The Root Interview: Rep. Barbara Lee on Race in America
The chair of the Congressional Black Caucus says the nation must address disparities in education, employment, health and incarceration that are the legacy of racism and discrimination.
As chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Barbara Lee, who represents northern California's 9th District, leads one of the nation's most prominent African-American instruments for social change. On Monday she released a memo in which she encouraged America and the media to revamp how they discuss race and racism, and called the phrase "national dialogue about race" a cliché.
Lee's words come in the lead-up to the 40th annual CBC Legislative Conference. Over four days, CBC members will engage with colleagues like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in seeking policy solutions that will benefit the nation's many struggling African Americans.
The Root: You recently put forth a call asking for "proper context" in America's dialogue on race. What did you mean by that?
Rep. Barbara Lee: First of all, I think we have to face the fact that issues of race can no longer be swept under the rug. We also must have a dialogue and discussion about race and racism, and the unfinished business of America. What's most important, I think, is that we look at the present-day disparities, which have historically been part of the economic instability in the African-American community.
As a member of Congress, and as chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, [I feel] it's up to me -- and others -- to really look at how race plays into public policy, especially when talking about the criminal justice system, education, health disparities, employment. Look at all the glaring inequities -- race is a factor, and we have to look at how we're going to close those disparities. It can't just be a policy agenda; it also has to be my agenda. And to really work on that, we must continue the dialogue about race and racism and come to grips with the racial divide.
TR: You've said that the media "bears significant responsibility for the sensationalized and superficial moments that too often constitute America's conversations about race." What can the media do to improve its coverage of racial issues?
BL: I think the media has to become responsible and talk about race as a factor in this country's disparities. The media needs to report on health disparities -- the reasons African Americans are disproportionately impacted by diabetes, hypertension and prostate cancer. Why are these disparities so prevalent in the black and Latino communities?
Why is the unemployment rate for the black community twice the national average? What is it historically and currently that allowed this to happen? And I think that when people do that and report that, you will begin to look at what has happened in terms of the chronically unemployed -- the majority are African Americans.