Rep. Barbara Lee Proposes Racial Healing and Truth Commission Amid Pandemic, Protests
WASHINGTON — As a spate of recent killings of black Americans and a weekend of intense protests have left the nation reeling, Rep. Barbara Lee is introducing legislation to create a racial healing commission.
The proposal would form a nonpartisan group of experts to confront the legacy of slavery and racism in the U.S. and propose ways forward, the Oakland Democrat and congressional colleagues said Monday in a call announcing the effort.
“This is really about telling the truth,” Lee said.
She said she has been working on the idea for three years, and that the current pressures of the coronavirus pandemic and civil unrest only make it more timely. “The environment that has been created makes this resolution and this effort more important,” Lee said.
Lee has been a longtime activist and advocate for addressing inequality, and her Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission was set for unveiling Monday before protests erupted in cities across the U.S. in response to the police killing of George Floyd last week.
Floyd, who was African American, died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for more than eight minutes, during which Floyd pleaded repeatedly that he could not breathe. He lost consciousness and was pronounced dead a short time later. The officer, Derek Chauvin, was fired and has been charged with murder.
Video of the incident shocked the national consciousness. But Lee and her colleagues noted that the incident was only the latest example of African Americans dying in police custody, and said the fact that they have a higher rate of coronavirus infection than other groups highlighted their disadvantaged status in society.
“I know when we talked about this, Rep. Lee and I, several months ago … neither one of us would have imagined we would be in the place we are right now,” said Rep. Karen Bass, D-Los Angeles. “Having a resolution like this that calls for healing, that calls for reconciliation, that calls for truth, is exactly what the country needs right now.”
Bass pointed to the importance of being honest about the nation’s beginnings as a way of confronting all of the issues, current and systemic, that face African Americans and other people of color.
“We don’t really know our history, our own history very well,” she said. “It’s very hard to identify oppression if you’re not aware of the origins.”
The bill does not get into specifics about the commission’s makeup, resolving only to form a group “to properly acknowledge, memorialize, and be a catalyst for progress toward jettisoning the belief in a hierarchy of human value, embracing our common humanity, and permanently eliminating persistent racial inequities.”
Lee said she also supports other legislation creating reparations to African Americans for slavery, but that is not the focus of her proposal. Her resolution has 28 Democratic co-sponsors, including civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, and the chairman of the Rules Committee, Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern, whose committee would clear the way for legislation to come to the House floor.
It’s unclear if the bill can pass Congress. Lee said in an interview last week she had mentioned it to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, but had not discussed it in depth. Pelosi listed Lee’s bill as being a way to “look at the full picture” on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday, but was noncommittal on moving it forward.
Democrats have a majority in the House, but the Senate is controlled by Republicans, who have been critical of discussions of viewing American history through the lens of slavery as an original sin.
But Lee said she hoped the effort could be bipartisan, though no Republicans are signed on to sponsor it.
The commission should not be viewed as another in a long line of token panels, said Wade Henderson, former president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
Lee’s effort could have a broad scope that looks to examine and then heal the deep wounds in society caused by racism and discrimination, Henderson said.
“This is not merely about equity and equality and fairness as we understand it. It’s also about the national security of the United States,” Henderson said. “We face three parallel crises that when taken together pose the greatest challenge that our country has faced in a century.”
Henderson said those three crises — coronavirus, police brutality and discrimination writ large — are “the fruit of a poison tree,” namely slavery and racism.
Tal Kopan is The San Francisco Chronicle’s Washington correspondent. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @talkopan