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Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden speaks at an event at the Chase Center, in Wilmington, Del., on July 13, 2020.

OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP/Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden promised Tuesday that his economic agenda would combat long-standing racial inequalities as he sought to draw another sharp contrast with President Donald Trump.

Biden said the Republican president is exacerbating social discord across the country, including by sending federal authorities into major cities under the pretense of addressing crime. And he said Trump has little interest in addressing the racism that Biden said has been laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, which disproportionately claims people of colour as its victims, or in an election-year reckoning with police violence against Black men.

“He can’t turn the economy around. He’s determined to stoke division and chaos,” Biden said, speaking in a community centre gymnasium in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. “It’s not good for the country, but Donald Trump doesn’t care. His campaign is failing and he’s looking for a lifeline.”

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Biden countered with a litany of proposals to steer federal money and tax credits to small business and economic development programs for minority-owned firms and disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Biden also said he’d encourage home ownership to help close wealth gaps among minority communities and push the nation’s banking system, including the Federal Reserve, to more directly address economic inequality.

Many of his proposals – and the billions in federal spending needed to pay for it – had already been promised as part of previous, larger Biden plans to jump-start the economy when the coronavirus outbreak begins to recede. But as protests against institutional racism and police brutality have swept the country in recent months, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee is attempting to show voters that he’s committed to implementing specific remedies that can promote racial and economic equality should he win the White House in November.

Biden’s speech and his subsequent question-and-answer session with reporters – just his third extended news conference in four months – comes as he nears a decision on a running mate. Biden came prepared a talk about at least one of the top contenders: California Sen. Kamala Harris.

An Associated Press photographer captured Biden’s hand-written notes with talking points on several issues. Topping the list was Harris.

A recent Politico story alleged that Biden’s longtime friend and vetting committee leader Chris Dodd, a former Democratic senator like Biden, had raised concerns about Harris going after Biden last June on the debate stage and showing “no remorse” in conversations with Biden’s campaign. On Biden’s notepad, he’d written below Harris’s name: “Do not hold grudges” and “Great respect for her.”

Biden did not field a question specifically about Harris. But he has praised her extensively, and he’s confirmed in recent weeks that his short list for vice-president includes several women of colour. His decision is expected to have unusual importance given his age, 77, and the fact that he’s a white man leading a diverse party.

Recent polls have shown Biden leading Trump nationally and in many competitive states that determine the Electoral College outcome. But Biden’s aides are keenly aware that Hillary Clinton lost key battleground states four years ago in part because of a drop in turnout among nonwhite voters from what President Barack Obama drew in 2012.

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As part of his attacks on Trump’s approach to race, Biden blasted the president for ordering federal authorities to intervene against protests in places like Portland, Oregon, and Chicago, while small businesses around the country continue to struggle or shut down because of the coronavirus.

The president, Biden said, is trying to distract and scare voters. Biden said most demonstrators are “peaceful protesters” who don’t require a response from the federal government. “Arsonists and anarchists should be prosecuted,” Biden said, and “local law enforcement can do that.”

Still, Biden said “this election is not just about voting against Donald Trump. It’s about rising to this moment of crisis, understanding people’s struggle and building a future worthy of their courage and ambition to overcome.”

And he said that means thinking about every policy debate in terms of structural inequalities.

The former vice-president wants to take $30 billion, or 10% of federal investment he’s already promised as part of larger economic plans, and funnel it into a “Small Business Opportunity Fund” designed to leverage $5 of private investment for minority owned enterprises for each $1 in public funds allocated. He also plans to spend $50 billion to provide startup capital that can help entrepreneurs of colour start businesses in disadvantaged areas.

To encourage home ownership, the plan would create a $15,000 federal tax credit to help low-and middle-income families cover down payments on their first homes. It also pledges to build 1.5 million new homes and public housing units in hopes of addressing the affordable housing crisis that has hit many of the nation’s cities and disproportionately hurt people of colour.

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Biden also said the Federal Reserve’s mission should be revised to specifically charge the central bank with addressing “persistent racial gaps” in economic opportunities and wealth, rather than a more general focus on maximum employment and stable pricing.

Biden similarly vowed to undo Trump administration regulatory changes that the Democratic presidential nominee says “gutted” Obama administration rules preventing housing discrimination and unfair lending practices.

Asked about the possibility of a congressional study on the feasibility of federal reparations to descendants of enslaved Black people, senior campaign officials said Biden wouldn’t oppose it. But they defended Tuesday’s proposal as doing more to benefit Black Americans in the short term, saying, “He is not going to wait on a study to create change.”

Biden’s plan also doesn’t endorse legalizing marijuana, though it seeks to clear court hurdles so states can better identify nonviolent offenders whose records they might opt to expunge. Black and Hispanic Americans often face far harsher penalties for crimes involving marijuana possession than white people.

The Democratic National Committee’s convention platform committee voted by a wide margin on Monday to keep language calling for legalization of marijuana nationwide out of the party’s platform.

Later on Tuesday, former U.S. president Barack Obama will be joined by actor George Clooney in Obama’s latest effort to boost Biden’s presidential campaign.

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Obama and Clooney will engage in a “virtual conversation” according to an invitation to donors obtained by Reuters. Tickets range from $250 to $250,000.

In June, Obama held a fundraiser for Biden, Obama’s former vice-president, that brought in more than $11-million. Biden will face President Donald Trump in the Nov. 3 general election.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced Biden to hold campaign events online or close to his Delaware home. But virtual fundraisers have proven to be effective for Biden, helping him and allied Democratic groups outraise Trump and Republican groups in May and June.

Clooney, an outspoken critic of Trump, and his wife Amal head the Clooney Foundation for Justice, a global human-rights advocacy organization. Last month, he donated $500,000 to the Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit that provides legal representation to prisoners who may have been wrongly accused.

With files from Reuters.

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