The debate over racial justice in America is playing out in Congress as Democrats use their new control of both chambers to push forward proposals to advance racial equity.
On Sunday, former Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter shot and killed Daunte Wright during a traffic stop. Brooklyn Center erupted in protests this week during the already tense environment surrounding the murder trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who killed George Floyd last May.
“We have a crisis, an epidemic of Black people dying at the hands of law enforcement, this is a terrible issue in Minnesota but it’s a national issue,” Minnesota Sen. Tina Smith told MinnPost. “We have to look systematically at the criminal justice system and policing.”
Smith has been outspoken on the issue of race and policing in Minnesota, appearing on national news outlets like Good Morning America to condemn the “epidemic” of Black people being killed by law enforcement in Minnesota.
“This isn’t only about criminal justice and policing,” Smith said. “It’s also about all of the systems that we need to change so that everybody has a fair shot.”
Against the backdrop of pain and unrest in Minnesota, there are several bills that address racial injustice moving through Congress right now. Democrats on Capitol Hill, boosted by President Joe Biden’s day-one emphasis on addressing racial disparities and newly won control of the Senate, however slight, are taking action. Here are four areas where Congress is addressing racial equity:
The COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act
In the wake of a mass shooting in Georgia that appeared to target Asian women and numerous attacks on Asian Americans since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, lawmakers introduced the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act.
On Wednesday, the Senate voted 92-6 in favor of proceeding to consider the bill. Under the terms of that bill, the Attorney General would be instructed to assign a Department of Justice employee to review COVID-19 related hate crimes, including attacks on people based on the assumption that their race, gender, or sexuality links them to the spread of the virus.
The six senators who voted against considering the bill were Republicans Josh Hawley of Missouri, Ted Cruz of Texas, Rand Paul of Kentucky, Roger Marshall of Kansas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, and Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.
The House Judiciary Committee voted to bring a reparations bill in front of the full chamber. Despite this victory for Democrats, the reparations bill — labeled H.R. 40 after the Civil War-era unfulfilled promise to give former slaves “40 acres and a mule” — faces steep odds of passing into law.
The legislation would create a federal commission to examine slavery and discrimination in the U.S. from 1619 to present in order to recommend ways the government could offer a formal apology and what types of redress and repair could be offered to descendants of slaves in America, including reparations — payments to people who have been wronged in some way by the U.S. government.
Now, as the country grapples with systemic racism laid bare by the recent police killing of Daunte Wright and last year of George Floyd, the measure has drawn support from powerful Democrats including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, and President Biden. But the bill has faced unified opposition from Republicans and dissent from some Democrats.
The House Judiciary Committee voted to bring H.R. 40 out of committee Wednesday, a major milestone for the bill that has not been accomplished since the first reparations bill was introduced in 1989. Every Congress since then has considered the legislation, but the bill never made it past a committee vote until Wednesday.
Minnesota Rep. Michelle Fischbach, a member of the Judiciary Committee, voted against the bill Wednesday.
The House Oversight Committee on Wednesday advanced legislation that would make Washington, D.C. the 51st state, giving the 700,000 District residents representation in the House and Senate.
The District’s population has historically been predominantly black, and with the 2017 Census reporting that 47.7% of D.C. residents are Black or African American, if it were to become a state it would be more heavily Black than any state in the country. The American Civil Liberties Union calls D.C. statehood “a racial justice issue,” saying that statehood for the District would “correct an overt act of racial voter suppression with roots in the Reconstruction era.”
“It’s no accident that Washington, D.C. is a majority community of color and yet these folks’ voices don’t have a vote in Congress, and that is wrong and it needs to be repaired,” Sen. Smith said. “Washington, D.C. is roughly the size of two Minnesota Congressional districts, so why would it be fair that Minnesotans in two Congressional districts wouldn’t have representation? There’s no justification for that.”
The Oversight Committee passing this bill sets the stage for a vote by the full House for the second year in a row. Statehood for the District is a Democratic priority that will likely clear the House along party lines like it did last year. Though Democrats tout the bill as a way to protect voting rights and promote racial justice, there’s a political strategy as well: A city that voted 92% in favor of Biden in the 2020 election will likely be a reliable Democratic vote, giving the party two more Senate seats if the district were to become a state.
The bill will face an uphill battle in the Senate where it will need 60 votes to pass, and where Republicans aren’t likely to be on board.
New Civil Rights Division head
Senate Democrats in the Judiciary Committee this week advanced President Biden’s nomination for the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, Kristen Clarke, who if confirmed would be the first Senate-confirmed Black woman leader of the division.
As head of the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Clarke was hit by a barrage of misogynistic and racial insults from Trump supporters after her organization was at the forefront of legal efforts to sue the Trump administration on voting rights, immigration, changes to the U.S. Census and tear-gassing of protesters outside the White House last summer.
Clarke could face a difficult nomination process moving forward. The nominee faced down criticism from Republican members of the Judiciary Committee, with Texas Sen. Ted Cruz telling her, “As I look at your record, I see the record of someone who has spent a career as a partisan.”
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar questioned Clarke during the hearing, asking the nominee about her views on police reform in the context of the recent police killing of Daunte Wright and George Floyd in Minnesota.
“I’ve not shied away from working with law enforcement,” Clarke replied. “I think that there is a lot of common ground to be forged when it comes to issues of police reform accountability and criminal justice reform generally…I look forward to supporting the work of this body as it continues to wrestle with these issues and find pathways to progressive and healthy reforms.