TULSA, Okla. – Former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg visited the site of one of the worst racial massacres in American history Sunday, where he planned to announce new economic policies designed to help black voters recover from generations of systemic discrimination and racist terror.
The decision by one of the world’s wealthiest men to commemorate the 1921 Tulsa race riots was intended as a dramatic personal moment for his campaign, which hopes to win the Democratic presidential nomination with significant support from black voters.
Bloomberg’s campaign has been shadowed by criticism that as mayor he was insensitive to racial issues, including a highly controversial stop-and-frisk policy that he renounced last year. Sunday’s speech was notable for its sweeping pledges of direct aid to black voters and its laments about America’s racial violence.
Bloomberg’s prepared remarks bluntly acknowledged the advantages he received as a white businessman through his career, a departure from his typical description of himself as the embodiment of the American dream who had succeeded through hard work and skill. Born to a working-class family, Bloomberg is now worth more than $50 billion.
“As someone who has been very lucky in life, I often say my story would only have been possible in America – and that’s true,” he planned to say, according to the prepared remarks. “But I also know that my story might have turned out very differently if I had been black, and that more black Americans of my generation would have ended up with far more wealth had they been white.”
He cited generations of discrimination in education, housing, employment and other areas that has held back black Americans, joining a chorus of Democratic presidential candidates who have similarly promised to make black economic empowerment a priority in the White House.
To address the legacy of theseinjustices, Bloomberg said he would go beyond “modern-day attempts to legislate equal rights” and would provide direct support for those who have historically suffered from discrimination. He would set a goal to help 1 million black families buy a home, nearly double the number of black-owned businesses and triple the net worth of the typical black family, which currently owns one-tenth as much as the typical white family.
Without explaining how he would pay for the plans, his campaign also announced a $70 billion program that would focus on ameliorating racial and economic inequality in 100 communities around the country. Like other Democratic candidates, Bloomberg supports studying the concept of federal reparations for descendants of slaves, but has not endorsed any specific plan.
Bloomberg’s unconventional path to the White House depends on attracting moderate and affluent white suburban voters as well as gaining significant support from black voters who now largely support former vice president Joe Biden. Bloomberg still has a long way to go among both black voters and the broader Democratic electorate, according to current polls, which place him in fifth place nationally among all of the party’s voters.
A recent Washington Post-Ipsos poll showed him with 4 percent support of the black vote, well behind Biden, who had 48 percent support, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who has 20 percent. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has registered 9 percent support with the group, and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg continued to trail with 2 percent among African Americans.
Nearly half of black voters in the poll had no opinion of Bloomberg or had never heard of him. Of those who did hold an opinion, more had a favorable view than an unfavorable one.
In recent weeks, Bloomberg has received a number of high-profile endorsements from state and local black leaders, and his campaign schedule has been anchored by visits to majority nonwhite cities – Little Rock, Arkansas; Jackson, Mississippi; Stockton, California; and Memphis, to name a few. In effect, Bloomberg is seeking to counteract questions about his racial record by showing support from black leaders who know him, either through his stint as mayor or his activist and philanthropic donations.
Last year, his campaign responded to an open letter to Democratic presidential candidates written by four black Southern mayors – including Columbia, South Carolina, Mayor Stephen Benjamin, a co-chair of the Bloomberg campaign – outlining priorities they urged the candidates to embrace.
“Our administration will turn the usual relationship between cities and Washington – with the cities coming to the capital with tin cup in hand – upside down,” Bloomberg wrote on Dec. 30. “We will invest in progress that can be driven from the ground up.”
Despite his past support for unpopular policies like stop-and-frisk policing, Bloomberg aggressively courted black and Latino voters in his three successful mayoral campaigns in New York City. Stop-and-frisk is a policy of briefly searching individuals in an effort to prevent crime, but it has been criticized as encouraging police to inappropriately target minorities.
Bloomberg outperformed former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s previous support among blacks in his 2001 campaign, according to exit polls, and he won the support of nearly half of black voters in 2005. When he faced a black Democratic challenger in 2009, Bloomberg received about one in four black votes.
In the speech Sunday afternoon, he planned to demonstrate that he was continuing to learn about the black experience in the country. He was expected to express shock that he only recently learned the details of the 1921 riots in the Tulsa’s Greenwood neighborhood. Bloomberg awarded a $1 million grant through his philanthropic arm last year to pay for a public art project to commemorate the event.
The Tulsa riot, which occurred at a time of elevated racial tension in the city, began with an unverified and likely baseless claim in the Tulsa Tribune that a black shoe-shiner had tried to rape a white elevator operator, according to the Oklahoma Historical Society. A subsequent editorial in the paper was headlined, “To Lynch Negro Tonight.”
The assault by a white mob that followed destroyed more than 1,000 homes and businesses in a relatively prosperous middle class neighborhood in the city. Hundreds of black residents were arrested, and between 50 and 300 blacks were killed.
“I remember thinking: How is it possible that high schools and colleges don’t teach this? But as I came to understand: It wasn’t just Greenwood,” Bloomberg planned to say in the speech. “How many of us were taught in school about East Saint Louis in 1917, when a white mob killed more than two dozen black Americans? Or Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919, where a white mob slaughtered 200 black sharecroppers who dared to join a labor union? Or Rosewood, Florida, in 1923, when a white mob burned the whole town down?”
Bloomberg will cast the horror of those events as a feature of the black experience in the United States that cannot be ignored.
“For black Americans, there was nothing that white landowners, businesses, banks, and politicians might not take: Their wages and their homes, their businesses and their wealth, their votes and their power, and even their lives,” his remarks read.
Bloomberg joins a growing shift of Democratic candidates to more directly address historic racism at a time when the parties are ever more divided by race, with a growing percentage of the Democratic electorate comprised of voters of color.
Warren has promised $7 billion in grants for nonwhite entrepreneurs, more money for historically black schools and a large down-payment assistance program for people who live in communities that banks historically declined to serve.
Buttigieg has issued a “Douglass Plan” on racial justice, including policies that attempt to triple the number of black entrepreneurs and regulations that would encourage diversity among teachers.
Along with a $2.5 trillion housing plan, Sanders has proposed a commission to establish relief for victims of bank discrimination. Biden has highlighted environmental and health plans for communities of color, as well as increased funding for historically black education, but has so far stopped short of releasing housing or wealth plans specific to black Americans.
Before the speech, Bloomberg attended services at the Vernon Chapel AME Church, which is located in the Greenwood neighborhood. The congregation’s building was destroyed in the 1921 race riot, and members rebuilt at the current location seven years later.
“The phrase ‘do not be afraid’ is written in the Bible 365 times,” read the words posted on televisions hung in the main chapel as service began. “That’s a daily reminder from God to live every day being fearless.”