Congresswomen Are Banding Together Seeking Racial Healing
Asprotesters across America march, shout, and kneel to demand an end to police brutality, and as the land of the free and the home of the brave grapples with racism, some believe the truth could set this nation free.
That’s the spirit behind new legislation that Rep. Barbara Lee of California has unveiled, calling for the establishment of the first United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation. Back in 1996, the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established post-apartheid. The American iteration would examine slavery, institutional racism, and discrimination against people of color and how this complex history affects contemporary laws and policies.
“The murder of George Floyd and the current Covid-19 crisis illustrate once again the painful and dangerous legacy that White supremacy has had in our country and the desperate need to fully acknowledge and understand how our history of inequality continues today,” said Lee.
This inequality, she believes, strikes at the heart of critical national issues — from the coronavirus health pandemic and police violence to mass incarceration and poverty — all of which disproportionately affect communities of color.
“This is a matter of survival for countless Americans. Only by understanding our past and confronting the errors that still haunt us today can we truly move forward as a people and a country.”
The resolution, officially introduced on June 4, would establish a body to “properly acknowledge, memorialize, and be a catalyst for progress toward jettisoning the belief in a hierarchy of human value based on race, embracing our common humanity, and permanently eliminating persistent racial inequities.”
To date, more than 100 members of Congress are co-sponsors of the measure. Backers include Rep. John Lewis, the civil rights icon, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Community partners such as the Open Society Foundations help comprise the diverse coalition of supporters.
“Whether it be the abuse of power that poisons the air and water surrounding communities of color, taking away protections for undocumented young people, underfunding Tribes putting them at disproportionate risk during a pandemic, or police brutality that kills unarmed black people, we must untangle the racist webs that are woven into our laws and policies,” said Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, co-chair of the Congressional Native American Caucus.
The resolution is timely, fellow lawmakers noted, as the country sees a resurgence of racism targeting Black Americans, immigrants, and communities of color.
“During this coronavirus pandemic, Asian Americans have been discriminated against and verbally and physically assaulted. When those attacks occurred, the African American community denounced those incidents and called for justice,” said Rep. Grace Meng of New York. “Today, the Asian American community must stand in solidarity with them. Only together can we truly reconcile, heal, and transform our nation. … [We] must come to grips with our ugly past — and present. We must acknowledge that our system is broken and that we have to fix it.”
Lee’s resolution comes as the country is reeling from a series of deadly police encounters and racial incidents in recent months. In May, George Floyd, 46, was arrested by Minneapolis police officers, one of whom pressed his knee on the dying man’s neck as he gasped, “I can’t breathe.” The words echoed those of Eric Garner who died in 2014 during a police chokehold, also captured on video.
In March, Breonna Taylor of Kentucky was reportedly shot eight times by Louisville Metro Police Department officers while asleep in the apartment the 26-year-old shared with her boyfriend. Back in February, Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was shot and killed in Georgia after being chased by a White father and son who’d accused him of burglary and deputized themselves for a citizen’s arrest.
Indeed, a long line of Black men, women, transgender, and child victims have died in police encounters. Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Mike Brown, Freddie Gray, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice are just some of the countless souls whose Black Lives Matter. Moreover, racist microaggressions are stirring outrage. The same day as Floyd’s death, a Black male birdwatcher in Central Park used his cellphone to record a White woman calling 911 after he requested she leash her dog.
“A devastating belief in racial hierarchy has fueled conscious and unconscious bias and injustices against populations of color for centuries, resulting in structurally based patterns of discrimination in public policies and in private practices throughout our society,” says Dr. Gail Christopher, executive director of the National Collaborative for Health Equity and a visionary who created a framework for truth and healing models in her previous leadership role at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Ongoing work continues on college campuses and several U.S. cities.
The commission can help build a path toward real change for our nation, she said, thereby helping eliminate an array of conditions: poor health outcomes, housing segregation, low-wage jobs, food insecurity, environmental pollution, under-resourced schools, and more.
“It can help launch a new era where all human beings are valued and have a capacity to see ourselves in one another,” Christopher added.
“We must address these racial issues with a full understanding of the emotional, psychological, and economic impact racial injustice has caused our communities for generations,” said Rep. Karen Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. “At this pivotal moment in our country, we must heed the national outcry for change and respond with comprehensive legislation to get us there.”
As Black people and allies demonstrate in the streets over 400 years of injustice, as Americans speak out and champion moral and systemic reforms, Lee and those who welcome the commission yearn for this truth: a country where all are truly equal, respected for the inalienable human rights endowed by the Creator at birth. And what the Declaration of Independence promises: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”