Joe Biden: (APPLAUSE) Thank you. Members of the United States Congress and the Cabinet, distinguished guests, my fellow Americans, I stand here tonight one day shy of the 100th day in my administration. 100 days since I took the oath of office, and lifted my hand off our family Bible, and inherited a nation—we all did—that was in crisis.
Trymaine Lee: That's President Joe Biden on Wednesday giving his first address to a joint session of Congress to mark the end of his first 100 days in office.
Biden: After 100 days of rescue and renewal, America is ready for a takeoff in my view. Together, we passed the American Rescue Plan. We kept our commitment, sending $1,400 rescue checks to 85% of American households. We're also providing rental assistance, providing loans to small businesses to reopen and keep their employees on the job. (APPLAUSE) After I promised we'd get 100 million COVID-19 vaccine shots into people's arms in 100 days, we will have provided over 220 million COVID shots in those 100 days (APPLAUSE) thanks to all the help of all of you. With your help...
Lee: 100 days, it's this milestone we've always judged modern presidents by. They even campaign on what they can get done in those first hundred days. And then we get to check them on those promises. But Joe Biden made a different kind of promise a few months back. We talked about it on this very podcast. There's a moment in his victory speech way back in November where he thanked Black supporters for success in the primaries and the general election.
Biden: And especially those moments where this campaign was at its lowest ebb, the African American community stood up again for me. (APPLAUSE) They always had my back, and I'll have yours.
Lee: "I'll have your back," he said. And from a distance, it looks like Black voters feel he's been true to that. A new NBC News poll out this week shows Biden's approval rating among Black voters is 83%. That's compared with 53% overall. Now, that's pretty high.
But I've spent the last few days in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It's a state that barely flipped back to blue in 2020 and a city where, for a number of reasons, Black turnout actually dropped in some neighborhoods. There's a feeling here that the president can and should do even more.
Danell Cross: First of all, we didn't come out for Joe Biden. We came out for us.
Melody Mccurtis: We don't want you to kumbayah with us. We want some action.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, Black voters in Milwaukee give me a real honest take on President Biden's first 100 days. I met Danell Cross and Melody McCurtis on Wednesday morning in Metcalfe Park, a neighborhood that's overwhelmingly Black.
Danell, who is 56, and Melody, who is 27, are a mother/daughter super duo. They run Metcalfe Park Community Bridges, a small grassroots organization that tries to make life better for people in the neighborhood. To do advocacy work around housing, education, poverty, and civic engagement.
Getting folks out to vote is a big priority for them. I talked to them about voter outreach, the big issues facing Metcalfe Park, and President Biden's performance so far. Day one of the Biden administration, who was more skeptical and who was more hopeful? Was she more skeptical?
Cross: Oh yes. (LAUGH) So I'm old. And I really hadn't picked Biden to back. But I remember watchin' them going to this church. I think it was in Selma, I think. And who was that rich guy that was runnin'? I can't remember his name.
Cross: Bloomberg was runnin'. And when those Black women stood up and turned their back, I said, "Oh, they've made a decision. And so the way I was raised is when the mother said, "Do somethin'," that's what you do. And so that's when I made the decision that, "This is what they said. This is what I'm gonna do."
And so it was because of our different generations. It was because our young people wanted to see some radical change. But I felt that that was not gonna happen right now. And so I said, "We have to come together around this candidate," not just to get in the White House, to protect Black life.
McCurtis: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Cross: We had a president that was inciting violence against Black life. First, we gotta live. And then we change. But first, we gotta live.
McCurtis: So this is the thing with young folks. We about that action, right?
Cross: Amen. (LAUGH)
McCurtis: You know, we know change takes time, but some things can be instant. Some things can be radical, right? I'm not impressed, right? I have never been impressed by any of the presidents. I don't want to be impressed, right? I don't want to be hopeful. I just want to be valued. And that's a real thing. So for me, he's at a C, and that's a high grade, I think, for me. (LAUGHTER)
Lee: You're givin' him a little love.
