Why Hard History Matters: Addressing the Legacy of Jim Crow

Episode 16, Season 4

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries represents New York’s 8th congressional district. Our final episode this season takes us to the U.S. House of Representatives for a conversation between Rep. Jeffries and his brother, our host, Dr. Hasan Jeffries, to discuss the lingering effects of the Jim Crow era—including voter access, prison and policing reform, and other enduring injustices—and to discuss the continued relevance of teaching “hard history” as it relates to public policy today. 

 

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Transcript

Bethany Jay: The first Anti-Lynching legislation was passed by the US House of Representatives in 1918. But the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill was thwarted by a filibuster in the Senate. And during the next hundred years, over 200 subsequent legislative efforts failed. But on March 29, 2022, President Biden finally signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act into law.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Just in time.

Bethany Jay: Right?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, it only took 100 years to see this largely symbolic legislative victory. I’m glad a measure finally passed. But it would’ve been even better to see the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act become law.

Bethany Jay: Yes! It’s such a frustrating reminder of how many of the issues that we’ve been talking about from the Jim Crow era are still facing us today in one form or another. We see challenges to voter access, equitable representation, prison and policing reform, accurate historical education across the country. Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn more about how Congress is trying to address these lingering issues today?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I like the way you think. Let’s do it.

I’m Hasan Kwame Jeffries.

Bethany Jay: I’m Bethany Jay, and this is Teaching Hard History. We’re a production of Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This season, we’re offering a detailed look at how to teach the history of Jim Crow, starting with Reconstruction.

Bethany Jay: In each episode we explore a different topic—walking you through historical concepts, raising questions for discussion, suggesting useful source material and offering practical classroom exercises.

As we bring our fourth season to a close, we thought it would be a good time to look at how we are dealing with the legacies of the Jim Crow era today. And we’re going to do that through the lens of public policy.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I recently traveled to Washington, DC, to interview Congressman Hakeem Jeffries, representative of the eighth congressional district of New York (shout out to Brooklyn and Queens). He is the fifth highest-ranking Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the former whip of the Congressional Black Caucus and, I’m proud to say, my brother.

Bethany Jay: You know, we began this season talking about Reconstruction, when we saw African Americans elected to federal, state and local government, before the backlash against that profound move towards equity and equality. So it feels appropriate to bring things full circle by talking with Congressman Jeffries to get his perspective on the topics we’ve been exploring, like voting rights, criminal justice reform, education and more. I can’t wait to share this with our listeners. Should we get right into it?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely. Let’s get started.

It was really cool to be able to sit down and talk about the past and the present with my brother, the congressman from New York. But it's really, really cool to be able to sit down now with my co-host Bethany Jay and talk about the past, and the present and the interview. Bethany, what's up? What's going on?

Bethany Jay: It was much more cool to be at the Capitol talking with your brother. You don't need to pretend. I know.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Nothing beats hanging out with you. So, this is great. It's great to be back.

Bethany Jay: Yes. It's nice to be in the same, you know, space. And I'll have to say, I'm going to assign this particular podcast to my students because they are always so impressed that I know you, Hasan. They're very starstruck whenever they come to that realization. So…

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well, I need to share that with my daughters, who are not impressed with me at all, one bit.

Bethany Jay: They never are. Yeah.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Never are. Well, look, we have some clips. We have this interview we want to listen to. So how about we just dive right in? I had a great time talking to my brother, and I learned a lot. And I want to share it with our podcast listeners. And I want to share it with you. Let's listen. And let's talk about it.

Bethany Jay: Sounds great.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It is my distinct honor and pleasure to welcome to the podcast the congressman from the eighth congressional district in Brooklyn, New York, Hakeem Jeffries. Welcome to the podcast, man.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Good to be here.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Look, one of the questions that I get a lot is how did I wind up in the place that I am professionally. So, let me ask you, how did you choose this profession? Or did this profession choose you?

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, I think that all of us are a combination of the experiences that we've had, you know, growing up that helped to shape you. And for me—growing up in Brooklyn, coming of age, seventies, eighties into the nineties, tough times, 2000 plus, homicides, crack cocaine epidemic, but a very vibrant community, golden age of hip hop, growing up in the Black Church—all of these are important influences on my journey and the advocacy that I try to bring to bear. And going into the law, which helped to shape my thinking, my approach and the way I frame arguments and ideas.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You stayed in New York. I left to go to Atlanta to go to school. You stayed, wound up going to law school in New York. How much of the…

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: I stayed in the frying pan.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Lord have mercy. How much? Just answer the questions. Focus, brother.

How much of looking at politics in the eighties and nineties—I mean, you're going from Ed Koch, mayor of New York; Dinkins, first Black mayor—how much of that shaped your approach to politics today?

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, kind of remember Ed Koch. Far more cognizant of Mayor Dinkins. And in fact, that's the first time I voted, at least that I can recall that I voted. I remember being on campus at Binghamton and Dad sending me an absentee ballot saying, make sure you cast this vote in this election. Marlin Jeffries, being on top of it, saying, 'I gotta make sure my son votes in this election where David Dinkins has the opportunity to become the first Black mayor.’ So that's probably where I was first focused on what the municipal landscape was. But you may remember when Jesse Jackson ran in '84.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: '84 and '88.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: I was probably 14 at the time. You were 11 and 12. I remember Grandma Lee giving us Action Jackson t-shirts. Now I'm not sure if we knew he was a presidential candidate, or a superhero or what was going on. But I remember some Action Jackson, tight t-shirts in 1984.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, Bethany, I remember those T-shirts, and they were 1980 snug. They were snug. They were real tight. Too skinny to be wearing them.

Bethany Jay: With the shorts with a stripe up the side, I'm assuming. Right?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Oh, Lord have mercy, man. It was terrible. It was terrible. But it reflected not just what we knew about politics. My brother's right. I'm not sure whether we knew he was running for president or was a superhero or action figure. But my grandmother knew the significance of Jesse Jackson running. And my father knew the significance of my brother casting his first vote in that municipal election for the first Black mayor of New York City.

And it speaks to one of the things that we heard repeatedly throughout this season. This intergenerational understanding of what politics means and the importance of politics in general, but of being able to cast a ballot, being able to participate in the political process. And we talked about disenfranchisement throughout the season. But the flip side of that is African Americans determined to cast a ballot in the political process.

Bethany Jay: I think you're so right. And the fact that activism, it never stops. Right? It's happening throughout this entire period. Whether we're paying attention to it on a national scale or not, it's happening. And what I love about this interview—and I'm so glad that we're ending this season with this interview—is because at the core of it, despite all of the challenges that exist, the way the congressman frames everything at the core of it is hope.

Bethany Jay: He expresses so much hope throughout this interview, and I think you see that even in this reflection on your childhoods—of thinking about Mayor Dinkins, and thinking about Jesse Jackson and the hope that those figures embodied.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that that "activism" doesn't show up—and I put that "activism" in quotes because it needs to be broadly defined—of a grandparent getting their children involved by giving them T-shirts and a father sending a note to the son in college, 'Make sure you vote.' That doesn't really register often when we think about, sort of, political activism.

