Amid a national reckoning on the injustices faced by Black Americans, Congress has so far agreed on just one response: Study the problem.
The House this week approved a bill to create a first-of-its-kind federal commission to examine the impact of systemic racism on Black men and boys — a long-time priority of the Congressional Black Caucus that gained momentum after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in May.
The bill, which now goes to President Donald Trump’s desk after passing the Senate last month, is expected to become the first piece of legislation signed into law as a result of months of protests over police brutality. But some fear that it could be the last, at least until after the November election.
“This is an important first step in the right direction,” House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries said in a brief interview after the bill passed Monday. “Much more will need to be done, consistent with the bills that have already been acted upon by the House.”
Democrats and Republicans have hailed the 19-member commission as a long-overdue way to begin tackling decades of lingering racism toward Black men, starting with policy recommendations across the government. The group, hand-picked by leaders in Congress and the administration, would look broadly at disparities on everything from incarceration rates and drug abuse to school performance and health.
Many lawmakers acknowledge that the legislation isn’t enough to address protesters’ demands for an immediate overhaul of the nation’s law enforcement practices. But with Republican leaders resisting Democratic proposals for broad reforms, the commission is likely to be the most far-reaching policy to go into effect in the coming months.
Still, the legislation could have a long-term impact.
“It’s a very progressive and aggressive bill,” Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), the bill’s long-time champion, said in an interview, adding that it’s intended to look at the deep-rooted effects of racism in the lives of Black men and boys, and not just policing. It would be housed within the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
“When people approach a Black boy on the street, they cross the street. If a Black man gets in an elevator, people get off,” Wilson said. “All of these systemic racist scenarios as it relates to being a Black man and existing in America make me want to scream.”
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who shepherded the bill on the Senate side, said the forum created to discuss these issues “could turn out to be very meaningful.”
“People will look at commissions and kind of roll their eyes,” he added. “But the various factors that are contributing to the academic, economic, societal underperformance, typically among African American boys and men, needs to be better understood.”
The commission, while an accomplishment for a Congress that seems to agree on little these days, is a far cry from the sweeping changes lawmakers in both chambers were pursuing in June, as the nationwide racial injustice protests dominated the news.
But that momentum quickly came to a halt after the Senate failed to advance a bill in late June — likely dooming any meaningful action on police reform until after the election or next year. Once again, a Congress that only seems to function when facing a deadline-fueled crisis, failed to answer the calls of Americans demanding change.
While protesters are still in the streets of many major cities, lawmakers have quickly pivoted to the next looming crisis — in this case, the latest coronavirus rescue package. But even that effort is sputtering as Senate Republicans continue to bicker over their own proposal and the parties remain far apart.
Democrats say key lawmakers, led by CBC Chairwoman Karen Bass, are privately still trying to enact more sweeping police reforms after this summer’s stalemate. But several lawmakers and aides are skeptical that a bipartisan agreement can be reached and signed into law anytime soon.
In the meantime, the House and Senate have turned to a less contentious option — the commission — which was opposed by just a single lawmaker in both chambers: GOP Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama.
Wilson, the bill’s original author, said she hopes the council will focus on some of the issues addressed in the House Democrats’ policing bill, like the use of chokeholds by police. The CBC would likely have power over the direction of the commission, given that a half-dozen of its members, including its chair, would sit on the panel.
The House’s sweeping policing bill, named after George Floyd, sought to end racial profiling in law enforcement and curb the use of force through provisions like a ban on chokeholds and “no-knock” warrants, stronger data collection on misconduct, and limits on the use of military equipment.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, had written a bill to incentivize local police departments to refrain from tactics like chokeholds, but without strict requirements. That bill, largely drafted by the GOP’s lone Black senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, was ultimately blocked by Senate Democrats, who said it was crafted without their input and didn’t go anywhere near far enough.
Wilson, a former school administrator, has spearheaded the idea of a commission on Black men and boys since her days on the Miami-Dade county school board nearly 30 years ago. Eventually, she took her fight to the state legislature and helped enact a state-wide model with the help of Republicans like Rubio, who was then speaker of the Florida House.
This year, Rubio introduced the companion version of Wilson’s bill alongside Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.). It was unanimously approved by the Senate in late June, shortly after the Senate GOP’s police reform efforts collapsed.
The House passed its version of the commission bill on July 27, the same day that the late Rep. John Lewis — who had also long advocated for the measure — lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda.
“For me, it was like an out of body experience that this bill was passing as John was being transported to lie in state in the Capitol,” Wilson said. “It was a chilling confluence of events.”
Marianne Levine contributed to this report.
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