Lee: You're showing love--
McCurtis: I think it's a high grade. I need another stimulus, Biden, you know? (LAUGH) Need $2,000, 2K. But, no. (LAUGHTER) Every month, every month. But, you know, I think young Black folks are saying, "We can't be bought. We can't be bought. Things are owed to us." Right? And we don't want you to kumbayah with us. We want some action.
Lee: How do you think he's doing? Give me a grade.
Cross: I'll give him a B.
Lee: Okay, solid B?
Cross: I'll give him a B. I'll give him a B.
Lee: A B with room for improvement? There's a pathway to get--
Lee: --an A?
Cross: Listen. Listen. (LAUGHTER) He know how to get that A. Biden know how to get that A.
Lee: Okay. Where do you think he's succeeded, and where do you think he's still lagging behind?
Cross: Well, I think that he's been really successful in getting money to the ground level. And that's surprising. I didn't expect that. When people talk about, you know, continuing the unemployment, they're forgetting the people that wasn't employed in the first place, right? So I'm really happy about that.
But where I see him lacking is in communication. I don't need you to tell me one time that you got my back. I need you to tell the world that you got our back in voting rights. I need you to prioritize that. I need my vote to count, I need to be able to do it easily, and I need my children's vote to count.
So I'm looking for him to be more vocal and to prioritize that. The other reason that I think he's doing a really good job is that he's surrounding himself with people from diverse backgrounds. And I want him to ensure that they have the ability to speak in his ear because I need somebody that's like me, that has some experiences like me to be talking to him about what I need.
Lee: Why do you think in such an important election year that Black voter participation kind of slightly dipped here?
Cross: Well, I do believe that misinformation really, really helped to decrease our voter turnout. Now, I'm proud to say that Metcalfe Park's voter turnout increased.
Lee: So your community--
Cross: Our community--
Lee: --the numbers went up?
Cross: --increased. But we have the resources to get out there. We had the resources to talk to people and help them to navigate the way voting changed, to be able to get those absentee ballots, to be able to understand how to fill 'em out. Our folks was not used to voting by mail. They didn't trust it.
And so I think that's why that it dipped. COVID-19, the effect of COVID-19 on communities that's already in distress. The depression that's runnin' rampant is enough to keep you at home. But I really think the misinformation was at the top of the list.
Lee: You know, Black people came out in force for Joe Biden, and we find ourselves now in a situation where voting rights are under attack. Do you think Joe Biden has done enough to protect the voting rights of the Black community and Black voters?
McCurtis: No, because we're still going through it, right? So, you know, even after the presidential election, we just had an election in April for the MPS school board of directors, our state superintendent, different things like that. We also had, you know, folks saying that our count was off.
I mean, we're going through all of this. We're still in the thick of it. And I don't see a difference from, you know, this year, April 2021, versus April 7th. The only difference is it wasn't a lotta lines and all of our polling locations were open. But they still had to go through all of them steps.
"Oh, you can't register past this day online. You have to bring all of this in." You know, all of these different hoops we're still going through a year later, and we could've learned a lot from the previous administration and we coulda learned a lot from 2020's elections, right, on how to troubleshoot moving forward.
Lee: So certainly a lot of these voting laws are state voting laws. But we saw what happened years ago with the gutting of section five of the Voting Rights Act. Do you think it's time for Joe Biden to push some sort of federal protections or to bolster federal voting protections?
McCurtis: We definitely need some federal protections, right? When we say that, you know, this country is for all, right, and we value all, and different things like that, make that happen on a federal level. I want to be able to just vote without goin' through the hassle, right? (LAUGH) I want to be able to actually take two hours off to go vote and it doesn't even take me that long. So, yes, I definitely want him to fight for our rights at the federal level so in four years we actually have the opportunity to vote.
Lee: Talk about the way that COVID-19 has impacted, you know, voting behavior, getting people out there, depression. Our community has dealt with a lot of death, right? Black folks have been more likely to get COVID-19, to die from COVID-19.
Lee: And then there are other barriers to access in terms of getting the vaccine. And I wonder if you think Joe Biden and the administration has done enough to kind of break down some of those barriers to access and actually provide the healing that this community, our communities, are still needing.