Bethany Jay: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, it doesn't hit the radar. It doesn't wind up in a documentary film. But that's how it happens on the ground, right?

Bethany Jay: Yeah.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: A parent and a grandparent say, 'Hey, you got to be involved. I need you to be aware of this.' And we see that from the post-emancipation period, through the civil rights era into the present.

Bethany Jay: You're so right. It's not just Jesse Jackson. It's also Grandma Lee.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. It sure was Grandmama. She made a mean sweet potato pie, too. Hakeem continues. So let's dive back into the interview.

Bethany Jay: Sounds good.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This whole season we've been talking about African American political participation, particularly around the vote, right. 15th Amendment extends the right to vote to African Americans, men. But we go through this whole era of disenfranchisement around turn of the century.

Then we get the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Many people think, 'Hey, what else do you negroes need?’ Right? ‘You got this thing down.' But there has always been a push to make it more difficult for African Americans to vote, certainly over the last 50 years. You see it in the Reagan Justice Department, under the current Supreme Court with Shelby v. Holder, the Roberts Court. They've been making it easier for voter suppression laws and mechanisms to pass. And then, of course, with the new wave of voter suppression measures that have been passed, Georgia leading the way at the beginning of last year.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, the right to vote has been, as you've outlined, under assault with increasing intensity over the last several years. And really that period of voter suppression that we're dealing with now was first ushered in with the Supreme Court decision in 2013—Shelby County v. Holder—which decimated key parts of the Voting Rights Act, section 4.

Now, the interesting thing about the Voting Rights Act is that when it was initially passed in 1965, great leadership from Dr. King, John Lewis, our civil rights heroes, foot soldiers, and of course on the Hill, President Johnson, democrats partnering with some moderate Republicans in the House and also in the Senate, where they broke the filibuster and were able to get it done.

Since that moment, voting rights for decades had largely been a settled question in the United States of America. Some embraced it enthusiastically, some reluctantly. But it was a settled question. And in fact, many of us often point out the Voting Rights Act was reauthorized into law four different times since its initial passage in 1965. And every single time it was reauthorized into law, it was signed by a Republican president—1970, Richard Nixon; 1975, Gerald Ford; 1982, Ronald Reagan, perhaps reluctantly, but he did it; in 2006, George W. Bush.

So the question then becomes, if multiple Republican presidents reauthorized the Voting Rights Act and when it passed in 2006, overwhelming vote in the House—I believe in the Senate it was 93 to 0, but 10 Republicans who are currently here serving in the Senate voting for it, if my recollection is correct—then what happened? Why, all of a sudden, has it become a controversial thing to make sure that everyone can vote?

Some may posit that the 2008 election—remind me who may have won that election?—the 2008 election shook some people up, changed some perspectives on voting rights being a settled question. Because after that, all of a sudden—first with the Tea Party revolution, and then the Supreme Court decision and ultimately the election of the 45th president of the United States of America—people had a different perspective on voting. And a lot of it can be traced, I think, perhaps to what happened in America in 2008.

Bethany Jay: The congressman reminds us that voting rights have been considered, sort of, settled law for quite a while and have just now become more controversial. And he notes that we can probably guess the reasons why that's the case. But during our season, we were talking about voting rights in the Jim Crow era, which certainly was not a settled issue at all, and the disenfranchisement of the Black population during Reconstruction and the continued disenfranchisement of the Black population until you get to that Voting Rights Act in many parts of the country.

And one of the really interesting conversations that we had this season about voting rights, I thought, was with Karen Cox, who spoke about the Confederate monuments. And I thought the way that she brought together those two issues, both of which are historic and contemporary, was really important. She had us thinking about the fact that Confederate monuments were often placed on the ground of courthouses as a signal that this is a government for and by white men and that that government was there to preserve white supremacy throughout the entire Jim Crow era.

And then the vast majority of those monuments are placed there after African Americans have already been disenfranchised across the South. And then you add to that fact that many lynchings take place on courthouse grounds. And Dr. Cox said, "You couldn't be more clear about white supremacy in your community than to put a lynched body on the monument itself."

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm. Mmm.

Bethany Jay: And then again, she reminds us of the importance of the Voting Rights Act for this particular issue, even. Because once Black Southerners are able to register to vote, because the Voting Rights Act has been passed, they resent having to go to a courthouse where there's a Confederate monument to do so. And so some of the first locally elected Black representatives, post-Reconstruction, start working to change local monument laws and make it possible to remove some of these monuments. So we see how the issue of Confederate monuments is really in so many ways intertwined with voting rights, for better and for worse.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I think that history that you just laid out speaks to the fact that as much as we would like to think of the American political tradition around voting rights being rooted in expanding the franchise, the reality is that voting rights moment—just as we get with the 15th Amendment, and then we get 100 years of disenfranchisement, and then we get the Voting Rights Act and a sustained period of expansion—not without people fighting back. But then you get, as Hakeem points out, that 2008 election of Barack Obama and that fierce turning against the expansion and protecting of voting rights.

Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Suddenly Republicans no longer want to reauthorize and the Supreme Court turning against it. That speaks to the fact that, you know, maybe the tradition is really a tradition of disenfranchisement, that the disruption isn’t what we're seeing today. What we're seeing today is actually—in the context of American history, and thinking about that Reconstruction-Jim Crow moment and even certainly before—the tradition is disenfranchisement. And what we're actually fighting against is a return to what was normal.

Bethany Jay: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Or a return to the status quo, which has been limiting the franchise, not expanding it. And it requires then us to think about, 'Well, what does it take, not only to expand, but to maintain the expansion.’ Because it just, on its own, that expansion won't exist. That's the activism that we saw. You had to fight to get the right. You had to fight to keep the right. And I think we're in one of those moments right now.

Bethany Jay: Certainly. And we saw that after the Georgia Special Senate election. I mean, it was almost immediate that Warnock and Ossoff are elected. And, I mean, within days I feel like…

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Literally.

Bethany Jay: Right?

…there were all of these new proposals in the Georgia state legislature to remove different access to voting rights.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: When we think about voting rights in this particular moment, and we put it in the context of American history and certainly the African American experience, this is not history repeating itself. This literally is history just continuing on. And that's a sad reality, I think that we have to acknowledge and recognize.

Bethany Jay: Yeah. And it's one that I believe the congressman goes on to talk about how they're trying to address it on the federal level.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. Let's listen to what he has to say about that.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So as we look forward towards the fall, and congressional elections coming up and then in two more years another Presidential election, what can be done with regard to making the ballot and ballot access available to all people?

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: So we passed the John Robert Lewis Voting Rights Act. We passed the Freedom to Vote Act, both of which are critical, both of which every single Democratic Senator substantively supports, including the Senator from West Virginia and the Senator from Arizona.

The disagreement right now is on process. 48 Democrats believe that, at least as it relates to the right to vote, the filibuster should not be an obstacle. I agree. Because the filibuster is not in the Constitution. The word doesn't appear. It's a custom. And it's a custom that has historically been used in defense of slavery and in defense of Jim Crow. And so the question is, why are we holding onto it?

