Feb 8, 2021 - Politics & Policy

First look: ACLU to push reparations bill, Southern expansion

Panelists speak at a discussion about sexual harassment and rape in the workplace at the 2018 ACLU National Conference at the Washington Convention Center on June 12, 2018.

Panelists speak at the 2018 ACLU National Conference at the Washington Convention Center in June 2018 in Washington, DC. Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images

The American Civil Liberties Union will announce Tuesday it's embarking on an aggressive racial justice agenda that includes support for a reparations bill, expanding resources into southern states, and pushing for rural post offices to adopt basic banking services.

Why it matters: The 101-year-old ACLU is shifting its emphasis from defending free speech to forcefully tackling systemic racism amid a racial awakening in the U.S. and could provide a jolt to traditionally underfunded minority-led organizations.

  • The ACLU's national board this month elected civil rights attorney Deborah Archer as its new president, making her the first Black woman to lead the organization.
  • People of color make up around 61% of the ACLU's national board.
  • Anthony D. Romero, a New York-born son of parents from Puerto Rico, is starting his 20th year as ACLU's executive director and has led the gradual change.

The details: The group's "Systemic Equality agenda" includes a demand to pass legislation sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, that would fund a commission to study proposals on reparations for African Americans.

  • The group also wants post offices in rural Black, Native American, and Latino areas with no banks to offer check cashing, money transfers, and bill payments services.
  • The agenda seeks more voting rights protections, increase broadband access, student loan forgiveness, and new housing policies to fight racial segregation.
  • The ACLU is vowing to invest up to $40 million to expand staffing in its Southern affiliates to aggressively fight systemic racism in the former Confederacy.

What they're saying: "We can begin to unlock the potential that is in some of these states, and begin to create the political environment that is much more conducive for racial justice and civil rights and civil liberties. You can change the national map," Romero said on ACLU's planned Southern Collective.

  • Romero said the recent spike in Black voter participation in Georgia was a good example of how election maps can change if more resources are dedicated.

Flashback: The ACLU represented biracial couple Richard and Mildred Loving in the 1967 landmark Supreme Court case, Loving v. Virginia, that ruled state bans on interracial marriage were unconstitutional.

  • ACLU founders include Black poet and civil rights advocate James Weldon Johnson.

Between the lines: The ACLU's agenda comes as the reparation movement gains mainstream attention thanks to the New York Times Magazine's 1619 Project, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and Democratic presidential candidates vowing to address systemic racism from slavery to today.

  • National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America co-chair Kamm Howard said it was exciting that ACLU is officially joining the fight for reparation, though in recent years ACLU members have been offering technical support.
  • "We welcome the solitary. We've never lacked the intellectual resources. We've lacked financial resources so is this good for the movement."
  • The ACLU says it doesn't intend to take over the various issues from traditionally minority-led organizations but offer additional resources from its multimillion-dollar nonprofit.

Don't forget: The ACLU sued the Trump administration 413 times over policies from the Muslim ban to the border wall. Archer said the ACLU also will sue the Biden administration to pursue its racial equity agenda if needed.

  • "President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris made a lot of promises and commitments around racial justice, challenging systemic racial inequality. And now it's time for the ACLU to be a part of the effort to hold them accountable for those promises."
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