Black Caucus unveils next steps to combat racism

Black Caucus unveils next steps to combat racism
© Greg Nash

Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on Wednesday announced the next phase in their strategy for fighting institutional racism, presenting a long list of reform proposals they're hoping to move this year following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The group has led the charge for Democrats in the wake of Floyd's death on May 25, drafting expansive police reform legislation that was whisked quickly to the House floor last week, where it passed easily.

The next round of CBC reforms is broader still, touching on issues that run a spectrum from health care and education to voting rights and reparations for slavery.

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The proposals are hardly new — the CBC has been pushing them for years. But the group is hoping they'll get a boost from the national protest movement that's followed the death of Floyd, an unarmed African American man, while in police custody last month.

"The movement for justice has now expanded to include a call to end systemic racism in the United States," Rep. Karen BassKaren Ruth BassBlack women are ambitious — that's why we need more in office Bass on filling Harris's Senate spot: 'I'll keep all my options open' Newsom says he has already received a number of pitches for Harris's open Senate seat MORE (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the CBC, told reporters in the Capitol. "The difference is, this time CBC members will be supported by a national movement that is beginning to penetrate into the consciousness of Americans."

At the root of the effort is legislation, sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson LeeSheila Jackson Lee: Harris has 'taken us to the mountaintop' in Martin Luther King Jr.'s sermon Democratic attorneys criticize House Judiciary Democrats' questioning of Barr Steyer endorses reparations bill, commits to working with Jackson Lee MORE (D-Texas), to create a 13-member commission charged with studying the legacy of slavery then recommending policy prescriptions designed to iron out the racial disparities that have persisted across institutions even 155 years later.

Jackson Lee characterized the bill as "the answer to the original sin."

"We understand that the disparities that are so stark — that are reflective of the brutality, of the cruel, the fundamental injustice and inhumanity of slavery — have never been answered," she said. "This is America's responsibility ... the American government's responsibility, to pay her debt."

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Other featured legislation includes proposals to protect voting rights, help Black-owned businesses access capital and expand affordable health care services for African Americans, a group that lives sicker and dies younger than most other ethnic groups in the country.

The arrival of the deadly coronavirus, the Democrats noted, has only highlighted the racial disparities underlying those institutions.

"We are seeing two pandemics," said Rep. Robin KellyRobin Lynne KellyLawmakers set for tearful goodbye to John Lewis Intelligence community rolls out guidelines for ethical use of artificial intelligence Black Caucus unveils next steps to combat racism MORE (D-Ill.). "One in wealthier, whiter communities, and one in more vulnerable communities of color."

The effort also features legislation to remove Confederate-era statues from the Capitol building, where larger-than-life sculptures of Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Alexander Hamilton Stephens and eight other Confederate figures remain in places of honor.

Sponsored by Reps. Bennie ThompsonBennie Gordon ThompsonGovernment watchdog finds top Trump DHS officials are ineligible for their positions Progressive Caucus co-chair: Reported oversight change in intelligence office 'seems a bit...fascist' House lawmakers to launch probe into DHS excluding NY from Trusted Traveler Program MORE (D-Miss.) and Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeDemocrats need to get specific on defense cuts It's past time to be rid of the legacy of Jesse Helms Democrats introduce bill to repeal funding ban on abortions abroad MORE (D-Calif.), the CBC's proposal would move those statues to another building down the street — the Smithsonian — to be "a part of history," in Thompson's words.

"This is a hallowed, honored building we are in now," Thompson said Wednesday. "It's for people who have done good, not people who lost because they did bad."

Additionally, CBC leaders are pressing for even more substantial criminal justice reforms — items not included in either the sweeping reform law adopted in 2018 or the Democrats' just-passed response to Floyd's death. The new effort features proposals to end mandatory minimum sentencing, provide new protections for women in the penal system and help convicted criminals secure jobs, education and affordable housing upon their release.

Rep. Cedric RichmondCedric Levon RichmondHillicon Valley: 'Fortnite' owner sues Apple after game is removed from App Store | Federal agencies seize, dismantle cryptocurrency campaigns of major terrorist organizations Lawmakers introduce bill designating billion to secure state and local IT systems Experts warn mail-in voting misinformation could threaten elections MORE (D-La.), a former CBC chairman, said the group is looking for "patterns" of racial disparity across "every aspect of the criminal justice system."

"This moment, this movement, calls for thoroughness," he said.

Virtually none of the proposals have a chance of becoming law while Republicans control the Senate and White House. And it remains unclear how many of them will move this year — ahead of a pivotal election — even in the Democratically controlled House.

House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerProgressives look to flex their muscle in next Congress after primary wins Lawmakers of color urge Democratic leadership to protect underserved communities in coronavirus talks The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Trump to Democratic negotiators: 'They know my phone number' MORE (D-Md.) on Wednesday expressed support for the cause but declined to commit to staging votes on any of the CBC proposals ahead of November.

"They are all under consideration," he said.

Bass, the lead sponsor of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, said she's talking with party leaders "to make sure that our proposals move forward." But she also acknowledged the unlikelihood of enacting those measures while Republicans retain the Senate and White House.

"The Congressional Black Caucus has been working on these issues for years, so it's not just about what we can get done in this session," Bass said. "It's the ongoing struggle that we face that we will continue."

Cristina Marcos contributed.