Just one year ago, America was not ready to consider the possibilities of bold racial justice reform. Discussion of reparations, a system that would redress the country’s oldest sin of slavery, or universal basic income, a guarantee of economic security, were just talking points on the campaign trail for candidates vying to be president.
It would take the acutely distressing events of the following months to help the nation acknowledge the merits of progressive ideals. Those events include a destructive pandemic that has now claimed close to half a million lives, a debilitating economic crisis that hit low-income people and essential workers the hardest, and racial justice protests that galvanized millions against the brutal police killings of Black Americans.
The federal government distributed stimulus checks as respite, but it quickly became clear that one-time payments wouldn’t be enough. Longer-term investments in working Americans and those who’ve been hit hardest by systemic inequalities would be necessary to ensure stability.
Activists, along with a handful of progressive lawmakers, have been organizing for such bold action — increased minimum wage, Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, tuition-free public college, paid family leave — with slow gains. But the caucus advocating for these reforms has only grown bigger.
The Congressional Progressive Caucus, now made up of almost 100 members, is not interested in compromising its values and playing it safe. As caucus chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) wrote in January, “It’s clear that too many people no longer believe that government has done enough to help lift all boats. ... The solution to this is clear: a progressive agenda that makes a transformative difference in people’s lives. Biden’s platform was the most progressive of any recent nominee because our movement worked with his campaign to push forward bold policies.”
Exactly how many progressive priorities can pass this term is still an open question. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has previously said that key agenda items include Covid-19 relief, a green infrastructure bill, and voting rights legislation — all of which could well be shaped heavily by progressive demands.
“‘The Squad’ is growing, as is the Congressional Progressive Caucus,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) told Vox. “But the Squad is not just a few members of Congress. It’s the millions of people across the country who want to see transformative change and are with us in spirit in the halls of Congress.”
Vox spoke to eight new progressive Congress members — from Cori Bush, who was a registered nurse and activist in Ferguson, to Kai Kahele, a former military pilot and educator — about how they intend to prioritize racial justice and plan to wield their power as a bloc to move these ideas forward. Their ambitious proposals would address racial disparities across several areas, including education, banking, and policing. Their remarks have been edited for length and clarity.
Rep. Jamaal Bowman (NY-16): Holistic education reform
I’ve spent my life serving children in communities that have been harmed and marginalized by policy. I’ve seen their brilliance go unnoticed and unnurtured. I look forward to introducing holistic education with an unapologetic racial justice lens — legislation that is intersectional and centers children’s holistic needs in ways that haven’t been done before. We will work to undo that harm but also expose the majestic brilliance in each child.
As it stands, America is failing many of our students in public schooling. In 2016, majority-minority school districts received $23 billion less in funding than their majority-white counterparts. That’s a two-tiered system of educational apartheid, which works to uphold white supremacy. I’ve seen firsthand how denial of educational resources can stunt a child’s curiosity [and] growth and prevent them from reaching their full potential.
We need to replace standardized testing and punishment with nurturing and care. That starts with paying a living wage to our public school teachers so that teachers from all socioeconomic backgrounds can pursue the profession, allowing Black and brown kids to have instructors who they see themselves in. We also must fund full-time nurses and social workers, not cops, in our schools, and give them resources to care for children rather than criminalizing them from a young age. We need to invest at least $3 billion into opening at least 25,000 community schools to make educational equity a reality.
“The Squad” is growing, as is the Congressional Progressive Caucus. But the Squad is not just a few members of Congress. It’s the millions of people across the country who want to see transformative change and are with us in spirit in the halls of Congress. This can be a new Reconstruction moment for our country, and we’ll use every tool available to make that happen.
Rep. Cori Bush (MO-01): Policing reform that shakes up local, state, and federal budgets
Everything I do is through a racial justice lens. In the 117th Congress, we have a mandate to legislate in defense of Black lives. I am eager to end systemic police violence that disproportionately kills Black and brown people across St. Louis and communities across our country. I believe we need to shift funding away from policing and reinvest in the people and communities who need it most. For me, that starts with redirecting policing budgets to fund schools, housing, and health care.
We are at the intersection of the most devastating pandemic in over a century, an economic crisis that has millions at risk of eviction, and a racial justice reckoning. We have to meet this moment with bold ideas that will make it so entire communities aren’t lost or devastated as a result of inaccessible health care or unaffordable housing. We need to prioritize those among us who have the least: the uninsured, unhoused, undocumented, incarcerated, and those who are unable to have their material needs met.
