02.11.15

We must reform the entire system to achieve racial justice

(The Oakland Tribune) --- Last week, Attorney General Eric Holder accepted my invitation to visit our city, one of six cities, to listen to our concerns and suggestions.

In the wake of demands for action, the Obama administration has begun making important changes to end racial profiling, emphasize community-oriented policing and de-militarize police forces. However, much more needs to be done.

We are rightly outraged by the killing of unarmed young black men, weapons of war on our streets, and a criminal justice system that routinely fails our community. Parents in communities of color bear a terrible burden.

As the mother of two black men and grandmother of two black boys, I have had many painful but necessary conversations about how to behave and interact with law enforcement. No mother or grandmother should have to have these conversations, but they are necessary because black and brown children do not get the benefit of the doubt.

Over the past year, our country has awakened to the fact that, to some, the lives of our sons and daughters do not matter. The deaths of young African Americans are stinging reminders of our legitimate fears. These sentiments were echoed repeatedly at recent Oakland and Berkeley town halls. Hundreds told their stories of racial profiling, unjust sentencing and unequal treatment. This outrage is well-founded.

The statistics are heartbreakingly clear -- our criminal justice system is broken.

African Americans receive longer sentences for the same crimes and directly and indirectly suffer from racial profiling. An African American is killed every 28 hours by a security officer. Action is overdue to reform this broken system -- the time to act is now.

As we work to enact reforms, we must also recognize that law enforcement has a difficult job to ensure public safety. They too were part of the conversation with Attorney General Holder. It will take everyone to build trust and institute systemic change.

As a member of the Congressional Black Caucus's Ferguson Task Force, I am working to tackle discrimination and injustice. I am proud to co-sponsor the Shield Our Streets Act (HR103) and the Grand Jury Reform Act (HR429) to increase investment in community-orientated policing and to ensure deadly force cases are heard by a judge.

I am also working with my colleagues to re-introduce the End Racial Profiling Act, Police Accountability Act and the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act in the coming weeks.

However, legislation is only one piece. We must make greater investments in police force diversity and racial sensitivity training. We must recognize that the legacy of slavery, manifested today in institutional racism, is part of the unfinished business of America, which must be addressed.

We need to continue investing in systemic reforms to promote education, create good-paying jobs, ensure affordable housing and eliminate poverty.

The time for policy change is today. We will need everyone's help; we need the street heat. Peacefully march, register to vote, join civil rights organizations, call your legislators and demand action.

Fifty years ago in Selma, we saw young people change the course of history. Today, similar change and activism are again needed. We cannot wait; we cannot stand idle; we cannot fail to act because our children need us.

Rep. Barbara Lee represents California's 13th Congressional District. She is a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and former co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

To read this article in its original format, go here.