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Lawmakers Use Protest Momentum To Push State Racial Reforms

Ohio State Sen. Sandra Williams speaks during an interview, in Columbus, Ohio. The killing of George Floyd has sparked broader discussions of race and discrimination in state legislatures across the country. Affirmative action, reparations and designating racism as a public health crisis are generating debate and a fair amount of controversy.
Credit: Associate Press Photo/ John Minchillo

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — The racial reckoning sweeping the country after the killing of George Floyd in police custody has generated momentum at state capitols for widespread reforms addressing a range of inequities.

Lawmakers have floated proposals to address affirmative action, racial disparities in school funding and health care, criminal justice reforms and even study reparations for slavery.

The efforts go beyond policing reforms to focus on systemic racism that has stubbornly pervaded public life for decades. They are prompting “very real conversations I didn’t think the country has ever really had because none of them are comfortable,” said Sydney Kamlager, a member of the Legislative Black Caucus in the California state Assembly.

“If you’re just talking about police and you’re not looking at the rest of the spectrum, then you’re really not focused on change,” she said.

Success has been mixed. While advocates in California have celebrated a string of recent legislative victories, lawmakers in New Hampshire refused to make an exception to their rules for a Democratic lawmaker who sought to introduce a bill examining racial bias and discrimination in the state’s corrections, judicial and police systems.

“I think it can wait,” said New Hampshire state Rep. Jack Flanagan, a Republican.

State Rep. Renny Cushing wanted to create a commission to collect data and make recommendations in areas such as training for police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, corrections officers and parole officers. He can try again in a few months.

“I grew up in this state and I hear people say, ‘We don’t have a problem with race in this state because we’re all white,’” Cushing said. “That in itself is a problem — that’s what unconscious bias is.”

Democratic lawmakers in Pennsylvania also are trying to capitalize on the moment to address racial bias in the judicial system. In Massachusetts, a Democratic lawmaker wants to overhaul state education spending to funnel more money to schools with high numbers of minority students. And in Ohio, separate resolutions would declare racism a public health crisis.

Lawmakers aren’t waiting in California, where a number of bills that have struggled to pass for years are suddenly sailing through the Legislature. Last week, the state Assembly overwhelmingly approved legislative that would let voters decide whether to overturn the state’s 1996 ban on affirmative action in government and public colleges and universities.

On Thursday, the state Senate passed a bill to make ethnic studies a graduation requirement in the California State University system, the country’s largest four-year public university with 23 campuses and more than 481,000 students. The bill had been languishing in the chamber for more than a year.

“Everybody has become a reformer,” said state Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus.

Weber is the driving force behind another proposal that has received renewed attention — studying how California could offer reparations for slavery. The idea has been debated for decades, mostly at the federal level. Bills proposing a federal study have been in Congress since 1989 but have failed to pass.

California entered the Union in 1850 as a free state, meaning it never had a government-sanctioned system of slavery. But the state allowed slave-owning whites to bring their slaves to California, and the Legislature passed a law making it legal to arrest runaway slaves and return them to their owners.

California’s bill would establish an eight-member task force to study the effects of slavery and its “legacy of structural discrimination.” The committee would recommend how the state could compensate black people, which doesn’t necessarily mean cash. Weber, the bill’s author, said other ideas include paying for college education or helping people buy homes.

“We resisted defining what would happen. That limits the bill itself,” Weber said..

Other states have sought to couple their coronavirus relief efforts with racial justice issues. In Pennsylvania, Democratic lawmakers have fused a police reform and racial justice agenda with a pandemic recovery platform under the banner of a “just recovery.” While Democrats have a minority in both of Pennsylvania’s legislative chambers, they have had success in shaping how the state is spending federal coronavirus aid.

In Massachusetts, state Rep. Russell Holmes said a priority will be finding an extra $1 billion over the next few years for struggling school systems.

“From a black and Latino perspective, that is primarily in our cities,” he said.

Ohio could go further by declaring racism a public health crisis.

The Ohio Legislative Black Caucus said resolutions in the House and Senate would officially acknowledge racism in Ohio for the first time. They call for increased spending to address the effects of racism in education, housing, criminal justice and health care.


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