It cannot be that this is what the Framers intended, because the Framers were very clear on the difference between a majority and a super majority. And I believe in four different instances, they said, 'Here is where a super majority will be required': to ratify a treaty, super majority; override a president's veto, two-thirds, super majority; to amend the United States Constitution, two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate, 75% of the states, supermajorities. And of course, as the country saw, not once but twice, when there's an impeachment in the House to convict the president and ultimately remove him, two-thirds. Four times, they said super majorities are required. They didn't say it was required to pass legislation in any other area or when you are trying to strengthen the ability of the American people to choose their representatives.

And so for the life of me, a lot of us cannot figure out why we're holding on to this custom that is not even anchored in founding principles of the country or the Constitution. So I think we have to continue to press the case legislatively, because I think we have the higher ground on substance. Particularly when you consider even in the 21st century, there are exceptions to the filibuster that the Republicans, in my humble opinion, have used and abused. There is the budget exception to the filibuster, called reconciliation, which the Republicans used in 2017, where 83% of the benefits went to the wealthiest 1% in America. Mitch McConnell used the judiciary exception to the filibuster not once, but twice.

So, given the history, given the Constitution, given the Framers intent, given the modern-day application of two exceptions to the filibuster, I can't figure out why the Senate can't see its way through to moving the John Robert Lewis Voting Rights Act and the Freedom to Vote Act. So we can't give up that fight.

I had the honor to serve with John Lewis. Many of us in the current Congress did. He never gave up when he almost lost his life on the Edmund Pettus bridge, against all odds. And so now, when we're in a much stronger position to advance enlightened legislation because of the service and sacrifice of people like John Lewis, and Fannie Lou Hamer, and Rosa Parks, and Shirley Chisholm, and Adam Powell, of course, Dr. King, and Roy Wilkins, A. Phillip Randolph, go through the list, we can't give up either.

And John Lewis would say, “Never give up, never give in.” “Stand up, speak up, show up.” Continue to get into some “good trouble” until you make progress for our society. And so that's what we have to do legislatively. And then on the ground, we just have to make sure that we are encouraging and familiarizing people with the different state laws well in advance of them having to show up. And have lawyers and others present to make sure that not a single citizen has their right to vote infringed upon.

Bethany Jay: Mmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, Bethany, when he talks about the filibuster and the way it has been used and abused to suppress legislation in the Senate, you know, I can't help but think that it is people who won, intentionally, are using political mechanisms to stop legislation. We can think about certainly anti-lynching bills and how they have been stopped through the use of the filibuster. Civil rights bills, they have been used intentionally to stop, the use of the filibuster.

Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But for those more currently who say, 'No, no, no. This is tradition.' Right? 'This is the process.' What they are doing in the present certainly has echoes of the past. But even if they are well-intentioned, I think the history that he just lays out says that we should not put process over people. And that's in essence what we are doing now.

Bethany Jay: And it's very clear what is happening in the states. The John Lewis Voting Rights Act is in every way addressing real problems and doing nothing except protecting people's access to the ballot. What is the argument against passing that bill?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm.

Bethany Jay: You can't make one. Right?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean there is none. I mean, it's a process one. I mean, you have those who oppose it. Right?

Bethany Jay: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, so right now, the way the Congress is set up in the Senate, politically, you have full Republican opposition to it. And so now we're just talking about a handful of Democratic senators in the opposition who was saying, 'No, this is about process, it's about tradition.' And then you say, 'No, it's not.' Right?

Bethany Jay: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So then, you know, what are you really afraid of?

Bethany Jay: Exactly.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And what are you really doing? And that's a question I think that needs to be posed to them.

Bethany Jay: Yeah. And you don't want to make that argument to hide behind the filibuster, as it were.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Right. You’ll be hiding behind the process, because you don't want to deal with the principles about democracy. Right?

Bethany Jay: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The principle about democratic engagement, about protecting voting rights and about expanding voting rights in a democracy. You want to make it possible for as many people to participate. And those who don't, you know, you have to question their commitment to democracy.

Bethany Jay: Well, and this also goes back to the first clip that we played about your childhood with your brother and the awareness of the importance of municipal elections, talking about New York City, but local politics as well being so important because that's where the state legislatures are elected that create districts. And we all know that those voting districts can be manipulated in multiple ways by those state legislatures to make it either harder or easier for people to vote or to split blocs of different voting populations up for the benefit of one party or another. So it also starts, again—as you were talking about—with that small-scale activism, on the ground, in paying attention to who's representing you in your state legislatures.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And it speaks to the need of the federal government to step in when states go awry. We see this certainly during the Jim Crow era. Right?

Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I mean, these states are running amok. You talk about states rights, right. Their right to discriminate against people and make it harder for Black folk to participate in the political process then. And now, we have states not limited to the South. I mean, I'm here in Ohio. Ohio's doing the same thing. Indiana, these other northern states, midwestern states, western states are doing the same thing, making it harder for people to participate in the political process. So therefore, you need that federal intervention to level the playing field to make sure that safeguards are in place to protect the right to vote. And unfortunately, the Congress has been unable to pass that legislation.

Bethany Jay: I was just talking with my students yesterday about Reconstruction and the meaning of the 14th and 15th Amendments and saying, 'Look, this makes the federal government the protector of your individual rights.'

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm.

Bethany Jay: And that's what needs to happen in this case. And it has happened before, but…

This is Teaching Hard History, and I'm Bethany Jay. We prepare detailed show notes for each episode of this podcast, so that you can use what you learn here in the classroom. You'll find relevant resources,as well as a full transcript, complete with links to materials mentioned by our guests. You can find them at LearningForJustice.org/podcasts. Let’s return now to Hasan’s conversation with Congressman Hakeem Jeffries.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There are other areas in which some federal intervention could be used when we think and reflect upon the Jim Crow era and also the present. And policing is one of those areas. The congressman had a few things to say about that.

One of the core characteristics of the Jim Crow era is the color line, forced segregation. One of the entities that maintains the color line during the Jim Crow era is the police. There is still a police problem, or at least a policing problem, in America today. Could you outline what you see today as some of the primary issues around policing and policing Black communities? And what do you think we can do about it?

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: I think we recognize that the overwhelming majority of police officers, certainly the ones that I interact with back at home in New York City, hardworking individuals who are in the community to protect and serve. And increasingly in places like New York City, the police look like the community. A majority of the New York city police department right now are Black, Latino, Asian or South Asian. But it cannot be denied that there are police officers who engage in police violence, police brutality, police use of excessive force. And far too often the community that disproportionately bears the burden of officers who cross the line are communities of color. And often African American young men.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned the mosaic that is the NYPD. And you're absolutely right. I mean, the numbers bear that out. It is probably the most racially and ethnically diverse police force. But go back to the video of Eric Garner, that mosaic is right there. Right? There's just not white officers. And so it seems to me that this is a policing problem. I mean, it's a culture of policing.

When we look back, I don't know if there's ever been a time where American police have viewed communities of color as worthy of protection, and not from an adversarial position and standpoint. You know, you can have that beautiful mosaic. And if you send different folk out, but to do the same thing, you're going to wind up with the same result.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, I think the militarization of the police has been noted as problematic, and we saw it in Ferguson. And that, kind of, represents a siege mentality that I think is not helpful for the police-community interaction. That's a warrior mentality. That's not a guardian mentality. And I think part of the reform efforts involve de-militarization.