Cross: Well, I think that there's only so much that Biden can do to break down those barriers. He sent the resources. It's up to our local officials to do the rest. And what I'm seeing is that they're not putting equity in the front. They need to put equity in the front.
We know that the percentage of white people that got vaccinated in the beginning was through the roof. They brought it to Black communities as an afterthought. It shoulda been in the front. If you know that this group of people are gonna be more hesitant, start here. And so what Metcalfe Park is doing is we have our own vaccination clinics that we set up. We're going door to door to talk to the people. And we're not funded by the state or the federal.
McCurtis: That shoulda been stipulated with the resources that come down. Because what I'm seein' is somebody sayin', "Hey, I sent money for that, and it's on them now," when you have the opportunity to change things at the top level so that it can really benefit our community.
Lee: Melody, a lotta Black people are pretty cynical about the process of politics because our general lot in life often doesn't change much regardless of the administration. With that being said, Joe Biden has talked more about race and equity and justice than any president that I can recall, even more than President Barack Obama, right?
McCurtis: Uh-huh (AFFIRM).
Lee: And I wonder if Joe Biden has done anything to assuage that cynicism from some Black folks who say, "You don't care about us. Y'all gonna do what you're gonna do." Has anything he's done, you know, moved people a little bit you think?
McCurtis: I think theory with no practice means nothin', right? I think that, you know, people that I'm in community with directly on the ground, you know, they appreciate some of these things, right? But they sayin', you know, "Is this all that's possible?" You know, I got a stimulus. I'm caught up on my bills now, but I still don't have a job. And there's nothing else comin'.
So I think that, you know, Black people want to see more. They want more to happen. A lotta Black folks don't know what's possible because we never had anything past this, right? You know, I want somebody to be bold, right? And being bold is like declarin', like, "Black people have been treated poorly and unfairly," right?
"And to correct that, I'm gonna apologize and I'm also gonna do X, Y, and Z." And I think this is the right opportunity for him to really do somethin' that's really gonna show Black people that we matter, that we're valued, and that we're human beings. 'Cause right now, we're not even seen as human beings. So if we're not seen as human beings, we're never gonna be valued in a way that really supports and benefits us as a whole.
Lee: But what could he do to show and prove to you and our community that he means what he said?
Cross: I think the challenge for Biden is that I think it's risky for him to just say, "We need to do something to support Black people to come up to the place where they shoulda been in the first place." And I think that's risky. But I'm asking him to take the risk. I need him to take the risk.
I need him to look at the disparities in home ownership, look at how these landlords are, you know, just purging our pockets with this excessive amount of rent where people only have a couple of dollars left and can't never take their kids to a movie.
Look at those types of experiences and make some difference directly to them. So that Child Tax Credit is a good start, but I'm sayin' a guaranteed income would be better. And I know that people once they can get out of this pit that they're in will be able to make some strides.
Work from the bottom up. The corporations, they done already got taken care of. I mean, they have really blossomed under this pandemic. But my community hasn't. My community is suffering, and I need somebody to listen to the silent cries because Black people don't even get to complain out loud. Well, I'm complainin' out loud. My community needs some help.
Lee: Danell Cross and Melody McCurtis run Metcalfe Park Community Bridges. Coming up, we hear from two Milwaukee business owners about how they think Biden has done in his first hundred days.
Lee: So, JoAnne, who did you vote for in 2020?
Joanne Sabir: I voted for Biden.
Lee: Let me ask you. So did you vote for Joe Biden?
Maanaan Sabir: I voted for Joe Biden.
Lee: Do you feel good about the vote?
M. Sabir: Um... (SIGH) that's my answer. (LAUGHTER) That's a tough one. I obviously don't know if I really felt good about the vote.
Lee: JoAnne and Maanaan Sabir, both 42, are a Milwaukee power couple. Between the two of 'em, get this. They own a pizza place, a coffee shop, a real estate company, and JoAnne is co-developer of the Sherman Phoenix, a commercial hub designed to uplift Black business owners. Now, if that sounds familiar at all, you might remember them from an Into America episode back in December about the challenges and resiliency of Black-owned shops and restaurants during the pandemic.
Male Voice (sung): Welcome to the home of healing named the Sherman Phoenix. It's a song, it's a poem, it's a remix. It's a meal with friends...
