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Biden Met With Survivors To Commemorate The Tulsa Race Massacre Anniversary

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

A solemn moment today in Tulsa - President Biden met with three survivors of a massacre that happened on this day 100 years ago. They were just children when their community was destroyed by a white mob. For years, the attack was covered up, for too long, Biden said. He had a moment of silence for the victims, and he talked about the importance of ending the silence about what happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: My fellow Americans, this was not a riot. This was a massacre.

KELLY: Biden said he went to Tulsa to make sure people know this part of history that we remember. Joining me now to talk about it, White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe.

Hey, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Hello.

KELLY: Speak more to the significance of this moment today.

RASCOE: It's been a century since this atrocity happened. And for a long time, it was actively covered up. There was no justice. It was downplayed as a race riot when it was an attack on this community that killed as many as 300 people and injured more, hundreds more. So to now have the president of the United States visit and commemorate the massacre is a significant moment, even if it is mostly symbolic, especially for a president - this president who has pledged to address systemic racism.

KELLY: And what was that moment like? We mentioned Biden met with several very elderly survivors.

RASCOE: Yeah, he toured the Greenwood Cultural Center, and he met privately with the three known survivors of the massacre before he gave his remarks. They're all over a hundred years old. During his remarks, Biden spoke in a personal manner and, at times, very passionately. He tried to draw this clear line between the massacre and the racism and discrimination that has continued in this country. Here's more of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: That hate became embedded systematically and systemically in our laws and our culture. We do ourselves no favors by pretending none of this ever happened or it doesn't impact us today because it does still impact us today. We can't just choose to learn what we want to know and not what we should know.

(APPLAUSE)

RASCOE: When he talked about the survivors, he addressed them the way elders are often addressed in the Black church, as Mother Fletcher and Mother Randle. And Biden was introduced by Lauren Usher, a descendent of a victim of the attack, who spoke powerfully about how this affected her family and community.

KELLY: So recognizing the massacre is no small thing, but we know that survivors - we know the community has asked for reparations to be made. Did the White House address that today?

RASCOE: They took pains to not address that issue head on. Essentially, the White House acknowledged that racism is the reason why the survivors have not received any compensation but stopped short of calling for reparations for them. A White House spokeswoman, Karine Jean-Pierre, said the White House is more focused on addressing current disparities by taking steps to fight things like redlining and underfunding for schools. She said that Biden has called for a study of reparations for African Americans in general, you know, not only tied to this attack.

KELLY: Give us some more details on that. What concrete steps is the Biden administration taking on racial equity?

RASCOE: They're going to try to increase federal contracts to businesses owned by people of color. They're also going to try to use the federal government to address some housing discrimination, but Biden also talked about trying to weave equity into all of his programs. But the Democrats have a slim majority, and he called out two moderate Democratic senators who he said often vote with Republicans. They actually don't, but he said they're making it difficult for him.

KELLY: NPR's Ayesha Rascoe at the White House, thank you.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.