The Boldness of Barbara Lee: Why the Congresswoman Is Still Pushing ‘Against the Odds’ for Systemic Change

Illustration for article titled The Boldness of Barbara Lee: Why the Congresswoman Is Still Pushing ‘Against the Odds’ for Systemic Change
Photo: Chip Somodevilla (Getty Images)

Say what you will about Barbara Lee, but one thing you can never accuse the California congresswoman of is backing down from a fight.

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Despite a congressional stalemate that has left Americans without another aid package during a recession and a global pandemic, Lee is still putting forward legislative proposals that center Americans of color in unprecedented ways.

Last week, Lee, along with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and her mentee, Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), put forward a bill that would require the federal government to name systemic racism as a public health crisis, and require the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to study and target problems like gentrification and police brutality through the lens of health.

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The bill is unlikely to be passed by a staunchly conservative Senate, but the longtime congresswoman, who has represented California in the U.S. House since 1998, remains resolute in the prospect of bringing about meaningful change through strong, progressive policies.

“I believe it’s a matter of time,” Lee told The Root over the phone Tuesday night.

On Tuesday, the congresswoman put forward yet another piece of legislation designed to help marginalized communities. The COVID Community Care Act builds on the existing CARES Act, passed in late March, by tacking on a small but significant provision that could have an outsize benefit for communities of color that have been devastated by the coronavirus.

The Act would do this by providing funding, via grants, for community-based organizations and nonprofits to conduct testing, tracing and outreach activities in communities that have experienced higher rates of COVID-19. If passed, the bill would require that people hired to educate and engage these communities about the coronavirus would have previous experiences and relationships to the community they’re serving.

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“When you look at some of our low-income communities throughout the country...the funding and the strategies just haven’t been developed by the CDC or [Human Health Services] or the federal government,” said Lee. “We have to, in many ways, take this into our own hands and direct them how to do this.”

On its face, this would seem like a common-sense add-on, building on certain truths of human behavior: You are more likely to take advice from someone you know, someone who knows you and the community you live in, in a way you might not from an outsider. But even though Lee’s bill doesn’t seem controversial, that doesn’t mean passing the act won’t be a challenge.

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Over the last six months, businesses across the country have shuttered, with millions of Americans filing for unemployment. Nearly 190,000 people have died in the world’s wealthiest country—and Congress has remained at a stalemate about how to manage the myriad challenges facing the nation.

The largest of these challenges include an economy in recession and mass civil unrest because of unabating police brutality and extrajudicial killings. To top it all off, there is an anticipated second wave of the coronavirus expected to surge through the United States as autumn transitions into winter. According to one recent Washington Post report, which cites a model used by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), the country could see anywhere between 288,000 to 620,000 COVID-19 deaths by Jan. 1.

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To avoid the worst-case scenario, people will need to wear masks, social distance, and possibly resume shelter-in-place measures. But the effect of any safety protocol will be limited if it’s not communicated effectively. That’s where Lee’s bill comes in.

She points to local organizations like Harlem’s “violence interrupters,” many of whom are formerly incarcerated, that did community outreach during the pandemic, handing out masks and gloves in historically Black neighborhoods, doing one-to-one education on street corners to passersby about the dangers of the virus and how to prevent the spread.

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Lee points out that a traditional model of legislation would have relied on local and state health care departments and their affiliate groups to deliver the message—likely via doctor’s offices or signage in highly trafficked areas. But the model Lee and others propose relies more on existing community-led groups to be the frontline in educating and plugging people into resources, whether it’s tracing and testing information or providing actual protective gear. The legislation, recognizing that Black and Latinx workers are more likely to be working jobs deemed “essential” during the pandemic, also contains a PPE provision for essential workers.

That simple change actually marks a paradigm shift in how the virus has been fought, simply by engaging overlooked communities and trusting them to know what their neighbors need and what they will respond to. It’s also a change that’s far overdue, in Lee’s eyes.

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“We’ve got to break the mold because this is a matter of life and death,” Lee stressed.

The bill has a broad base of support, receiving the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus, and the Asian Pacific American Caucus, as well as the House’s two Native American congresswomen, Reps. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) and Sharice Davids (D-Kan.).

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But even though the bill will likely pass the House, Lee knows the legislation will face an uphill battle in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Democratic proposals have met little support throughout the last four years. But while she characterizes Senate Republicans as largely being “missing in action” throughout the pandemic, she also observes that the national uprisings around Black Lives Matter and the unprecedented attention they’ve drawn to systemic racism mean Republican leadership cannot run away from the issue forever.

“You have this huge pandemic, this horrific pandemic, that’s disproportionately killing black and brown people. And you have us in the streets protesting systemic racism. And members of Congress cannot avoid that. They can’t deny that racial justice and equity in health care is an issue that they have to respond to,” said Lee.  

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The stakes are also far too high for her to twiddle her fingers until a more amenable Senate appears.

“We can’t leave any stone unturned because too many people are dying, too many people are getting sick,” Lee said, noting that Black Americans are used to fighting against the odds.

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“As an African-American woman, I’m not going to just say, just because the Senate hasn’t moved, I’m not going to do my job, because this is a matter of life and death. And we will have breakthroughs.”

Staff writer, The Root.

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