Lee: Maanaan and I go back a while. And he and JoAnne always know what's up. So when I found out I was headed to Milwaukee, I just knew I had to get up with 'em. So we're 100 days into Biden's president this week, and I wonder: How do y'all think he's done so far? He's done a good job, a not-so-good job? What are y'all thinking?
M. Sabir: I think he's done a B-.
Lee: A B-.
M. Sabir: Yes.
Lee: That's not bad.
M. Sabir: That's not bad. That's not bad. I think the B- stands for giving some type of concessions to the people that really need it. And we really need it. Here at the Sherman Phoenix, we have a lotta people that come in from our community, from outside the community that really want to see small business work. So we have a lot of first-time business owners that are just making it. And they want to make it make it. So I think he's done a fantastic job in that respect, but I still give him a B-.
Lee: Give me a letter grade.
J. Sabir: Whoo!
Lee: How is Joe Biden doing? Give me a grade--
J. Sabir: A letter grade, let me see. I think I'm a strong B. Yeah, I'm a strong B.
Lee: A B's not bad.
J. Sabir: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Lee: So what issues matter most to you, and how do you think Joe Biden has handle them?
J. Sabir: I think systemic racism and business. I'm a business owner. I'm a Black woman in community. And those two issues are paramount for me.
Lee: Well, let's talk about from the business side. You know, he came in saying that he was gonna try to right this ship. You know, PPP but also, you know, really just some economic help. Do you think he stuck to his word? Do you think he's done enough?
J. Sabir: Absolutely. He's doing it. It's happening. You know, of course I want everything with expedience, owning several businesses, six businesses. And, you know, I'm wearing a shirt, the moniker, "We survived COVID." We had to do a lot of pivoting, but we don't want to think that we're in the clear.
You know, a lot of consumer desire has shifted. And so we need to shift with that as business owners, and we need financial support to be able to do that. So I think it's important to know that we're not out of the clear. Although the vaccines are rolling out and people are seeking, and searching, and wanting some sense of normalcy, that as business owners—and specifically one of our businesses is a restaurant—we're still struggling. You know, we're still doing our very best to ride this current that exists.
Lee: Now, Joe Biden has said that he was gonna have the backs of Black people because Black folks have always supported him and he will support Black people. Do you think he's stuck by his word?
J. Sabir: Yeah, well, from a business perspective, I think the funding has been general. I don't think that the funding-- well, I know that I haven't seen any funding that's specifically allocated for Black businesses. So, for instance, I've seen advances in the COVID-19 SBA grants that spoke to restaurants, that spoke to theater and venues, but nothing that specifically spoke to Black businesses that have historic—even pre-COVID—troubles to find, you know, access to capital remain an issue. So I haven't seen it through that lens. I have not.
M. Sabir: I think that he stayed true to the fact that he wanted to offer some relief to the people of small business America. And he stayed true to that. Needless to say, he hasn't addressed the fact that we need reparations. And, you know, there's mathematical equations for each and every Black American here in America to receive, you know, a certain amount of money for reparations. And our president is saying, "We're not gonna address those issues." Then what that means is that there's still a large wealth gap. What are we doing as a people to be disregarded and pushed aside by our own president who we helped elect?
Lee: For you, having our back means reparations?
M. Sabir: For me, it means economic empowerment, period. It means economic empowerment. Just show me the money and, you know, get out the way.
Lee: How do you think he's handled some of the racial unrest? We've had the police violence. He came out in the wake of the Chauvin verdict and basically was saying, "This is the right thing to do." But since then, we've had a number of Black people killed by police in this country, no different than it was the year before, the year before that, the year before that. How do you think he's handled, you know, addressing the police violence that's been heaped on our community?
M. Sabir: I think that if Joe Biden's words could really mean something, then there woulda been something done. Yes, a person, the officer, I don't even want to say his name. The ex-officer was convicted. But how many other police officers in cold blood have shot and killed a Black person in America?
