The Root Interview: Rep. Barbara Lee on Race in America

Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

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.

I think as the press reports the context, then Americans can begin to understand this more fully. And then that dialogue can begin. But if it's only sound bites or simplistic [coverage], you don't know about the reasons or what has led to this.


TR: In your statement on America's racial dialogue, you directly address white privilege. But in July your colleague Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal that called white privilege "a myth." What do you think about his statements?

BL: Well, those are his statements. But I don't think [white privilege] is a myth. Just go to history, go to context, go to structural inequality and structural inequity, and you'll see who has benefited and who has not benefited. Believe you me, I understand the plight of the working poor, and so I'm not saying that economic discrimination has only hit the African-American community. I know that it has also hit the poor white community and the poor Latino community. But what underlines a lot of the problems in the black community is discrimination and race and racism and segregation.


You know, when I started school, I couldn't go to public schools because they were segregated. We still have vestiges of those days with us. When I was born, they wouldn't admit my mother into the hospital because she was black, and she almost died delivering me. This is recent; this is not 300 years ago. It takes a while to unravel all this, but the sooner we begin to recognize that we do not live in a post-racial era, then we can really begin a dialogue and policy agenda that benefits the entire country. Because what benefits those that have been shut out makes us stronger as a people, as Americans.

TR: What does the CBC intend to do to further the dialogue on race?

BL: We're having our second annual Hill Day Summit [on Sept. 15], and I think the agenda for that day lays out what the CBC not only has done but will continue to do. And we have our own legislative agenda, which speaks to many of these disparities, inequalities and what I call moral gaps.


We're going to talk about the Department of Agriculture and health services, and how we can help black farmers and ill African Americans. Senator Reid and Speaker Pelosi will be there to talk and to listen about how the policy agenda can continue to close these disparities. As an example, in our health-care bill, we fought hard to get health-care disparities addressed, and we won most of those provisions. But we have to fight for that. We have to close the gap. We need to make this a fair and more equitable society for all.

Cord Jefferson is a staff writer at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.

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