John Conyers Jr., a Democrat, represents Michigan’s 13th Congressional District in the House.
Nearly 50 years ago, the Kerner Commission, which was created in the aftermath of the country’s 1967 riots, warned that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” And now, six years after the election of our first African American president, we still find ourselves riven by racial distrust and fear. The string of deaths of unarmed blacks by police officers in Cleveland, Phoenix, New York and Ferguson, Mo., challenge not only the strength of our criminal and social justice systems but also the credibility and legitimacy of our political system.
In 1965, when I came to Congress, I joined a legislative body that was still able to work together at times of national crisis. The first major bill I voted on, the Voting Rights Act, was a response to widespread outrage over the police reaction to the “Bloody Sunday” protests, including the beatings in Selma, Ala. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.) and his Republican counterpart, Everett Dirksen (Ill.), introduced the bill, and the final legislation enjoyed more support from Republican than Democratic members, an almost unthinkable dynamic today.
Even after the divisive impact of the so-called “Gingrich Revolution” when Congress was truly tested, we were able to rise to the occasion. In 1996, in the midst of a wave of arsons targeting African American houses of worship, then-Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde, a stalwart Republican from Illinois, asked me to work with him on a legislative response. We disagreed on most of the major social issues of the day, from abortion to affirmative action. However, during this crisis we found a way to introduce and pass the Church Arson Prevention Act, which not only gave law enforcement needed prosecutorial tools but also sent a loud and clear signal to the minority community that Congress was willing and able to act.
Today, at a time of greater polarization and gridlock, Congress is again being challenged. I don’t labor under the illusion that Washington has all the answers — we can’t do anything to bring back the four individuals who were killed. But there are some common-sense actions Congress can take:
• First and foremost, at a time when we have more than 2 million individuals in prison — 60 percent of whom are minorities — we need a federal law limiting racial profiling and reducing over-incarceration. Research demonstrates people of color are profiled and arrested at disproportionately higher rates as well as charged with harsher counts and sentenced more severely than whites. We were on the verge of enacting a ban on profiling in 2001 and President George W. Bush called for it in his State of the Union address, but it became politically untenable in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
• Second, we need a fairer system to resolve allegations of police brutality. If the nation has learned anything over the past several weeks, it’s that relying on a grand jury system led by local prosecutors is insufficient to protect against police misconduct. That’s why I have proposed legislation to strengthen the Justice Department’s ability to conduct “pattern and practice” investigations and to foster a system of improved standards for federal and state police operations, especially in the areas of accountability and oversight.
• Third, we need to update the Voting Rights Act — which has been severely undermined by the Supreme Court’s recent Shelby County v. Holder decision — so that we can prevent voting discrimination practices before they take effect. One of the lessons of Ferguson is that minority communities that do not believe they have political representation run the risk of becoming alienated from their public officials. It is by now well known that Ferguson, an overwhelmingly African American community, had only three black officers out of 53 on the police force and just one black on the six-person city council. Our nation can and must do better.
After the midterm elections, our congressional leaders declared a newfound fidelity to bipartisanship. The recent string of tragedies makes clear that now is the time to convert their words into legislative action. I understand that remaining partisan differences — if not outright anger — have prevented cooperation in the past. However, it’s instructive to recall that such differences did not stop conservative President Ronald Reagan from signing the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday bill into law in 1983. Nor did they prevent Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.) and Bush from working with me and other Democrats to extend the Voting Rights Act in 2006.
On Jan. 6, I will become the dean of the House of Representatives, and my first responsibility will be to swear in John Boehner as House speaker. Both of us can recall an era when Congress was more capable of responding to a national crisis. It is therefore my hope that we will be able to rekindle that heritage of collaboration and work together toward soothing the racial scars exposed in Missouri, Ohio, Arizona and New York.