“Whenever America has made meaningful progress, on the question of racial social justice in particular, it’s almost always been followed by an immediate backlash, and it seems to me we’re in a backlash moment right now,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) at a Brookings event on addressing structural racism in America’s public policy institutions. The event was part of the Brookings Institution’s celebration of Black History Month. Rep. Jeffries—chairman of the House Democratic Caucus—joined David M. Rubenstein Fellow Rashawn Ray for a fireside chat to discuss how lawmakers can address historic inequities in public policy and help combat racism in America.
After their conversation, Rep. Jeffries answered questions from the audience. Highlights of Rep. Jeffries remarks are below. Visit the event’s web page for full video.
Reparations for African Americans
Rep. Jeffries explained that for reparations to be understood as right and necessary by lawmakers and citizens, there will need to be a reckoning with history. He described multiple times in American history when African American success was systemically hindered by public policy.
“African Americans were largely carved out of the New Deal. So, you had the Depression and a response to it, but a response to it that only applied to some Americans, not all Americans in certain instances,” said Rep. Jeffries.
African Americans were also in “large part” cut out of the G.I. Bill, which meant that African Americans were excluded from measures that helped build “the greatest middle class in history.”
Recently, a hearing was held on H.R. 40, a bill which would allow “a bipartisan commission to really study the question of the journey that American Americans have been on from slavery through Jim Crow, institutional racism, the legacy of it.” This is the first time in the history of Congress that a hearing was held on the concept of reparations for African Americans.
“You had this long journey that I think is part of the historical record. Nobody can factually dispute it,” said the representative. “And then the question is, what does it all mean for the conditions that many communities still find themselves in right now? I think that’s part of the concept of H.R. 40.”
Criminal Justice Reform
Rashawn Ray asked Rep. Hakeem Jeffries about his work in criminal justice reform, particularly the First Step Act, which was aimed at helping reintegrate the formerly incarcerated back into society.
“For too long criminal justice reform had been wrapped up into a toxic political environment where you had people reacting to single, often horrific incidents and then doubling and tripling down on lock them up, throw away the key, three strikes you’re out, tough on crime type policies that have led to this mass incarceration epidemic,” said Jeffries.
According to Rep. Jeffries, it’s important to pass criminal justice reform in a bipartisan way, or else any case that is a failure will be used by the opposing side to discredit the endeavor.
“If it’s just one party doing it, and someone is let go, as was the case in Providence, as a result of the First Step Act, and then was subsequently accused of murdering someone else, what has happened in the past is that would be used as an example as to why we can’t move in this direction, why that law was broken,” he explained.
Rep. Jeffries argued that if Democrats and Republicans pass a bill together, singular instances will not be politicized and lawmakers can “just look at the facts,” which are that the overwhelming number of inmates can reintegrate into society with proper support.
“Prosperity in every ZIP code”
Rep. Jeffries asserted “there is no better time than now to evaluate the impact of structural racism or, as my home state senator said, racism being in the soil of America and what’s that meant.”
Slavery, Jim Crow, institutional racism, mass incarceration, lynching, and systemic exclusion from important progressive policies like the New Deal and the G.I. Bill have all influenced the current state of the Black community in the United States. Taking that history into consideration, the representative asks himself, his colleagues, and all his fellow Americans, “how do we create prosperity in every single ZIP code?”
“Prosperity in every single ZIP code” isn’t an exclusive conversation to African Americans. But, according to the representative, “there is an exclusive experience that African Americans have had dating back to slavery that does require an analysis of its own as part of the broader idea for how to create prosperity for every American in every single ZIP code. And structural racism has to be in the central part of that discussion.”
“Voting, Judges and Institutionalized Racism”
The event concluded with Rep. Jeffries taking questions from the audience on the importance of voting, the shadow of racism over African American success, and how he plans to pass policy to dismantle institutionalized racism in the face of a court system packed with conservative judges.