There's no reason to have Humvees and, you know, mounted automatic weapons and things of that nature when you're dealing with American citizens in American communities. Of course, to protect us from the threats of domestic terrorism, certainly international terrorism, is certain techniques and approaches that will be necessary in the extreme. That's part of the reform effort. How do you strike that right balance?

Bethany Jay: Mmm. I was thinking about your point that law enforcement has never really viewed communities of color as worthy of protection. And I'm reminded of Kidada Williams's episode on lynching and that great conversation that you had with her. She talks about a Charles White woodcut. And she describes the woodcut, it's from 1945, saying, "[It's] a mother holding a son, an infant baby boy, and outside the window is a tree in the distance with a small noose hanging from it. And so she has brought a child into the world, [and] she has hope for the future, but she also knows about the outside world and what fate could befall her son." And it came to mind because it was so familiar to so much of what we see Black parents write and say about raising Black boys, in particular, today—the desire to protect and dream for your child, even as you have to raise them to be aware of the fact that they could be viewed as threats by many people, including law enforcement, and that puts them in danger.

And Tamir Rice is the name that immediately comes to mind here—a 12-year-old little boy, seen as a threat and shot by law enforcement for playing with a toy gun in a park. And I know that Kidada Williams was talking about the extralegal violence of lynching. But I think the point about having to raise your children—both as children but also having to raise them to be aware of how others may view them—is there in both of those examples.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, I asked my brother what did he think should be done and could be done to address those very issues that you just beautifully laid out. This is what he had to say.

Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Could you say a little bit more about like some of the, the mechanisms that can and should be used to hold police accountable to hopefully shift the thinking, the way policing occurs. ‘Cause, you know, there's some other legislation, George Floyd Policing Act, that is languishing across the street as well.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Yeah, we advanced the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, not once but twice, out of the House of Representatives. And it's designed to make sure that the principles of liberty and justice for all, equal protection under the law, apply equally, including in the context of interactions between the police and the community.

Making sure that you hold police officers who cross the line accountable is incredibly important. Part of how we've endeavored to try to address it is to look at the choke hold example, which resulted in the death of Eric Garner, and strangulation tactics that resulted in the death of George Floyd. And our legislation would criminalize that because it's unconscionable, unacceptable, unnecessary, unjust and un-American. And we think it has to be made unlawful.

And once you make an unlawful. Then you can hold people accountable for it to a greater degree. And it sends the signal that there's certain techniques that in 21st-century America are just not acceptable, as I think people of all races in the aftermath of both Garner and, to a greater extent, George Floyd's death came to that conclusion.

Even though many police departments—including the New York City's police department, I believe Chicago Police Department, certainly the LA Police Department—as a matter of policy, outlaw the choke hold, why do we still see it being used? Because it's not been prohibited as a matter of law at the federal level, though New York City and New York state did change the statutes to prohibit it or strictly limit its use.

So some progress has been made in the aftermath of some of these tragic events, but hasn't necessarily been comprehensive. And the legislation that we advanced out of the House was in part designed to say, 'We want to strengthen the relationship between the police and the community.' A strengthened relationship between the police and the community is good for public safety. It increases cooperation. And ultimately when you increase cooperation, you will drive down criminal activity and make communities for everyone safer.

So we want to change the mindset of policing from a warrior mentality to a guardian mentality. Because too many officers—not every officer, maybe not even the majority of officers but too many officers—may have a warrior mentality. And if you have that, you might view some elements of the community as enemy combatants, things go wrong. But if you have a guardian mentality, then you view the community as a partner. And it's a relationship to be cherished, to be guarded, to be nourished. And that in part was what the George Floyd Justice in Policing legislation was all about. Shift the mindset of the interaction and the nature of policing, so that it brings law enforcement and the community closer. And I'm still hopeful that that is an objective that we can accomplish.

In the aftermath of the George Floyd incident, one of the things that provided some hope and encouragement is that, you know, you did see at least a temporary coming together of elements within law enforcement and elements within the community to have a dialogue about 'How do we strengthen this relationship?' Because both are worthy of being supported. We have to support our communities, and we have to support those who are protecting and serving.

Bethany JayKelley Carter Jackson's interview this season was one of my favorites. And as I was going back through the season, I was thinking about her discussion of abolition—and this relates to what the congressman was saying—but her point that abolition was not really accomplished by moral suasion. It was accomplished by activism that was sometimes violent. And she points out that the 19th century is really violent in general. But she makes the point, and this is a quote, "I think [that] part of the problem in America is that we don't know how to deal with Black protest, whether it's violent or nonviolent. We don't know how to reconcile it because we're unwilling to do the work of relinquishing the power that suppresses Black people."

And so two things come to mind for me here that relate to what the congressman was saying, that the hysteria about the protests that emerged in the wake of the George Floyd killing and how they were framed by large swaths of the media but also how the police and even military response to them was more immediate and forceful than the response to the January 6 insurrection.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm. Mm hmm.

Bethany Jay: But just as Carter talks about in the 19th century, those protests and their upheaval were essential in forcing the hand of the federal government to do something. And of course, it hasn't made its way through the Senate as well. But to have to address this problem and the fact that we have representatives of color in the federal government, something that wasn't possible in the Antebellum era, you know, is also what's making that possible, with people like your brother at the forefront in the push for that legislation.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I think Dr. Carter's interview was really exceptional because what she points out or makes clear is that as African Americans were struggling for not only access to the ballot, not only to participate in the political process but also for personal safety against the state and against racial terrorists, that all options were on the table.

Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Too often, when we think back to the African American freedom struggle, where we're talking about the civil rights movement or earlier periods, we frame it solely as, sort of, one approach. It's nonviolence in the beginning. It's nonviolence in the end. And we don't see that as a part of a spectrum.

One of the great advantages of studying the Jim Crow era is that you see clearly the full spectrum, the full array of options, both in terms of strategies and tactics, that African Americans are going to deploy in their effort to secure those basic civil rights and human rights goals. And we see that really playing out over time, when you zero in on that question of personal safety, that question of dealing with police, whether they are rural sheriffs in the Deep South or they are modern militarized police forces in the urban north.

Bethany Jay: It's so true. And we only acknowledge, and you've made this point in the civil rights season as well, we really only acknowledge half of that story. We really only like to talk about the nonviolent moral suasion piece and leave out the protection at all costs piece and the fighting back piece. And we need to include both of those narratives.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. No, that's essential. That's essential. You know, Bethany, one of the things I asked my brother about, of course, was this question of policing. And obviously it's an issue—was an issue in the past, is an issue in the present. A contemporary issue that we're dealing with as a society is mass incarceration.

Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mass incarceration begins with mass arrests. The two are absolutely connected. Why do you have so many people in jail? Because you're arresting so many people. So, you know, I asked him about mass incarceration following our conversation about policing. And here's what he had to say.

The militarization of the police has been going on for a century. And there’s examples after World War One, after World War Two, certainly after Vietnam. But in 1980s, we see it really ramping up connected with the war on drugs, which then leads to a surge in the prison population or what we commonly refer to as mass incarceration.

