The Commercial Appeal

End the filibuster to make progress on race and more

- Your Turn

Once again, we have a Democratic president trying to urgently solve a crisis in America. Once again, Americans are demanding action on racial injustice because they have come to see it as a barrier for everyone’s progress. And once again, even though Democrats control the Senate agenda with a bare majority, Republican­s have more than enough senators to block bills with a filibuster.

The nature of the filibuster, its rules and norms, is hardly an iron-clad tradition. It has changed and adapted greatly over the years since it first became popular in the civil rights era. But what hasn’t changed is its enduring connection to racism. The filibuster has always stood in the way of racial progress, whether employed by Southern Democrats of the Jim Crow era or the Republican Party today after a major shift in the party’s stance on racial equality. When you understand the filibuster’s racist past, it becomes clear that it has a racist present as well – and that we need to get rid of it.

A tool of repression from the start

South Carolina segregatio­nist Sen. Strom Thurmond set a record for the longest one man filibuster in history in a bid to stop the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act, which protected voting rights for Black Americans. In a 24-hour-long screed on the Senate floor, Thurmond, a central figure among racist Southern “Dixiecrats” who left the Democratic Party soon thereafter, compared the legislatio­n to cruel and unusual punishment.

Thurmond’s strategy backfired, as enough Americans found such blatant racism repugnant, and the Senate later changed the filibuster rules. Since the 1970s, most filibusters have been “silent” – that is, all you need to do is threaten to stop a bill. Individual senators no longer have to actually stand up and voice their objections. They can block legislatio­n, which too often includes measures to advance racial justice, secretly and silently, without ever having to go on record about why.

But with the way Republican senators have used the filibuster of late, the winners and losers haven’t changed. In recent years, they have filibustered major legislatio­n like the DREAM Act, the Affordable Care Act, and several proposals for sensible gun reform that overwhelmi­ngly benefit communitie­s of color.

The Republican Party decades ago launched a fourpart strategy to hijack government to the will of the minority. The filibuster is the prime (but not only) example of the first part, which is changing and abusing the rules of representa­tive government to give more and more power to fewer and fewer people.

The second part is a similar abuse of the rules of voting. Republican­s’ push to gerrymande­r legislativ­e districts allows a minority of voters to choose a majority of seats. Their campaigns to enact voter ID laws, block the voting rights of ex-felons and conduct biased voter roll purges make it harder for Black people to vote. Third is their drive to give corporatio­ns more power by relaxing rules around political donations and allowing corporate groups to write draft legislatio­n. That has led to more government policy to benefit corporatio­ns at the expense of everyday people, and prevents Black communitie­s, in particular, from being able to fight back against corporate attacks and exploitati­on.

Finally, most obviously, the Republican­s have spent years remaking the court system into a radically conservati­ve engine for blocking, slowing, and overturnin­g progressiv­e legislatio­n.

Filibuster workaround on COVID relief

Voters ranked racial equality the second most important issue in the 2020 election, behind only the economy, after a year of spiking awareness of Black men and women lost to police violence. We have just endured an unpreceden­ted level of attack on the integrity of our elections and post-election attempts to disenfranc­hise Black voters. Democrats have ambitious plans to address these problems with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancemen­t Act, but the filibuster threatens them in the Senate.

All of these measures of social, economic, racial and civic justice would benefit all Americans, but because they would benefit Black Americans in particular, they are blocked by a Republican Party that cannot hold onto power without racially posturing to its shrinking base. The filibuster is the GOP’S tool for doing so. It’s time for the filibuster to go. It has no place in our modern political structure and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats must finally get rid of it.

Rashad Robinson is president of Color Of Change. Follow him on Twitter: @rashadrobi­nson

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