Progressives push Biden to act on reparations, racial justice before 2024 election

Members of Congress and a coalition of social justice and civil rights groups are calling on President Joe Biden to use his executive powers to address a host of racial justice issues ahead of the 2024 election. 

In a letter sent to the White House on President’s Day, U.S. Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, Cori Bush, D-Mo., and Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., urged Biden to use his executive powers to advance the movement for reparations, safeguard Black history, and protect voting rights, among other requests. 

The progressive House members were joined in solidarity with 200 organizations, led by the National Black Justice Coalition, United by Equity, and Black Music Action Coalition.

“For far too long, the scars and trauma of racial inequity have marred the United States and hindered our nation’s progress,” read the letter. “Our collective history necessitates rectifying the wrongs of the past and present, forging a future where equity and justice are lived realities for all.” 

The correspondence includes a list of legislation and resolutions introduced by Democrats in Congress that Republican lawmakers have stalled. The bills include H.R. 40, which would create a reparations commission to study the impacts of U.S. slavery and a companion resolution that would establish a U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation. It includes other bills like a resolution recognizing “Banned Books Week,” the “African American History Act” to preserve Black history and culture, and comprehensive voting rights legislation named after the late civil rights leader U.S. Rep. John R. Lewis.

Reps. Lee, Jackson Lee, Bush, and Bowman, along with the hundreds of social and civil rights organizations, said the array of legislation was “historic” and required “robust support and decisive executive action to move from potential to reality.” 

“We call upon the White House to lend its considerable power to these causes,” the coalition urged the president. “We ask for executive actions and orders aligning with and supporting these legislative efforts to achieve racial equity and reparative justice.”

In a statement provided to theGrio, Congresswoman Lee said that “despite the Republican majority in the House this Congress, my colleagues and I are fighting for critical racial justice legislation.”

Rep. Barbara Lee speaks at a town hall on Sept. 8, 2023, hosted by the advocacy group March For Our Lives at East LA College, in Monterey Park, California. (Photo by Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The current Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in California said President Biden has the “power to advance and implement” the racial justice agenda laid out in the letter. 

“Systemic racism continues to plague this nation, as it has for centuries,” added Lee. “It’s past time the federal government prioritized proposals to begin repairing the harm done to people of color in this country.”

Lee and her congressional colleagues have been working alongside organizations and racial justice leaders who have been doing the work of advocating for policy change on the ground. In recent years, Republican governors have targeted Black history and how race is taught in classrooms and have defunded diversity programs designed to promote diversity and equity on college campuses. 

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year against race-based affirmative action in college admissions, other lawsuits emerged challenging the legality of diversity and equity programs in business and health care

Though President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have often condemned conservative efforts to ban books and modify how Black history is taught in schools, racial justice advocates want to see them go further. 

Marcus Anthony Hunter, executive director of United by Equity, worked closely with Rep. Lee on crafting and advocating for some of the legislation he and the coalition of leaders are calling for Biden to act on through executive actions.

Hunter told theGrio that the letter was an intentional call to action after noticing the White House appeared to be “kicking the can down the road” and “postponing” plans to meet with Congresswoman Lee and other advocates. This despite having had previous meetings with the White House and the Biden-Harris transition team following the 2020 election.

“Seventy-two million-plus voters voted the Biden-Harris administration in and that was in large part due to promises and ideas about equity, particularly following [George] Floyd and [Breonna] Taylor’s tragic deaths,” said Hunter, who worked with Lee on a resolution calling for the establishment of a U.S. Commission on Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation.

Protesters carry a painting of (left to right) Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd while marching on June 5, 2020, in Louisville, Kentucky. (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)

The idea of a “truth” commission, seen as a companion to the reparations commission that would be created with the passing of H.R. 40, comes from research conducted by Dr. Gail C. Christopher at the Kellogg Foundation. Academic research found that the idea of reconciliation is not “applicable” in America, said Hunter, because “reconcile usually means returning to a space of equality where we know with enslavement there was no space to return to that.” He added, “The idea is that you have racial healing and transformation.”