So there's real harm that is continuing to be done to populations because of this surge in incarceration, from a-couple-hundred-thousand people in 1970s to over two-million people now. You were one of the sponsors of the FIRST STEP Act. And so you've been thinking about this and legislating about what can be done. Could you first share a little bit about what the FIRST STEP Act was? And then could you share, what is the second step? And what should that be?

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, this has been a bright spot in terms of the effort to reform our criminal justice system, in that, this effort of trying to deal with mass incarceration and the over-criminalization of the American people has become bi-partisan in nature. And in many cases overwhelmingly so. When I was in the state legislature, that wasn't necessarily the case. I get to Congress, and I was asked by one of then-lead Democrats on the Judiciary Committee, Bobby Scott, who was the ranking member on the Crime Subcommittee, to serve on this Task Force on Overcriminalization. Five Democrats, five Republicans.

I go to my first hearing or two. And Brian Stevenson talks, and he was a law professor of mine. It was great to see him, hear from him. But then someone from the Heritage Foundation testifies as well. And I found myself agreeing with every single thing that he was saying about the consequences of overcriminalization, and the impact on liberty and the damage that's done to communities throughout America, including disproportionately communities of color.

And I'm trying to figure out, 'Am I being hustled right now? What is happening?' And this resulted in the FIRST STEP Act, which was led on the Republican side by Doug Collins, a conservative Republican from rural Georgia. I had the honor of being the lead Democrat, progressive, from the People's Republic of Brooklyn, working together and ultimately being able to pull together a coalition of the left, the right, progressives and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, the NAACP and the Koch brothers, the ACLU and the Heritage Foundation, Al Sharpton, Grover Norquist, all points in between. Ultimately, with Jared Kushner taking the lead out of the administration and a bill being signed into law by president Trump that was focused on two things: front-end reform and back-end reform. Front-end reform, meaning changing the overly harsh and unjust sentencing laws that were put into place during the so-called war on drugs.

And so we lowered the mandatory minimum thresholds across the board. And we made the 18-to-1 crack cocaine-powder cocaine disparity retroactive, which in 2010—under leadership from Barack Obama and the Fair Sentencing Act—had been reduced from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1. But it wasn't made retroactive because Jeff Sessions, who was in the Senate at the time, blocked it from being retroactive.

When we went from 100-to-1 to 18-to-1, the Congress of the United States acknowledged, as a matter of public policy, that law was unjust. But because you didn't make it retroactive, you still had thousands of people incarcerated under what Congress had then said is an unjust law. FIRST STEP Act took that 18-to-1 and made it retroactive. Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, fought us on it. But we were able to overcome that opposition. And more than 9,000 people were released, 90% of them Black men, which also tells you about the disproportionate impacts that the war on drugs had on certain communities.

We also invested in prison reform, which is making sure that we put into place programs and activities that allow currently incarcerated individuals to become productive citizens as they transition from incarceration back into society, in order to dramatically reduce recidivism. It helps their individual lives. It helps families. It helps communities. And it also saves taxpayer dollars when you bring down the rate of recidivism by investing in people becoming productive citizens.

Those are some of the highlights of the FIRST STEP Act. But it was very comprehensive in nature and has made a big difference, the most significant piece of criminal justice reform legislation to be passed by Congress in over 25 years. And it's a foundation to be able to do more.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Bethany, I'd love to get your thoughts on what the congressman had to say.

Bethany Jay: Well, the parallels between Congressman Jeffries' discussion of mandatory-minimums and the crack-to-cocaine, 100-to-1 and 18-to-1, disparity just reminded me of your conversation with Robert Chase about the criminalization of Blackness in post-emancipation era. It's just striking the similarities. And some of those laws that Robert Chase talked about, the Reconstruction era Black Codes are written with racial language into the law, but many were colorblind in the way that the, sort of, war on drug language is seemingly colorblind, but not colorblind at all in the way that they're enforced. And again, that makes me think of the war on drugs. It makes me think of 'stop and frisk.' It makes me think of 'broken windows' policing. Right? All of these different policies that, as you say, lead to a lot of arrests, which are then going to lead to a lot of prisoners.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And it speaks to. I mean, I'm so glad you brought that interview that we did with Dr. Chase, because that moment is so critical. That moment in the 1890, turn of the century, 1910s, 19 teens, when the criminalization of Blackness becomes embedded in the white American psyche. And it becomes a part of the way policing proceeds. It becomes a part of the functioning of the criminal justice system. And so we wonder sometimes why police react to African Americans who aren't doing anything, but assuming that they are a potential threat and are a danger. Why Black communities are so overly policed. Why those percentages, in terms of arrests, the weight of that falls so heavily on the shoulders of African Americans. It has everything to do with that moment during the Jim Crow era when race gets criminalized. And that has that long-lasting—we're talking over a century now—impact on the way African Americans are treated not only by police but by the criminal justice system.

Bethany Jay: And Brandon Jett talks in his piece about the, sort of, shift from extralegal violence, in the form of lynching, being the way in which to force control over Black people, without slavery. And the shift from that to more seemingly respectable legal processes that are used to effectively do the same thing.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And I think it's important to point out that the purpose of the criminalization, as you point out, serve different roles. Right?

Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So, you know, turn of the 20th century, the purpose of the criminalization is really about labor control. Right?

Bethany Jay: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It's about controlling Black labor. But by the time we get to the contemporary moment—certainly in 1980s, 1990s, early 2000—it's less about controlling Black labor—I mean, that was a Jim Crow era thing—and more about how do you profit off of Black bodies through warehousing them. Right? I mean, that's. The mass incarceration is like, 'What do you do with this surplus labor? And how do you capitalize on it?' Right? 'How do you turn Black into green?' And then that begins to feed itself. And then we move from, you know, 350,000 people who are incarcerated to two-and-a-half million between the 1970s and today.

Learning for Justice has a special opportunity, just for educators. After listening to this episode, You can earn a certificate for one hour of professional development. All you have to do is go to learning for LearningForJustice.org/PodcastPD, PD for professional development. That’s podcastPD, all one word. Then enter the unique code word for this episode, all lowercase. You’ll also find a link in the show notes. It’s a great way to get even more out of Teaching Hard History.

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Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Hakeem had a little bit more to say on mass incarceration. Let's play that.

Bethany Jay: Sounds good.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: One of the bills that I'm currently working on, which has passed the House of Representatives and is over on the other side of the Capitol, as are so many pieces of legislation, is the Equal Act. And what the Equal Act will do is take that 18-to-1 sentencing disparity and drop it to 1-to-1, because there was never any logical reason to treat crack cocaine drug offenses differently than powder cocaine drug offenses.

