Rep. Barbara Lee wants to form a racial healing commission to reckon with 400 years of systemic racism

The U.S. has never created a federal body to address the impact of slavery, and systemic racism in black communities.

Protesters gathered at Berkeley’s Civic Center Park on June 6 to rally against police brutality and systemic racism. Photo: Shira Bezalel

As sustained national protests to end police brutality enter their third week, East Bay Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) is pushing for legislation to unpack and address the deep-rooted history of systemic racism in the United States and sustain the Black Lives Matter movement into the future.

Last week, Lee called for the creation of a “Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation Commission.” The proposed commission would have a broad advisory goal, asking the United States to address a legacy of oppression beginning 400 years ago with slavery. It would then offer recommendations to catalyze progress in education, health care, employment, Social Security and veteran benefits, land ownership, financial assistance, food security, wages, voting rights, the justice system, and many other tenets of American life distorted by the lasting impacts of racism.

“The murder of George Floyd and the current COVID-19 crisis illustrate once again the painful and dangerous legacy that white supremacy has had in our country, and the desperate need to fully acknowledge and understand how our history of inequality continues today,” Lee said in an announcement last week.

“This inequality is at the heart of every crisis we’re dealing with right now — the crises of police brutality and mass incarceration, the COVID-19 public health crisis which is disproportionately affecting communities of color, and the crisis of poverty excluding so many minority families from the American Dream,” she added.

On a federal level, the United States has never created a commission to address the impact of slavery and systemic racism in black communities, according to Berkeley Law professor Laurel Fletcher. She’s the director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic, which has provided legal assistance to similar groups internationally, such as Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which reckoned with a system that separated more than 150,000 indigenous children from their families to attend residential schools.

“The United States has a hard time saying that it’s sorry.” — Laurel Fletcher, law professor

“The United States has a hard time saying that it’s sorry,” Fletcher said, describing the immense pushback President Bill Clinton received for reparations to Japanese-American people placed in U.S. internment camps during World War II.

The commission likely wouldn’t be a law-making body but could be highly influential in shaping the national conversation and offering recommendations that lead to legislation, said Fletcher. During a Facebook Live session on Friday, Lee said this legislation would be born from continued conversations and collaboration with activists and young people fighting for change in America.

“For me as an elected official, and an activist still, I think we have to get to the core and disrupt the old order and disrupt what was put together with us being considered less than human,” said Lee, who led the Black Student Union at Mills College and was a member of the Black Panthers in the 1960s.

She encouraged youth to continue their protests and pledged to provide them with the resources and legislation they need to sustain their activism.

“I know for a fact that policies and laws don’t change unless we have a movement — that has to be political, mind you — in the streets, pushing elected officials to do the right thing,” said Lee.

Lee’s congressional district includes Albany, Berkeley, Oakland, Emeryville, Alameda, Piedmont and San Leandro.

The police killing of 46-year-old George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25 was captured in detailed video footage, and sparked renewed calls for racial equity and protests in all 50 states. The streets of Oakland have been filled with protesters since May 29, sometimes many different protests a day. Berkeley didn’t immediately see demonstrations at the scale of Oakland and San Francisco, possibly due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but this weekend the city’s streets filled with thousands of youth, seniors and local leaders.

Fletcher noted an important difference in the title of the commission, compared to those created internationally. Using “racial healing” instead of “reconciliation,” centers people who have been victimized by systemic racism, she said. Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza elaborated on this idea of racial healing and transformation during Friday’s discussion with Lee and other activists, saying legislation and budgetary investment in black communities are essential to creating peaceful, safe, dignified communities with the resources they need to thrive.

Garza also praised young people for leading demonstrations, saying “they aren’t the future, they’re right now.” The long-term struggle will be to ensure powerful people address and resolve the underlying reasons for the protests, she said, instead of just acknowledging that they happened.

“The fact of the matter is, it is always rough when there’s property that gets broken, but one thing that we can always be assured of, is that property can be rebuilt, but we have to make sure that we’re rebuilding lives,” Garza said, referring to looting and vandalism that broke out in concurrence with protests early on. “We cannot be calling for peace at the expense of calling for justice, and actually, those two things should be intertwined.”

The commission is supported by a “broad coalition” of Congress and community members, Lee’s office said, and will require approval from both the House of Representatives and the Senate to be formed.

On Monday, the Congressional Black Caucus also unveiled the Justice in Policing Act. The police reform legislation seeks to ban chokeholds – such as the one used in George Floyd’s killing – nationwide, create a fund for state attorneys general to independently investigate police brutality, and require use of force data from police departments to be submitted federally. The bill would not provide more funding to police departments to institute the changes, according to CNN.

Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's general assignment reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: (510) 585-8315.