Black Advocates Unite to Overturn The Filibuster, a Jim Crow Relic

This arcane Senate rule was used to thwart civil rights legislation in the 20th Century. In 2021, we cannot allow a Republican minority to use it to block progress for communities of color.

Ashlee Wisdom and Greg Jackson Feb 28, 2021

As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s imperative we reflect on the practices that have blocked progress for racial justice. Primary among them is the filibuster, which former President Obama called a ‘Jim Crow relic,’ at Rep. John Lewis’s funeral. The filibuster is a loophole that allows a minority of Senators to block legislation favored by the majority. The tool has blocked over 200 anti-lynching bills and is most often weaponized against civil rights legislation. Just one example of hundreds: segregationist Senators used the filibuster to fight tooth and nail against the landmark Civil Rights Acts of 1964, launching a sixty-day long filibuster to try and block equal rights. 

This arcane rule appears nowhere in the Constitution. It means that our government does not represent the will of the people. It doesn’t equally represent Black people, period. The Senate gives disproportionate power to sparsely inhabited rural states and is a white-dominated, minoritarian institution. The average Black American is only 75 percent as much representation as the average white American in the Senate, and the average Latino American only 55 percent as much. 

Facing intersecting crises — a pandemic, racial injustice, a gun violence epidemic, to name a few — we cannot afford to wait for change.

One necessary solution to the problem of underrepresentation is to make D.C. the 51st state. More than 700,000 Americans live in our nation’s capital without a vote in Congress and the majority of the population is Black or Brown. If D.C. gained statehood, it would be the first state with a plurality of Black residents. This change, though, would be blocked by the filibuster if it made it to the Senate floor, as the Republicans have repeatedly warned.

That’s why we joined Just Democracy, a coalition of 40+ Black and Brown-led groups fighting to reform our democratic institutions, including eliminating the filibuster and making D.C. a state. Though on the surface, rules like the filibuster might just seem like a wonky part of the D.C. insider’s game, our coalition has set out to make clear how these institutions stall progress for communities of color. 

We work on different issues — gun violence and health care access — but progress in both of these spaces has been blocked by outdated and racist structures like the filibuster and D.C.’s disenfranchisement, so we’ve come together to end these pernicious Jim Crow relics. 

Ashlee Wisdom, Founder of Health in Her HUE

As a Black woman, I too often have to fight to be heard — especially in the doctor’s office. Black women face higher mortality rates across the board and it’s frequently because the white-dominated health care providers don’t understand how everyday racism affects our health. I founded Health in Her HUE, a new digital platform to connect Black women to culturally competent health care providers who understand how structural racism impacts our health.

I am tired of seeing the medical system fail Black women. And I’m tired of seeing this democracy fail Black people. 

I’ve witnessed firsthand how the coronavirus has ravaged communities of color, and Black and Brown people still aren’t getting the treatment we need to fight this virus. We’ve experienced job loss and infections at higher rates while we wait for Congress to pass COVID relief. Threats of the filibuster have slowed COVID relief and other critical measures my community so desperately needs right now — forcing Democrats to use arduous processes like reconciliation just to get anything done.

The filibuster also plays a significant role in us not having a public health care option in this country — President Obama couldn’t secure 60 votes to include it in the Affordable Care Act. Democrats had to forgo one of the most transformative aspects of the proposed ACA so it could scrape by the 60-vote Senate threshold, exemplifying how the filibuster blocks progressive change by grinding the legislative process to a halt.

The coronavirus pandemic has not only exposed every flaw in our medical system, but those in our democracy. The voices of Americans most impacted by the virus are drowned out because our institutions structurally undervalue and underrepresent Black and Brown voices. Our communities can’t wait for help any longer. The filibuster is standing in the way of tangible change, and we need to take bold action quickly. 

I’m a proud New Yorker, and I’m proud that Majority Leader Schumer is representing me in the Senate. He’s tirelessly fought for bold reform, but if he wants to continue delivering for his constituents, he needs to lead the charge to eliminate the filibuster. 

Greg Jackson, National Advocacy Director of the Community Justice Action Fund: 

In 2013, I nearly died after being shot in Washington, D.C. After a bullet damaged two arteries, my life was nearly taken by a crisis that has now become a leading cause of death for the Black and Latinx communities across the country. While laying in the hospital, I witnessed Congress debate gun violence as a “hot button” issue and not the public health crisis that takes over 40,000 lives and injures hundreds of thousands every year. 

Now, I fight for transformative gun violence prevention solutions, like funding community based efforts to intervene and prevent violence, resources for survivors of gun violence and critical research to understand the true scale and complexities of this crisis.

Despite the overwhelming popularity of efforts to address gun violence, we’ve seen Congress refuse to take action, and tools like the filibuster are used to block even the most popular of solutions to reducing gun violence. 

Legislative tactics shouldn’t be weaponized to protect special interests over saving lives. The filibuster isn’t gospel. It subverts the will of the people even in times of crisis, blocking legislation that would save lives. 

These critical failures of our government are even more difficult to watch because I don’t have a vote in the discussion. I am one of the more than 700,000 residents of Washington, D.C. who lack a vote in Congress because D.C. is not a state. 

D.C. suffers greatly from gun violence and our lack of representation is stalling critical progress on the issue. The District has tried to enact strong measures to address gun violence that have been held hostage by Congress, and our territory status means we have less power to defend ourselves from guns being trafficked in from other states. 

D.C. being denied statehood has life-threatening consequences for its residents like me, and D.C. residents deserve to have a voice in crucial Congressional decisions that affect all Americans. The District is majority Black and Brown, meaning that enfranchising D.C. residents would uplift Black voices in the halls of power. 

We both believe in the potential of our growing and vibrant democracy, but there’s so much work to be done. And while this country faces intersecting crises — a pandemic, racial injustice, a gun violence epidemic, to name a few — we cannot afford to wait for change. 

To finally take progressive action, we must eliminate the filibuster, make D.C. a state, and eradicate all Jim Crow relics embedded in this country’s institutions.

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