There is no pharmacological difference between crack cocaine and powder cocaine. I've always wanted to use that word pharmacologic. I can't spell it. I'm not a professor like you. But I know what it means. There is no physical, chemical difference in how the body reacts to crack cocaine and powder cocaine. Even though that was part of the argument, that crack is more addictive, to justify a 100-to-1 disparity. The Equal Act will make it 1-to-1, and apply it retroactively and perhaps strike a final blow to the most significant relic of the war on drugs.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You mentioned that there may not have been a logical reason for the disparities in sentencing, based upon crack cocaine or powder cocaine. But it clearly was a racist reason, when we look at media portrayals of what crack was doing, and where it was coming from and who was doing it.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: You know, crack cocaine was viewed as the drug of choice for low-income Americans and, certainly in the inner city, communities of color. Powder cocaine used by more affluent Americans in suburban communities, largely white. And that's why when we made the 18-to-1 change retroactive, as well as some changes to compassionate release and good time credit, but the overwhelming majority of people incarcerated and therefore released were Black men.

When the war on drugs was initially launched in 1971, there were less than 300,000 people incarcerated in America. Today 2.3 million, disproportionately Black and Latino, incarcerate more people in America per capita than any other country in the world, including China and Russia combined. That's a stain on our society. And we've got to work to work it out, and we are doing so. And I think that's meaningful progress for the scales of justice in this country.

We passed the Equal Act in this Congress. Post insurrection, America divided, criminal justice reform is still bi-partisan. I believe the final vote in the House was 361 to 65. 70% of Republicans voted for it, including Matt Gaetz, and Jim Jordan, and Louie Gohmert and people who are part of the Freedom Caucus, the far right portion of the House Republican Conference.

I mentioned to you initially, I was like, 'Am I being hustled? What is wrong here?' Because when we were fighting to get rid of the Rockefeller drug laws in New York state, it was the Republicans who were fighting us. But over time, certainly after the great recession, I think three things happened. Fiscal conservatives said, 'Spending $80 billion plus on mass incarceration, which doesn't yield any reciprocal public safety benefits commensurate to the cost of the taxpayer, is a failed government program. It's fiscally irresponsible.'

So fiscal conservatives, people like Grover Norquist, started to come on board. Christian conservatives, who theologically believe in the power of redemption and the notion that everyone should have a second chance at life because everyone makes mistakes, started leaning in to re-entry, and prison reform and successfully transitioning individuals who may have made a mistake—making sure that they pay their debt to society, but it should be a just debt not a scarlet letter that stains them for the rest of their lives. Christian conservatives on board. And then libertarians, who believe that if you can take away someone's liberty that's perhaps the worst form of government overreach. And so libertarians like Rand Paul strongly behind criminal justice reform, Mike Lee and others. And so it's an authentic coalition.

I may arrive at the notion of criminal justice reform through a progressive lens of racial, social and economic justice. Republicans may arrive at it through a lens of fiscal conservatism, Christian conservatism or libertarianism. But we arrive at the same place. And that's why I'm confident that we can continue to do great work in this space.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: He is confident, Bethany. Are you equally confident?

Bethany Jay: Well, I would like to have his confidence, I guess. You know, the thing that does seem hopeful in this moment, in the way that the congressman described it, is the fact that multiple constituencies of lawmakers are coming to this and interest groups are coming to this from different places but arriving at the same end game. And again, it makes me think of Robert Chase's discussion of convict leasing and how convict leasing not comes to an end, but experiences a significant decline when it becomes less profitable. You know, as the infrastructure of the South has been rebuilt with convict labor, once that's done and that labor is less profitable for those prisons, that we start to see less prisoners there. And that's combined with some moral movements against the act. And so maybe that's what we're seeing here, this coming together of different interests that may all serve a good purpose.

Bethany Jay: But maybe I'm too optimistic.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I don't think you're too optimistic. You know, hope is necessary. Right? Hope leads to change. Hope is eternal. We've got to hang on to hope. But I hope the coalition that he was talking about holds. Because I'm not seeing it hold in the moment.

Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: I'm seeing it fracture. I'm seeing those political conservatives falling prey to party politics. Where now, even if you for fiscally conservative reasons—I don't care how you get there as long as you get there—but if it's fiscal conservatism that leads you to support the necessary reforms to policing and incarceration, then so be it. But now we're beginning to see and certainly we've seen this over the last couple of years, that that's not even enough, that you have to hold tight to a strict party line.

Bethany Jay: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that means you oppose anything and everything that is supported by those on the other side of the aisle.

Bethany Jay: You know, what you're saying sort of makes me think of Willie Horton. That was the Dukakis-Bush election. It only takes one example to rally a base, you know what I mean, against something that they would be inclined not to support anyway. And so really thinking it only takes one-or-two examples that can be blown out of proportion to get a whole community against prison reform.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Ah, that's true. That's true. So speaking about political parties, you know, I asked Hakim about the historical relationship between African Americans and the Democratic Party. Of course, you will remember Bethany, you did that wonderful interview, in which you trace that important shift that occurs during the New Deal era.

Bethany Jay: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: So this is what he had to say.

Bethany Jay: Great.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There was a time in which African Americans were part of the Republican Party, the party of Lincoln. Then the depression hits. The president at the time, Hoover does a terrible job with this sort of laissez faire approach to solving the issues of the Depression. And then Roosevelt comes, takes a much stronger view, not completely without flaws.

But we see this transition away from the Republican Party into the Democratic Party for African Americans. And they've remained solidly within the camp of the Democratic Party for nearly a century now. You have a front row seat to seeing what's going on within the Republican Party. Why aren't there more African Americans, in this moment, in the Republican Party or supportive of the Republican Party?

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Well, as my Republican colleagues sometimes point out, it was the Democratic Party that was the party of the Confederacy, the party of slavery and, in many ways, the party that fought to preserve Jim Crow. I think from a historic perspective, from a political party perspective, there aren't clean hands on either side.

Now the modern-day Republican Party is no longer the party of Lincoln, and it's not even a party of Ronald Reagan. It's the party of Donald Trump. And it's been overrun by people like Marjorie Taylor Greene and Paul Gosar, Lauren Bobert, Madison Cawthorn. So many people have been radicalized by the presence of the former president in our public space during the time that he was in office. It's the party of people who are on the fringes of the far right. It's not even clear that they believe in democracy. They don't believe in truth. So, this is not the party of John McCain. It's not the party of Bob Dole. It's not the party of Mitt Romney. And it’s certainly not the party of Jackie Robinson.

We grew up in the Cornerstone Baptist Church, dedicated to God by Dr. Sandy Ray, who was a Republican legislator in Ohio; and a prominent Baptist preacher, one of the greatest of all time; and a champion for civil rights. In the Republican Party of Sandy Ray, there was room for someone who cared about civil rights, and equality, and liberty and justice for all. In the modern-day Republican Party, I'm not clear that there's a lot of space for the type of diversity that certainly existed decades ago. But there's a history there that hopefully may serve to one day cause a revival for a more inclusive Republican Party.

That's why it's not clear to me why some people want to run away from history, when there's history there that allows for a wide variety of narratives to be told about where we've been as Americans and where we can ultimately wind up.

Bethany Jay: There's a lot there.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: There is a lot there. And there's a lot of history there that too often doesn't get told and explained. And when it does get told, it's reframed in sort of a ridiculous way.

Bethany Jay: Right.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It's like, 'Hey. Martin Luther King's father was a Republican. And you should be, too!' Without, you know. As an appeal to African Americans without any context for why he was or what that Republican Party looked like, the heirs of the Republican of Lincoln and what kind of Republicans they were embracing—the Rockefeller Republican in that particular moment in time.

