With uncharacteristic speed, Congress is responding to a historic moment on issues of race in America by crafting legislation to reform police forces—proposals aimed at changing the culture and conditions that have led to the repeated killings of unarmed black Americans at the hands of police.
But increasingly, lawmakers are concerned that Capitol Hill’s response to protesters’ demands for racial justice will be severely limited if it doesn’t include measures to address another powerful undercurrent of the nationwide protests: pervasive economic inequality that’s left black communities behind.
That long standing inequality has been put into an even starker light by the circumstances of George Floyd’s death—his killer, Derek Chauvin, stopped him over an allegedly fake $20 bill—and by the coronavirus outbreak, which has put low-wage workers of color on the front lines of the pandemic, ravaged minority-owned businesses, and sparked massive levels of unemployment in their communities.
Many of the economic relief measures that Congress approved in response to the outbreak—expanded unemployment insurance, a one-time economic stimulus, moratorium on rent payments in public housing—have lapsed or are set to lapse by the end of July.
Failing to address those, said Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), could be a powerful factor that sustains and intensifies protests around the country, as job opportunities stagnate and families face eviction from housing. Beyer, chairman of Congress’ Joint Economic Committee, said policymakers have to understand that the protests ignited in an environment where “people are suffering greatly from the recession, the coronavirus, the general systemic sense that things are far from fair in the U.S.”
“If you look at coronavirus, all the strife in our streets right now over police brutality, the impact of the recession,” continued Beyer, “all are connected to the systemic racism that’s expressed in our economy.”
The dual push to address both social and economic racial inequality presents Congress with a historic opportunity to enact sweeping legislative reform. But while Republicans, including Trump himself, seem inclined to tackle problems with policing, the appetite for action on economic measures doesn’t seem widespread at the moment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has been slow to embrace even the notion that additional COVID-19 relief is necessary; and he’s been backed by close advisers to the president.
For those concerned about lingering social discord, that’s proved worrisome.
In a June 2 statement before the Senate Banking Committee, on which he is the top Democrat, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) sought to connect the issues gripping the country: “Our job is to show victims of systemic racism at the hands of their own government that the same government will protect them from this pandemic—that we hear them, that we see them, that we are fighting for them,” said Brown. “And that their lives matter.”
Asked in an interview if a failure to further extend economic relief could impact protests, Brown said he didn’t want to predict anything. “What I will predict is, if we don’t move until July, the economic damage is going to broaden and deepen, and the hole to climb out of will be much harder to ascend,” he told The Daily Beast. “Everything that’s happening now makes it more urgent.”
Leading Democrats, like former presidential candidate and Obama Cabinet member Julián Castro, say all of these things are “inseparable.”
“So much of the frustration that people feel, I think, stems not only from the loss of life we’ve seen… This is a moment where those two frustrations have met,” Castro told The Daily Beast. “There may be more frustration, there may be more people that get out there,” if lawmakers don’t consider broader economic relief. “The question is, how does that turn into policy changes that make a difference for people?”