch in July.

The plan comes nearly a year into Watlington’s tenure and covers five priority areas and 63 strategic actions. The plan is a result of Watlington’s listening and learning tour with 3,300 stakeholders during his first 100 days as superintendent.

“This is our roadmap for how we’re going to align all of our resources in the school district, so that the school district can get better faster,” Watlington said.

In the plan, the district would replace security cameras at 150 schools, continue investments in mental health initiatives and expand the safe path program, which is a collaboration between the district, businesses and community members that aims to provide extra supervision for students traveling to and from school during dismissal periods.

The district would also continue to upgrade the school buildings and evaluate open gate weapons detection technology for stand alone-middle schools.

“We’re going to audit all of the social and emotional and mental health programs that we have in the district right now and figure out which ones work best,” Watlington said.

“We’re also going to launch a facilities project team with internal and external people so that we can finalize the process for exactly how we will bring our facilities up to 21st-century learning standards,” he added.

Watlington said the district will continue to partner with parents and community members in the district. He said the best way to do that is by improving communication at the district’s administration building.

In the plan, the district will launch a two-way communication system that will give community members an opportunity to rate their interaction with the school district.

Watlington’s plan also includes paid parent ambassadors at schools and re-starting the Parent University Program.

The program, which was originally introduced by former superintendent Arlene Ackerman, educates parents on how to help their children achieve academic success at home.

To improve student learning, the plan calls for access to quality pre-k programs. The district would spend $70 million over two years on a math, reading and science curriculum. According to Watlington, federal funds will supplement the district’s budget for the curriculum.

“The staff has told me that we’ve not been able to buy a robust science curriculum in 20 years because the district has been historically underfunded,” Watlington said.

“We’ve done the research to see what curriculum is rated the best for the students we serve in our school district and we’re going to buy those, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have a good curriculum already.” he said.

In terms of academics, the plan also calls for high-impact tutoring in six to eight schools, the launch of swim programs in various schools, reducing school dropouts, increasing graduation rates as well as launching a financial literacy module for all high schools.

The district would also launch a pilot program for year-round education in 10 schools. In the United States, students attend school for about 180 days a year, with months-long breaks over the summer and smaller breaks during the school year.

In the year-round school model, the calendar reduces the summer break and allocates those days throughout the school year, which would produce more frequent breaks and limit long periods of in-session days as well as longer vacations, according to the National Association of Year-Round Education.

However, both the traditional calendar year for students and the year-round school calendar would still have 180 days of instruction.

According to the National Association of Year-Round Education, 11 states have school districts following the year-round school model including Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin. The model is also popular overseas in countries like Japan, Australia, China and India.

“Research says students lose some of what they learned during the summer, we want to eliminate the summer slide,” Watlington said. “We want to give children more time by extending the school day, or adding more days, beyond 180 days.

“We’re going to meet with the community, go into schools and talk with parents to share the research in very user-friendly ways,” he said. “We’re going to give parents the opportunity to opt into participation in a year-round school model.”

Recruiting and retaining teachers is another priority in the plan. The district wants to develop a teacher preparation middle college high school in partnerships with colleges, universities and the Center for Black Educator Development.

The district also wants to recruit more Black and Latino male teachers and expand “Grow Your Own,” an apprenticeship that allows teacher candidates to go to school for free and get paid to teach.

According to the National Teacher and Principal Survey, nearly 1.3% of public school teachers were Black men in the 2020-21 school year.

The final priority in the plan is high-quality and cost-effective operations. The district wants to develop an evaluation system for all central-office employees and provide the staffing, resources and training necessary to meet “school cleanliness standards.”

The district will also review the school selection process. In March, teachers and students from Philadelphia magnet schools protested the possible budget and staffing cuts due to flaws in the district’s school selection process.

Watlington said the implementation of the strategic plan is the next step in making Philadelphia “the fastest-improving large urban school district in the country.”