Despite inaction in Congress, states like California and New York and cities like St. Louis, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Boston have established reparations task forces aimed at righting the wrongs of U.S. slavery. 

“Because the president or the White House isn’t even speaking about it in any meaningful way, or really any way at all, people don’t even know that things are happening,” said Hunter, who argued that Biden must use his “bully pulpit” to shed light on efforts to seek repair for the harms caused by U.S. racism.

After H.R. 40 failed to pass in Congress, Biden was previously asked to sign an executive order to create a reparations committee in the absence of legislation. However, the White House has consistently avoided making any such commitment.

Speaking to the power of executive orders, Hunter recalled history dating back to 1863. 

“Once upon a time, not long ago, a president named Abraham Lincoln did an executive order called the Emancipation Proclamation,” he recalled, referring to the executive order that called for the end of U.S. slavery. Hunter added that while “you needed the 13th Amendment to make it official,” it set a precedent for the kind of power and influence a president can yield.

Executive orders aside, Hunter noted that the letter also intentionally calls for President Biden to take executive “action,” like simply speaking out more publicly about racial justice issues like reparations and other reparative measures. He mentioned the president’s annual State of the Union address on March 7 as an opportunity to do so. 

“People have been agitating and doing this work locally, regionally, and at the state level, and there’s been no real mention of it by the president,” he noted. “It would be reinvigorating to all of those cities and towns and states that have been doing this very hard, thankless work without any recognition from the federal government about its importance.”

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul holds up signed legislation creating a commission for the study of reparations in New York on Dec. 19, 2023, in New York City. Gov. Hochul was joined by Rev. Al Sharpton, various members of New York government leadership and influential community members six months after state lawmakers passed the bill and three years after California became the first state to create a reparations task force. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Polls continue to suggest Biden and Harris have more convincing to do for Black voters ahead of the 2024 election. Advocates say acting on the agenda presented in this recent letter to the president would signal to Black voters that the administration has their backs, as Biden promised he would do after their historic election victory in 2020.

“The Biden-Harris administration has everything to gain by advancing an agenda that is framed by equity,” said David J. Johns, executive director of the National Black Justice Coalition, who also led the letter to President Biden on behalf of organizations.

Johns said all 11 pieces of legislation and resolutions listed in the letter to Biden are “equally important” and should be “advanced swiftly.” 

He rejected any legal concerns about Biden acting unilaterally on racial justice issues, telling theGrio, “Everything that the President has done since the first day of his administration, it has been challenged.” He added, “We should expect at this point for fascist white supremacists who are in political positions of power to challenge everything.”

Johns said it would behoove President Biden to use the levers at his disposal to advance racial justice because they matter to Black people, and what benefits Black Americans benefits all.

“What we are demanding in partnership with the current and, I hope, continued administration is an opportunity to work toward all of us getting closer to freedom,” he said.

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Gerren Keith Gaynor

Gerren Keith Gaynor is a White House Correspondent and the Managing Editor of Politics at theGrio. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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A group of Democratic members of Congress and over 200 social justice and civil rights organizations have urged President Joe Biden to use his executive powers to address racial justice issues. The letter, sent on President’s Day, called for actions such as advancing the movement for reparations, protecting Black history, and safeguarding voting rights. The letter also highlighted a list of legislation introduced by Democrats that Republican lawmakers have stalled. Advocates believe that the administration has the power to implement these changes and should prioritize racial justice proposals. They also emphasized the importance of the president speaking out publicly about these issues, especially as the 2024 election approaches. The goal is to signal to Black voters that the administration is committed to racial equity and reparative justice. Despite legal concerns, advocates believe that advancing racial justice issues benefits Black Americans and society as a whole. The letter serves as a call to action for the Biden administration to use its power to address racial inequities and historical wrongs.

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