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The events of recent weeks — beginning with the tragic police murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks and culminating in the most diverse coalition of protesters for equal justice that this nation has ever seen — have opened color-blind eyes and tone-deaf ears. Congress must seize this moment to address systemic racism in America.
On Thursday, the House of Representatives in cooperation with the Congressional Black Caucus took the first step against systemic racism by passing the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020. This legislation mandates significant changes to American police culture: it curtails the use of excessive force like the chokehold that killed Eric Garner, bans no-knock warrants of the type that killed Breonna Taylor and limits police use of military-grade weapons and paraphernalia.
It also increases police accountability by requiring officers to wear body cameras and by establishing a national registry for police misconduct. Most importantly, it eliminates the judge-made law of qualified immunity, which courts manufactured to shield police misconduct from virtually all civil legal consequences because of the extraordinary high bar in the required evidence and the standard of proof. The hope of America now lies with the Senate and the president to join in the making of a “New Really Great America” that will, for the first time in our history, give real meaning to our American value system.
This is the way forward. Responsible laws, coupled with vigorous enforcement of existing civil rights statutes, will start to heal America’s festering wounds, arising from 401 years of racism grounded in 246 years of inhumane slavery.
Now is the time to move beyond America’s racist legacy toward a new era of accountability and moral integrity. Now is the time to courageously remove the symbols of racism that celebrate the Confederate states’ choice to wage a war that killed hundreds of thousands of Americans rather than give up their “states’ rights” to own other human beings as chattel.
Now is the time to face the reality that the Civil War was not a “War Between the States,” it was a “War Against the United States of America.” Those who led and fought in that war sought the same result as America’s fascist, genocidal enemies in World War II — the conquest and destruction of the United States of America and everything it stands for. No honor should be bestowed upon them, and their battle flag has no place beside the stars and stripes of our great nation.
Racism did not end once and for all when the cause of freedom prevailed with the 13th Amendment’s abolition of slavery. African Americans continued to suffer racism and discrimination in various forms — Jim Crow, redlining, disenfranchisement and lynchings, to name a few. Today, elements of those blatant (and blatantly abhorrent) forms of racism persist alongside widespread passive discrimination and unconscious or implicit bias.
I recognize that no one of sound mind desires to be labeled a bigot or racist in this era. And perhaps equally so, most of us desire to honor our ancestors and explain away their failings as the “temper of their times.”
But we cannot overcome the harmful vestiges of our racist past by celebrating it with undeserved memorials to traitors against the United States on public property. Such efforts only cement the evils of history in the present, when we would rather move forward.
This is a crucial moment for America. Never before have so many who are not directly targeted by racism been willing to lend their support to meaningful change. We have an unprecedented opportunity to push toward the old promise of racial equality.
Today we see protestors coming together across America, representing a multiracial, multicultural coalition. They demand that this country’s political leadership put us on a path toward a new way of life where we treat African American citizens with respect and dignity. They say to their elected representatives that we should begin this process by passing laws that will start to repair the damage inflicted upon African American citizens and their ancestors over the past 400 years.
It is my fervent hope that Democrats and Republicans in the Congress of the United States will listen and engage in constructive dialogue to pass legislation that will begin the healing process — to “Make America Great for All Americans.”
G.K. Butterfield of Wilson represents North Carolina’s 1st Congressional District and is a chief deputy whip in the House Democratic Caucus.