Bethany Jay: I've never lost Facebook friends quicker than when I've pointed out that the Republican Party is not the party of Lincoln.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Mmm. Mm hmm.

Bethany Jay: That's a quick unfriend by the recipient. But, you know, one of the other things I was thinking about is, there's also this perennial question of, 'Is the Democratic Party taking Black voters for granted?' That they are always going to be Democratic voters, no matter how the party is working or not for them.

And that makes me think of that Great Depression episode that you started off this segment with. And you know, Jill Watts really talked about the Black Cabinet—that is influencing Eleanor Roosevelt really and working on some of the lower levels of administration of New Deal policies— that they're really pushing constantly for a more permanent and more sustained focus on the most vulnerable people, really making sure that government and of course, this is in the context of the Depression, but making sure that government continues to work for all Americans, no matter what your economic status is. And that's really Mary McLeod Bethune, who is really sort of active in making sure that those policies are pushed. And ultimately she's unsuccessful. A lot of those New Deal policies are not permanent. But it makes me think of conversations that we're having today, too, about how do we make this country work for everybody, no matter what your sort of economic status is? And those reforms seem to be the ones that aren't going through.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that question of 'How do we make it work?' There is a role for elected officials in that. And they're not the only ones.

Bethany Jay: No.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: But there is certainly a role for elected officials in making this country work. The congressman had a few thoughts on that role, and why it may not be working as well as it both could and should.

Bethany Jay: Perfect.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: We're in the midst of a backlash. And whenever there's progress in America there's always been backlash. And there was progress with Emancipation and the Reconstruction Amendments—13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments—and we see a big backlash take place. The rise of Jim Crow, rise of the KKK, lynching epidemics, Black Codes, things of this nature.

And it takes another a hundred years to arrive at another moment of progress, when Dr. King, and Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, others stood up. And then people of every race, of goodwill, came together to make more progress. Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act, Fair Housing Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Great Society. Tremendous progress, but then that was also immediately followed by backlash. The rise of Richard Nixon, anti-government, anti-affirmative action, mass incarceration put into place in Nixon's first term in 1971. And that ushered in the caricaturing of inner-city communities, communities of color, designed to roll back the social safety net that had been put into place in a stronger way during the civil rights era, as part of the Great Society legislative initiatives.

And then a new hope arises with the election of Barack Obama. And we were told perhaps that we were entering into a post-racial era. But Tea Party, 'We want our country back.' Who took it away? Wait, the election of Barack Obama took your country away? And then the Supreme Court makes the decision in Shelby County v. Holder. They want to decimate the bipartisan 1965 Voting Rights Act, ushering in a new era of voter suppression. And of course, ultimately the election of Donald Trump, who for five years perpetrated the racist lie that Barack Obama was not born in the United States of America, as part of an effort to de-legitimize America's first Black president and rode that lie into the White House.

It was a backlash that he intentionally capitalized on as part of his electoral coalition. Not the entirety of it. There were other people who were concerned about change. They wanted to blow the whole thing up in Washington, DC. 'It's not working for us. Let's see what this guy can do.' You know, other folks working through issues of economic anxiety, because of changes like globalization, and poorly negotiated trade deals, the outsourcing of good paying American jobs, decline of unionization, rise of automation. These have jammed working class communities of every race.

And Donald Trump manipulated that anxiety. But part of his electoral coalition clearly included people affiliated with neo-Nazis, the Proud Boys and others who have become increasingly vocal. All of that to say, anyone who has studied the trajectory of history knows that whenever there's been progress made in this great country, it's usually followed by a backlash.

Bethany Jay: Mmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: The struggle to create change is never unidirectional. In other words, the progress isn't perpetual. There is always—sometimes framed, as my brother did here as—a backlash. But I think when we look at, Bethany, American history and specifically this post-emancipation, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow era, and we put that in the broader context of the nation as a whole, then the backlash looks more like a course correction than it does sort of an aberration to or an attempt to move America away from its core traditions. It seems like an effort by some to move America back to what it's been as opposed to what it could be.

Bethany Jay: So the question is, does the arc of history actually bend towards justice or not? And that probably depends on who is able to claim power and a voice. Does that make sense?

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: It does.

Bethany Jay: That if the same people are in power, then that arc of justice is going to stay like you're saying. It's going to course correct back. And I think that's why going back to where we started our conversation with voting rights with people like your brother who are in Congress, with HBCU's that continue to produce outstanding thinkers who become leaders in all different levels of our society, all of those Black institutions—which has been another thread of our conversation this season—the importance of them on every level, I think, becomes important in making sure that arc of history bends the right way.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And those institutions reflect the efforts of African Americans to exert the force necessary to bend the arc towards justice. Because without that force, without that effort, without that energy, without the institution building, without the sacrifice that we saw and as illustrated throughout the Jim Crow era, then that course correction, that status quo remains. Which also, Bethany, speaks to the current moment in which we are living and teaching as educators.

Bethany Jay: Yep.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And the response to talking about this difficult history, to talking about hard history. I asked Hakim about that.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Representative Barbara Lee has an important bill that she has been advancing, which is in part based on the South Africa model of truth and reconciliation. And I support that legislation. And the idea is that in order for us to arrive at a place where we can reach meaningful reconciliation, we have to have an understanding of the truth of our collective journey as Americans. And that of course includes African American history, which is American history.

And hopefully, this next generation of Americans, the ones being educated right now, can help us bring America closer to that true reconciliation. I believe that Gen Z will do that—the most diverse generation in American history. But to arrive at reconciliation, there has to be truth.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: What role do you see reparations, broadly defined perhaps as investment in community, playing in that reconciliation?

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Given our imperfections that are obvious throughout our history, the least that we should do is determine how we can repair and heal America, which includes the wounds that have been inflicted on the Black community and the legacy of it.

HR 40 is the legislative vehicle that would just establish a commission to study the issue. And everyone would have an opportunity to participate. The four legislative leaders—Democrats and Republicans alike, House and Senate—can make appointments. HR 40—named after the fact that African Americans were initially promised but never given 40 acres and a mule, the means of production connected to the economy at the time in order to become economically independent; that's why HR 40 is named HR 40—was initially championed by John Conyers. I supported it when he championed it. And it’s now being championed by Sheila Jackson Lee.

We did vote it out of the Judiciary Committee, which is the furthest that it has advanced. It had never previously received, I believe, either a hearing or certainly a markup in committee. And every single Democrat supported HR 40. And I still hope that it gets a fair hearing in the United States House of Representatives.

Bethany Jay: The fact that a piece of legislation that would establish a commission to then study an issue hasn't been able to get out of committee, I think, tells us a lot about the reluctance to actually face this history on any level. And we're seeing that that has been the case on the federal level. And we're seeing that now in your town, elementary school, K-12 district, as well.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah. It's unfortunate because a lot of the energy, most of the energy in fact, that has been connected to dealing with the hard issues of the past, dealing with hard history and even conversations about reparations, whatever that may take, has generally been better at the local level. And it hasn't been really something that has been taken up at the federal level.

