Old-guard Democrats must end the filibuster and symbolic progress

Old-guard Democrats must end the filibuster and symbolic progress
© Greg Nash

On June 17, President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Ohio special primaries FDA aims to give full approval to Pfizer vaccine by Labor Day: report Overnight Defense: Police officer killed in violence outside Pentagon | Biden officials back repeal of Iraq War authorization | NSC pushed to oversee 'Havana Syndrome' response MORE, with Vice President Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisKamala Harris and our shameless politics Pelosi: House Democrats 'ready to work with' Biden on eviction ban Meghan McCain predicts DeSantis would put Harris 'in the ground' in 2024 matchup MORE by his side, signed into law the Juneteenth National Independence Day Act, certifying that the United States of America will formally recognize independence for African Americans. 

The story of Juneteenth takes place on June 19, 1865, when Union troops arrived in Galveston, Texas. Juneteenth is more complex than that and at the same time, it isn’t, as it is an early symbol of the way our country would approach its relationship with the legacy of slavery, reconstruction, and later Jim Crow. A country willing to celebrate its short steps forward in the fight for freedom of African Americans, yet unwilling to educate its children about its many steps backward in its relationship with its generations of African Americans, or pass policy to atone for the oppression inflicted upon them.

Although the signing of this legislation is a worthy recognition of another painful story in our country’s history, one that needs to be seen in the light of day, it seems to be too little. For many Black citizens, progressives and young Americans, it seems to come at a time when the actions of the Republican Party seem to be focused on pushing our country back into the Jim Crow era. Many Democrats have spoken up about the need for the protection of voting rights, to boost economic support for Black families and businesses, while also reforming police practices and their relationship with the Black community. But, the narrow majority that Democrats hold in the House and a 50-50 Senate, has made social advancements near impossible during Biden's first term. Another issue, the electoral map of 2022 leans right. 

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What is truly standing in the way of the necessary votes to accomplish the progressive agenda? It is the minority having the current legislative ability to hold the majority hostage with a silent filibuster in the legislature's upper chamber. Although Democrats hold the majority, in order to pass social reform in the Senate, three-fifths of the body (60) votes are needed, which in today's polarized political landscape is impossible. There is only one answer to ensuring priorities that will protect Black Americans get to Biden's desk before the 2022 midterms, and that is to abolish the Jim Crow-era filibuster

Most in the GOP and old-guard Democrats in the Senate, like Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinThe infrastructure bill creates more need for workforce training The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by AT&T - Simone wins bronze with altered beam routine Jesse Jackson arrested with voting rights protesters at Capitol MORE (D-W.Va.) argue that the filibuster is part of the institution itself and to uproot it would dishonor the customs of the Senate. But this is a sickly excuse when the Senate leaders of both parties over the past 15 years have weakened it to ensure the passage of priorities when their party holds the White House. Another argument is that the filibuster ensures that the minority has veto power for issues they do not agree with and that the majority leader can always invoke cloture to end debates and move for a vote. The issue with that? Cloture also is in need of three-fifths of the body to vote in favor of it being invoked and end debate.

Progressive Democrats see the filibuster for what it is; a relic of the Jim Crow era's legislature. A procedure that was historically — and still is — used to stall progress in this country and protection for African Americans. No longer can Democrats, who rely on the Black vote ignore, the abuse the filibuster inflicts on the vital needs of the people that place them in power. 

Many Black voters feel as the late-Congressman from Georgia, John LewisJohn LewisThe Memo: Left pins hopes on Nina Turner in Ohio after recent defeats Manchin 'can't imagine' supporting change to filibuster for voting rights House ethics panel decides against probe after Hank Johnson civil disobedience MORE, did while delivering his 1963 speech at the March on Washington, that the Democratic Party still has members holding it back from being a party of principle. He said, “the party of Kennedy is still the party of Eastland.” James Eastland was a segregationist Democratic senator from Mississippi who opposed civil rights. In comparison to today, the party of Reps. Ayanna Presley (D-Mass.) and Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) is also the party of Sens. Manchin and Kyrsten SinemaKyrsten SinemaThe infrastructure bill creates more need for workforce training Jesse Jackson arrested with voting rights protesters at Capitol Graham's COVID-19 'breakthrough' case jolts Senate MORE (D-Ariz.). Manchin and Sinema, like Sen. Eastland in the 1960’s, claim the Democratic Party but they are actively legislating against some of the most important civil rights bills of their time.

This is all to say that symbolic progress like recognizing Juneteenth, as both Manchin and Sinema voted to do, or members singing the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” at a press conference will not lead to passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Act. It will not reverse the voter suppression bills introduced, some of which have passed, and it will not make Election Day a national holiday. Democratic members kneeling with kente cloth around their necks will not bring George Floyd or Breonna Taylor back. It will not soothe the pain or trauma of the Black community and it certainly will not ensure police reform or the passage of the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act.

If we fail to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, the Equality Act, and many other bills to move us forward, another generation of children will rightfully ask why we didn’t do what was necessary to deliver a better future for our country. All I believe we will be able to say is that the American story is the story of another broken promise, something I am personally unwilling to do. 

Michael Deegan-McCree is a progressive strategist, criminal justice advocate & sits on the Los Angeles New Leaders Council Governing Board. Follow him on Twitter @mdmccreeCA