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Biden reaches out to Black Americans. He'll give commencement address at Morehouse

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

President Biden meets leaders of Black sororities and fraternities today. This weekend, he delivers the commencement address at Morehouse College, in the swing state of Georgia. A historically Black school would normally be safe ground for Joe Biden, but it is also a campus in a season of campus protest. NPR White House correspondent Asma Khalid joins us now. Asma, good morning.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What would make Biden's reception at Morehouse uncertain?

KHALID: Well, you know, it's going to be the first time in months that President Biden has directly engaged publicly with young college students, and it comes against the backdrop of the war in Gaza, which, you know, Steve, as we know, has been a hot-button issue on several college campuses.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

KHALID: And Morehouse in particular, I think, is really unique when it comes to social justice issues. Martin Luther King Jr. is an alum. And when I was on campus last week, a student told me that they really take pride in the idea that this school is built upon the legacy of peaceful protests. Now, you know, to be clear, there are certainly folks on campus - in fact, I met one who told me that it is indeed a great honor to have the president of the United States visit, but this Biden invite has had blowback. A group of faculty wrote an open letter voicing their concerns. There was even some dissent that spilled over during the vote to grant Biden an honorary degree, which is, you know, customary at many graduation ceremonies. But, frankly, I will say, Steve, there is some expectation that there will be protests on Sunday. It's just not clear how large or how many.

INSKEEP: How is the White House preparing for that possible blowback?

KHALID: The administration sent down a senior adviser to Morehouse ahead of this speech to meet with a group of students and faculty, and he heard out their concerns. This was Biden's senior adviser, Steve Benjamin, who heads the Office of Public Engagement, and in a press briefing, a reporter asked him about the possibility of protests during the president's speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE BENJAMIN: The right to free speech extends to even those who wish to protest, and he respects that, and he makes the point to lean in when there are protesters in the very same space.

KHALID: But I'll add that the concerns about Biden's visit are not exclusively about the war. I met a young man by the name of Allen Donegan. He was taking graduation photos with friends on campus, and he told me that Morehouse is this school known for Black male excellence, and he does not think Biden is the right person to talk to them about that.

ALLEN DONEGAN: To me, the agenda of a commencement is for someone to inspire us, and to me, that should be someone that reflects us. There's nothing that President Biden knows about us, our story, what we've been through as Black men in this world today, so I don't believe that he has the capability to inspire us.

INSKEEP: Oh, this is really interesting, because Black men have been seen somewhat as a possible swing group a little bit between Democrats and Republicans.

KHALID: I think broadly, Steve, this issue of Black voters is going to be very key this election cycle. They are often the key to Democratic victories not just in Georgia, but throughout the country, and the Biden campaign knows it has work to do. I mean, if you look at the events that Biden is doing this week, you see that. He met yesterday with the plaintiffs of the famous school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education. Today, he is visiting the National Museum of African American History. On Sunday, he'll deliver the keynote at an NAACP event in Detroit.

And, you know, Steve, one thing I have heard from Black organizers again and again is that they are not concerned that huge numbers of voters are going to defect to Donald Trump. They are worried that some voters might just not be thoroughly impressed with Joe Biden this time around and might stay home, and that could make the difference in very close races like Georgia, which Biden only won by a little less than 12,000 votes.

INSKEEP: NPR's Asma Khalid, thanks so much.

KHALID: Good to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.