We need to guarantee basic dignity. Let’s start by giving $2,000 monthly and retroactive survival checks to everyone. Let’s start by ensuring that people aren’t removed from their homes because they’ve been out of work and can’t afford back rent or mortgages. People need direct cash relief, and as a progressive movement, we’re united in the fight to ensure everyone has the resources they need to make it through this crisis.
Rep. Ritchie Torres (NY-15): Housing vouchers for all
My greatest passion is public housing. I would not be where I am today were it not for public housing and the stability it gave me and my family. The New York City Housing Authority, which manages public housing in New York City, houses a population larger than that of most large cities — about half a million New Yorkers. And how I think about it is, if NYCHA were a city unto itself, it would be the largest city of low-income Black and brown Americans in the United States.
The neglect of public housing has been ground zero for systemic racism, and the federal government has systematically starved NYCHA of federal funding of about $40 billion in cash. There are children who have been poisoned by lead because of the federal government, or senior citizens who have been left freezing in their homes during the bitter cold of winter because of the federal government.
I’m on a mission to ensure that public housing gets its fair share of federal funding; the federal government should be required by law to fully fund public housing. It should no longer be subject to the annual appropriation because housing is so fundamental.
I’m deeply committed to the vision of housing as a human right. The best tool for making housing not only a human right, but also a universal reality, is what I call housing vouchers for all. Every person in need should have access to a Section 8 voucher, which would guarantee that they pay no more than 30 percent of their household income toward rent.
President Biden’s executive order on fair housing is a starting point, but it’s hardly enough. Systemic racism has been a reality in America for 400 years, since the beginning of slavery. And in those 400 years, we are as close as we’ve ever been to confronting the root causes of systemic racism. We’re much more conscious of race, and we’re much more committed to centering racial equity. The president is striking the right tone, but the executive order he issued on racial equity should only be the beginning.
This next generation of elected officials is more disruptive and willing to speak out when necessary — “good trouble,” in the words of John Lewis. A Democratic presidency, a Democratic Senate, and a Democratic House represent the makings of an FDR moment over the next few years. We owe it to the American people to make the most of it, or else shame on us.
Rep. Mondaire Jones (NY-17): Supreme Court expansion
We must expand the size of the Supreme Court and look at Court expansion as a racial justice issue. This would unrig our democracy and ensure that all of the legislation that the democratically controlled House and Senate, and the president, enact will be upheld and constitutional.
There is a 6-3 hyperpartisan conservative majority on the Supreme Court that is hostile to democracy itself, and we would be foolish to think that this 6-3 majority is somehow neutral in its deliberations of cases challenging statutes that Congress has enacted.
Court expansion is a racial justice issue, when you look at how the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in the 2013 Shelby decision. It’s also an issue of reproductive freedom, when you look at how this Court now has a majority that does not believe in a woman’s right to choose. And, of course, court expansion is an issue of LGBTQ+ rights and justice.
We must take a holistic view of systemic racism that is not just rooted in policing reform. Obviously, we’re in this moment of unprecedented recognition of racism in policing in this country. However, systemic racism extends even beyond reforming our criminal legal system to include the way that we fund public education in this country, for example. We must have a broad conception of systemic racism, and we must tackle systemic racism on all fronts, not just on the ones that popularly come to mind.
Rep. Marie Newman (IL-03): Postal banking to improve access to capital
A huge intersection of racial inequity and income inequity is the access to capital, and that almost a third of our nation is underbanked or unbanked. And so I’m very excited about postal and public banking — to make sure that people have a place where they can create their own wealth and have it be sustainable.
We know Black and brown communities are disproportionately affected by being underbanked or unbanked. The Covid-19 pandemic and the distribution of stimulus relief have highlighted these gross inequities.
Americans with bank accounts receive stimulus funds electronically, with the money available in mere seconds. And those businesses who have relationships with major financial institutions receive access to business assistance loans first. However, the underbanked and unbanked wait for weeks — months, in some cases — to receive assistance, forcing many Americans and small businesses into desperate situations.