And what's so unfortunate about the moment in which we are living is that, you know, education, of course, is controlled locally. And that energy that has existed in small places in the past really has some truth and reconciliation. That is now being challenged in the classroom, in that, 'No, we're not going to have any reconciliation. We're not even going to have any truth.'

Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And that's unfortunate because that's where we are as educators. And you, and I and everyone who has appeared on this podcast, we're all just simply trying to tell some truth so that we can bend that arc, do our part to help bend that arc towards justice.

Bethany Jay: And I will say, the response I get from my students when they're hearing these things for the first time, as 19, 20, 21-year-olds in college, is real frustration that they hadn't heard it before. They're not frustrated with me for telling them something that's hard. They're frustrated that they didn't know it before.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Yeah.

Bethany Jay: They hadn't heard it before. A majority of my students are not African American students. And so I recognize that they wouldn't have confronted these issues, that if I taught Black students that they would be more knowledgeable, at least about what it is to live with racism in this country.

But kids are ready to hear this. They want to know. You know, Steven Oliver back in the first season told us, ‘Look, our students aren't coming to us as blank slates. They're living in this world. Whether they are Black or white, they have knowledge that racism exists. What they don't have is any way to understand its context and to know where it comes from. That's what we have to give them in our classrooms.’

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: You know, one of the things that too many of our students aren't given, too many of our students don't know, is the tradition of Black congressional representation coming out of that Reconstruction era. So this is one of the hallmarks of the Jim Crow era, the beginning of it. One of the legacies being that lack of Black representation coming out of Reconstruction.

Bethany Jay: Mm hmm.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And so I asked my brother, as a sitting U.S. congressman, to reflect on that.

One of the most historic things about the Reconstruction era, in addition to the passage of the Reconstruction Acts and then Amendments, was the election of African Americans, African American men specifically at the time, to the halls of power. And there is that Reconstruction moment where you have Black elected officials, or surge in Black elected officials. And then they are systematically removed from office, as we move into the 1870s and 1880s. And then you get the disenfranchisement constitutions, and it's impossible for Black folk to vote. Black folk can't vote, they can't elect African Americans to public office.

Then we see the Voting Rights Act, the groundswell of organizing to put the ballot back in Black hands. And we have the Black power movement, which is very much focused on electing African Americans to public office. And so, 50 years later, here you are sitting in Congress. How do you see your role as a African American who is a Congressman? Because we don't play the colorblind stuff, right? Come on, man. We weren't raised like that. So, how does that impact how you walk through the world? But then also, how you legislate in this world?

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: First of all, you never thought that hip hop would take it this far.

It's an honor to have the opportunity to serve in the United States Congress. To be elected as chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Represent the people of the eighth congressional district, majority-minority district, very diverse. I have the privilege of representing more Russian-speaking, Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union than any other member of Congress in the country. I mean, Hakeem Jeffries. Who knew? Only in America.

It's wonderful to have this opportunity and to be part of the Congressional Black Caucus. That's a meeting that I never miss. And it's every Wednesday. It's at 12 o'clock. And we get together as CBC folks to talk about justice, and strengthening our community and strengthening America. You know, being a part of the Congressional Black Caucus was awe inspiring when I arrived. To come to Congress and see Maxine Waters, and Barbara Lee, and Charlie Rangle, and John Conyers, the great John Lewis—living legends who had done so much to advance the cause of racial, social and economic justice in the CBC. Jim Cliburn and so many others, Emanuel Cleaver. I mean, you can go through the list, Eddie Bernice Johnson.

And to be able to serve with these giants within the Congressional Black Caucus, some of whom were founders, and to also represent a district that was once represented when we were growing up in Brooklyn by Shirley Chisolm, is a legacy that I'm proud to be part of. Standing on the shoulders of giants, like Shirley Chisholm. Understanding that the Baton has been passed to the current members of the Congressional Black Caucus to continue to make sure that this concept of equal protection under the law applies to every community, including the Black community. That liberty and justice for all applies to every community, including the Black community, and brown communities and immigrant communities.

That's the promise of America. And we have to continue to work to make sure that America keeps that promise, builds upon the legacy of people like John Lewis and others who believe that continuing change is possible. Dr. King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” And I always reflect upon that. And I think about what Dr. King meant is that in this world there are good folks and there are rough folks. But what we need for justice to prevail, to perfect our society, to make sure that we truly can arrive at colorblind society, is that good folks need to continue to be in the arena.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well, I look forward to continuing to watch you, as you do the work that you were sent here to do. And certainly that our parents, and our grandparents, and our uncles and our aunts, wanted us to do as well.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: And let me just shout out Asha, Aliana and Alayla. My three, beautiful, intelligent nieces.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Well they'll be happy for that. And I'm sure they'll text you their thanks, sir.

Congressman Hakeem Jefferies, thank you very much for making the time to join us on the podcast. If you didn't, I was going to tell Mom. So I'm glad I didn't have to go nuclear to get you on. Thanks a lot.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Great to be here.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Love you, man.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries: Love you, Bro.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Appreciate it.

Bethany Jay. I love you, too, Bethany Jay.

Bethany Jay: I love you, Hassan.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This was an amazing season. We covered so much, such important history. And I enjoyed the interviews that I was able to conduct. And I really enjoyed sitting back and listening to you do the interviews that you did.

Bethany Jay: Likewise.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: This is great. That's it for us this year.

Bethany Jay: It is.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Another season in the books, Jim Crow. I certainly want to thank, on behalf of my co-host, I think it's safe to say, to thank all of the guests who appear,

Bethany Jay: Oh, my goodness.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: To thank everyone behind the scenes, whose voices you never hear— Shea and Miranda and so many others—for making this happen.

Bethany Jay: Yes. I began this season being terrified of what it was going to be, and I ended up having just an absolute great time and learning so much too. So I was really, really excited to be part of it. Thanks so much.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Absolutely. And to everyone who listens, be sure to share it with your friends and colleagues. And stay in touch. You can find us out there.

Bethany Jay: Yes.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: And we look forward to hearing from you. Take care of everybody.

Bethany Jay: Bye bye.

Teaching Hard History is a podcast from Learning for Justice—the education arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center—helping teachers and schools prepare students to be active participants in a diverse democracy. Learning for Justice provides free teaching materials about slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement and more. You can find award-winning films and classroom-ready texts at LearningForJustice.org.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries: Most students leave high school without an understanding of the Jim Crow Era and its continuing relevance. This podcast is part of an effort to change that. In our fourth season, we put Jim Crow under the spotlight, examining its history and lasting impact.

Bethany Jay: Thanks to Congressman Hakeem Jeffries for sharing his insights with us. This podcast was produced by Mary Quintas and senior producer Shea Shackelford. Russell Gragg is our associate producer. “Music Reconstructed” is produced by Barrett Golding. And Cory Collins provides content guidance. Amelia Gragg is our intern. Kate Shuster is the series creator. And our managing producer is Miranda LaFond.

Bethany Jay: I’m Dr. Bethany Jay, Professor of History at Salem State University.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries : I’m Dr. Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Associate Professor of History at The Ohio State University.

Hasan Kwame Jeffries and Bethany Jay:  And we’re your hosts for Teaching Hard History.

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