“If we all wrap our arms together, as one community, one Philadelphia, we can use this strategic plan as a roadmap to significantly improve educational outcomes and life outcomes for all of our children, especially the Black and brown kids who’ve been underperforming,” he said.

“We can position ourselves to be the fastest improving a large urban school district and I absolutely believe together we can do it.”

City Council to examine prison escape

City Council passed a resolution Thursday, authorizing its committee on public safety to hold hearings to determine how two dangerous inmates escaped from a city prison on May 7, and how to prevent future escapes.

Both were recaptured in days, but the escape put the city and law enforcement community on edge.

“We have to make sure that we cross all of our T’s and dot our I’s, to see to it that that this type of incident never happens again,” said At-large Councilmember Sharon Vaughn, who introduced it. “It’s a tragedy that they were able to get away from a penal system that was supposed to keep them within their walls.”

The resolution was co-sponsored by 10 of her colleagues including District Councilmembers Mark Squilla, D-1st; Kenyatta Johnson, D-2nd; Jamie Gauthier, 3rd; Michael Driscoll, 6th; Quetcy Lozada, 7th; Anthony Phillips, 9th; Brian O’Neill, 10th; along with Councilmembers-at-Large Kendra Brooks-WFP; Jim Harrity- D; and Katherine Gilmore Richardson-D.

At about 8:30 p.m. on May 7, inmates Ameen Hurst, 18, and Nasir Grant, 24, escaped from the Philadelphia Industrial Correctional Center (PICC) by leaving the grounds and passing through a hole cut out of a fence. Despite three routine head counts, the absence of Hurst and Grant was not discovered until May 8.

At that point, the Philadelphia Police and the Philadelphia Department of Prisons, held a joint news conference to announce the escape.

On May 11, Grant, who was facing narcotics, firearm and theft charges, was rearrested and taken in custody with the help of the Philadelphia Police Northeast Detective Division and the U.S. Marshals. Hurst, accused of four separate homicide shootings, was captured May 17. Four other people outside of the prison and on the inside have been charged with aiding the escape.

Vaughn said the public deserves to know how the prison escape happened.

“Who was asleep at the wheel?” Vaughn said. “We know that there are a lot of problems going on in our prisons. They need to be addressed and they need to be corrected. We need to make sure that those who belong behind the walls remain so that those of us out here in society are not at risk.”

Meanwhile, Prison Commissioner Blanche Carney, who was appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney in 2016, has asked its Office of Professional Compliance to investigate the escape, which includes review of security tapes, staff assignments, telephone logs and all other related evidence.

For his part, Kenney has asked Gov. Josh Shapiro for a security and vulnerability review by the state Department of Corrections.

Ironically, on May 2, members of Local 159, District Council 33, which represents correctional offices at the city prisons, made a unanimous vote of “no confidence” in Carney, citing an ongoing staffing crisis and unsafe working conditions.

According the union, the prison system is down by about 800 positions, or about 42% of its budgeted positions.

“They stopped hiring in 2018 and it just went downhill from there,” said. David Robinson, president Of Local 159. “They started taking officers from day shift to night shift. Over 80 left and it just kept going down and down from there. Then the pandemic hit.”

Kenney’s office has said it is working on addressing the staffing issues.

In related business, Council President Darrell Clarke introduced a resolution calling for the creation of a task force, to explore how Temple University might better use its resources to help the surrounding neighborhoods with things like scholarships, jobs and recreation.

Clarke said the resolution is in response to release of a safety and security audit for Temple University by former city Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey, which called for a Community-Temple Safety Partnership Zone, to work towards making the school and surrounding communities safer.

Clarke said it would also explore bringing in state and federal resources to help.

‘It didn’t really deal with the underlying issues in the surrounding communities,” Clarke said, such as student-community tension. “While we want to discuss the Ramsey proposal we also want to have a discussion about those issues that have been discussed for years and years around the community.”