Legislation on postal banking would establish the USPS to provide basic checking, savings, bill payment, and short-term credit solutions to working people and small businesses, further ensuring that relief passed by Congress in the future is delivered quickly to the American people who are relying on it the most to survive.
I’m currently working with colleagues in the House and Senate who have previously worked on legislation regarding postal banking, as part of a collaborative effort to build on past progress and further ensure financial inclusion for unbanked and underbanked Americans as we work toward an equitable economic recovery.
Solving racial inequity is not a silo. It’s not a section or a place. Racism is a part of every minute of every hour of every day. So we have to embed policy that addresses the issue, in every minute of every hour of every day, in every single policy we do.
Rep. Kai Kahele (HI-02): Education access for Indigenous children
I am excited to advocate to strengthen and diversify support of Indigenous children. Although I am still working on the details of what this advocacy will look like in practical policy, I’m interested in 1) building incentives for Indigenous-based early learning options, including dual language programs and classrooms focused on Indigenous culture; 2) encouraging more Native students to pursue fields where we are historically underrepresented, especially in decision-making positions, by supporting debt-free college and ensuring that schools with high populations of Indigenous children are given the tools necessary to apply and succeed in college; and 3) supporting policy and federal funding which will further assist in the revitalization of Indigenous languages in the United States.
Racial justice and true equity require complex, varied policy approaches. I believe that our nation needs to heal, and that we can only do that by confronting the way our history is intertwined with racism and colonialism. As a Native Hawaiian, I’m particularly interested in advocating for multifaceted legislation that will target increased supports for Native people, including empowering Native peoples’ role in the economy, improving education opportunities and outcomes, and addressing the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice and carceral systems on people of color.
I believe that we must make strides for all people impacted by the racism that pervades our society. I’m especially interested in making sure any policymaking we develop considers and addresses Indigenous and Pacific Islander communities.
Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez (NM-03): Climate policy that prioritizes environmental justice
I intend to tackle climate change, and focus on what we need to do here in New Mexico, like regulating methane emissions and building out a green energy grid. Focusing on a local problem contributes to solving a planetary crisis.
We must not treat those communities, whether they be coal-, oil-, and gas-producing [communities] that fueled America’s rise, as sacrifice zones. I am working on legislation to ensure the people of New Mexico — especially our Native American, Latino, and rural communities — have a prominent role in our clean energy economy.
This means promoting clean energy development on our public lands and working with tribal nations to ensure they have the tools and resources necessary to deploy clean energy. Not only should we promote clean energy, but we need to support transmission — or what I like to call a Route 66 — of solar and wind to power other parts of the country.
It’s critical that we take advantage of the economic opportunity that clean energy presents, and it’s on us to ensure that we don’t leave behind the people and communities that fueled our nation.
One example is legislation I intend to lead on that addresses the environmental legacy of oil and gas operations and regulates methane emissions from ongoing oil and gas development. We can put New Mexicans back to work plugging the more than 700 orphaned oil and gas wells in the state, or installing equipment at oil and gas sites to curb venting, leaks, and other sources of methane emissions.
These projects would provide employment opportunities for current or former oil and gas industry workers, while delivering cleaner air and water for communities across New Mexico.
We should place a racial and equitable justice lens on every bill we put forward. Our country is strongest when we value all of our diverse communities.
Rep. Nikema Williams (GA-05): Expanding voting rights access
We can’t begin to address the new ideas until we handle the old business the country has failed to settle. Fifty-six years after the Voting Rights Act was signed into law, we are still talking about people being denied at the ballot box. The ideas that I bring to Congress may seem new, but people of color have dealt with voter suppression and systemic racism for centuries.
My first priority is to push for the passage of HR 1, to advance access to the ballot box. Every year, we witness the suppression tactics used to strip people who look like me of their right to participate in our democracy. It is a shame that in 2021 we are still talking about voting rights. Now is the time to put an end to it. Your access to the ballot box should not be determined by your zip code or bank account.
Minority voters turned out in record-shattering numbers in the November election, and it was too much to bear for white supremacists. All they could do was attempt to silence the voices of millions of Americans. The January 6 domestic terrorist attack on the US Capitol showed how far we have to go to build the “Beloved Community” my friend and predecessor Congressman John Lewis envisioned. Luckily, our democracy is stronger than their threats of violence and conspiracy theories.
Each generation has an obligation to move us one step closer to the promise of America for all, and I intend to do just that.