Four black members of Congress said the moment was ripe for the country to begin to undo some of the historical elements of racism dating back to slavery, through the segregation era up to the present in an online forum amid national protests for police reform.
“We’re sort of faced with two pandemics,” said Basil Smikle, a political commentator and lecturer at Columbia University who moderated the forum with Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) and Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.), first referring to the coronavirus spread that has disproportionately affected African Americans and Latinos.
“We’re also in the midst of another pandemic — the 400-year scourge of racism” that resulted in disparities seen today in wealth, health and criminal justice, Smikle said during the forum sponsored by the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University.
Titled "A Congressional Conversation on Race & Justice in America," the forum was designed to provoke a discussion on how to reach solutions to "right centuries of wrong and address inequality,” said Doug Kriner, the institute's faculty director who also moderated as did former Rep. Steve Israel, the institute's director.
The panelists agreed that the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the protests it sparked are being seized upon by lawmakers, pundits and the body politic to reform policing and address the social ills that have stemmed from historical neglect and outright suppression of black Americans who, Clyburn said, have been marginalized since arriving in the country as slaves.
“Black folks enslaved … white folks free and the master of their own destiny — and that frames everything that happened in this country,” he said, adding that U.S. institutions are designed in ways that continue to suppress black Americans’ self-determination.
“This country has never addressed the institution of slavery in a public way,” said Lee, adding members of the House of Representatives have introduced a sweeping bill to address some of the problems with policing that have been raised since Floyd’s death by Minneapolis police officers, one of whom knelt on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes.
“Racism that causes our pain can be seen in police brutality,” Sewell said, echoing the mantras of the Black Lives Matter movement and other groups that have protested on Long Island streets over the past three weeks.
She joined Lee in saying that the conversation about reform and ending racism is a result of “the heat in the streets,” a nod to the protests that have spread to dozens of U.S. cities and abroad.
Some key pieces of legislation — the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, for example — came about because of unsettling protests and the violence visited upon demonstrators, Sewell said.
“This is a moment that is worth acknowledging,” she said. “All things should be on the table at this point.”