Democrats need to learn the real lessons from the racial justice movement

Democrats need to learn the real lessons from the racial justice movement
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The past year of uprisings for racial justice has been many things: historic, beautiful, heartbreaking. But more than anything else, it has been powerful. And that power, to be completely clear, is political. It is the power of an awakened and emboldened society demanding change from its political leaders. And leaders ignore that reality at their own peril.  

Democrats in Congress are not taking the kind of bold action the past year of uprisings has demanded. Black voters will no longer be satisfied with half measures. It is time for the Democratic Party to deliver on its promises of solidarity with Black voters.

Let’s start with the clearest demand from the protests — the demand to protect Black people from the violent and oppressive nature of policing when applied to our communities. Democrats responded by passing through the U.S. House of Representatives the Justice in Policing Act, a bill that is more about punishing violent officers after the fact than the transformational changes we need to actually stop police violence.


Overall, while the Justice in Policing Act would make some positive changes, like restricting the flow of military equipment to police forces, the compromised legislation also doubles down on a failed strategy of empowering police departments to fix themselves. The bill is yet another vehicle for the federal government to grow the already bloated budgets of thousands of local police departments nationwide, with millions in grants for new equipment and personnel. Too many Democrats in Congress still think that when it comes to policing, more is always better. 

Instead, we need solutions that reflect the demands that grew out of the uprisings, such as divesting from these oppressive police departments, investing in alternative community safety programs, and solutions that address the root problems in these communities, like lack of jobs, quality education, health care and housing. This legislation doesn’t provide real oversight of police or real solutions to the systemic racism that plagues our police culture.  

Next, voting rights. In their obedience to former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE’s lies about the 2020 election, and in fear of the way energized Black communities organized for both street action and voter turnout operations over the last year, Republican legislatures in state after state after state are passing aggressive legislation targeted at suppressing voting — and in turn the Black vote. Key to stopping this massive disenfranchisement is federal legislation to restore the federal protections of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, that were stripped away by a conservative Supreme Court. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and other Republicans have made clear they will use the filibuster to block that legislation from ever reaching a vote, and Democrats have offered no plan in response. 

Another victim of the filibuster is D.C. statehood, which has similarly passed the House. D.C. residents overwhelmingly want statehood. Constitutional concerns have been addressed by ensuring that a key federal enclave would be established that leaves the White House, Congress and Supreme Court outside state borders. For context, D.C.’s population of about 700,000 is on par with existing states like Wyoming and Alaska. 

Yet, despite that Republicans are filibustering the bill in the Senate. Why? Well Wyoming is 1 percent Black. Alaska is 3 percent Black. D.C. is 45 percent Black. As an overwhelmingly Black city, D.C. is almost certain to vote Democratic, giving that party two more seats in the U.S. Senate. 


Denying D.C. statehood is just another way to suppress the Black vote. Adding D.C. as a state would enfranchise thousands of Black voters and make some small correction on the deeply undemocratic way the Senate fails to represent America.  

Of course, Democrats argue that none of this is their fault. They contend they need to compromise on police legislation and stall on voting rights and statehood because the Republican threat of a filibuster means 60 votes are needed to pass almost anything of substance.  

But none of that should be a surprise. Rashad Robinson, the president of my organization, Color Of Change, wrote a thorough essay in March on the racist history of the filibuster. As Rashad said, the filibuster has been used over and over again as a tool to further white supremacy, with every chance of it happening again. 

It would be no surprise for Republicans to use the filibuster to limit Black power. That’s what we’d expect from them. But also problematic is Democrats letting them get away with it by allowing a few obstructionist voices in their party to stop filibuster reform.

Black voters carried the Democratic Party to power in 2020. President BidenJoe BidenThe Supreme Court and blind partisanship ended the illusion of independent agencies Missed debt ceiling deadline kicks off high-stakes fight Senate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session MORE made clear he knew that when he said during his acceptance speech, “The African-American community stood up again for me. You've always had my back, and I'll have yours." We took his words at face value — but it’s time for his party allies in Congress to prove it. 

Scott Roberts is the senior Criminal Justice and Democracy Campaigns director at Color Of Change.