We didn't convict those people, but they've gone after us many, many, many years. Like, hundreds of years. That is legacy debt. That's what we're complaining about. You know, that's our literal complaint, is legacy debt. We're living in legacy debt over and over again. Kids born to parents who have parents who have grandparents that have been destroyed by the systematic implications of slavery.
Lee: You have a family. You know, your husband, your two children, including--
J. Sabir: Three. Three.
Lee: Three. Three.
J. Sabir: I have a new one--
Lee: The new one. The new one.
J. Sabir: A new one. Can't forget the new one. (LAUGH) Yeah, the--
J. Sabir: --new baby.
Lee: Including a teenage son. Is your teenage son, do you think, safer in a Joe Biden presidency than perhaps what came before?
J. Sabir: I don't believe so. I think he's safer because of his awareness. I think he's safer because of the work of some truthful honest news. You know, so he understands the platform in which he lives. So the safety really it's unfortunate the onus is really on him and on us as parents.
You know, he made a statement to say he's seeing all these bills passed and he, you know, was talking about the genocide of Armenians. And he values that, right, as a world citizen but wonders when there's going to be a declaration or a bill in defense of our own lives here in America as Black people, as a Black man, you know, who drives a car.
When I thought about buying his car, it wasn't, you know, about fuel emissions. It was really about not too flashy. You know, I want him to be, you know, under, so I couldn't really get him the car I wanted him to get because I wanted him to be safe, whatever that means.
So I think there's a lot of considerations that he has to make. And unfortunately, it's because he's not safer at this point. My hope is that now there's something that becomes actionable that really is rooted in the infrastructure of our government and then comes down to our community where we all rest.
And I think what hasn't happened and hasn't happened well are those activations in community where we can feel them. We still don't feel safe. We still feel unwell. There's a sense of disease in being, in just being (LAUGH) on a daily basis. And for me to have that bumped up to an A would be to attack the systems, the policies that allow our dehumanization to continue.
Lee: To that point, there's been a lot of talk about, you know, federal police reform, right? The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act. And so that qualified immunity, banning chokeholds, you know, no-knock warrants. But, you know, on the ground, do you think that would actually change the dynamic between police and the Black community?
J. Sabir: It has to mean that a lot of folks retire. You know, but I think that we need to speak to the spirit of America and we need to revisit (LAUGH) why our spirits are so impoverished. And I think that's a piece of it.
Lee: So this is kind of an unfair question because four years doesn't compare to 400 years. But is Black America better under Joe Biden's presidency than they were four years prior?
M. Sabir: Emotionally, psychologically, yes. Economically, we don't know yet.
Lee: Let me ask you this. Is 100 days even fair? Like, is this a fair amount of time to even critique?
M. Sabir: Who made that up?
Lee: I know. (LAUGHTER)
J. Sabir: I do think it's fair. I mean, we're all living and breathing. And so 100 days, you know, could be 100 tragedies, or 100 lives saved, or 100 points of opportunity that are actually activated. So I think each day matters. Now, we'll just wait for the next hundred days to ensure that we actually see this language around equity and inclusion turn into policies that really effect real change on the ground in communities.
M. Sabir: I think he needs to stop jogging. He has to start sprinting.
Lee: One thing I find interesting is that no reparations, no direct help to Black businesses, yet you're giving him a B- and a B. So it sounds like your critique is from (UNINTEL). What is that about, that dynamic--
J. Sabir: I think it's a hope, right? There's built-in hope on the possibilities, right? So the grade is that it's only been 100 days. And that grade could quickly deteriorate depending on, you know, where we rest in the next hundred days. So there was a lot to sift through, you know? The era that we just left was completely traumatic. So I imagine going into even just the building, that there was much upheaval. So I think the B is a reflection of the hope that we have for the support and legislation to come.
Lee: JoAnne and Maanaan Sabir are business owners in Milwaukee. We always want to hear from you. Tell us what issues you want us to cover as we report on the Biden administration over the next few months. You can tweet me @TrymaineLee—that's @TrymaineLee, my full name—or write to us at IntoAmerica@NBCuni.com. That's IntoAmerica@NBC and the letters U-N-I.com.
Into America is produced by Isabel Angell, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Aisha Turner, and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. I'm Trymaine Lee. See you next Thursday.