Racism and reform in America

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been reflecting on the nature of racism in America. Maybe you too have read a now-viral Twitter thread about comedian Dave Chappelle’s experience talking about racism in a comedy club in New York. It’s a good thread, and one that invites people into a necessary conversation. But a different part of the story jumped out at me: Mr. Chapelle described his interaction with a police officer, in Ohio, the place he and I call home. The officer who pulled him over recognized him immediately and let him off with a warning. That officer would later go on to shoot a man who was looking at a BB gun in a Walmart — while black. Mr. Chapelle is right. He shouldn’t have to be famous to survive an encounter with the police.

I obviously can’t speak to what it’s like to be black in America. But I want to share my own thoughts and recollections given recent events:

In high school, three friends and I — two of us white and two of us black—were nearly inseparable. Often, I drove with diverse friends and often I drove with only white friends. On numerous occasions, for no violation, I was stopped by police—not for driving while black (since I’m white), but effectively for driving with black friends. Unless I had committed an actual violation, like speeding, I was never stopped a single time on my own or when the only passengers were white.

But maybe that was just my town …

Numerous professional colleagues who are black have shared their firsthand experiences with me, where they have been stopped for no violation, driving nice cars or in wealthy parts of a town. Just some questions, or concerns, or maybe lights that appeared to not be working … One friend was driving a BMW M5 and had to explain his car and presence by revealing that he is an anesthesiologist. My white friends don’t share similar stories.

But maybe that was just my friends …

Once, I went to a party with a group of white and black friends. As we arrived, two drunk men approached us and one stuck a finger in a black friend’s chest and drunkenly slurred, “I know who you are. You’re that n——- …” My friend raised his hands and politely stated that it was clear that we were in the wrong place and that we would be leaving. As we turned, another drunken man raised a beer bottle to swing at another black friend’s head. A large brawl ensued, and we had to flee to our cars to escape the mob attacking us.

But maybe that doesn’t happen anymore …

Stop lying to yourself. I share these stories, not because they are unique, but because they are still too common. Despite intermittent progress, we will not stop racism until we recognize its presence in our communities and institutions.

The 8th District, which I represent, is nearly 90 percent white and roughly 5 percent black. Nevertheless, I have found no one who defends what happened to George Floyd. Watching his murder reopened deep wounds from a strong undercurrent of racial disparities — especially in policing.

In my district and across America, law enforcement is rightly respected and greatly appreciated. But this incident has also tapped a more widespread frustration that law enforcement has an intolerable history of failing to hold rogue officers accountable for criminal conduct. Studies show that even when criminal cops are rightly prosecuted, guilty verdicts are rare, and sentences are shockingly low by comparison.

Peaceful protests have occurred, even in the most rural parts of Ohio’s 8th District, because the anger and frustration with both racism and double standards for law enforcement are felt deeply across racial, class, generational, and partisan lines. Given the shared outrage, the reaction to George Floyd’s murder should unite our country — not divide it. Unfortunately, we have once again been driven to division when our natural reaction was nearly universal. As a nation, we cannot allow extremist agitators from the left (Antifa et al) or from the right (Proud Boys et al) to cause us to miss this moment of incredible magnitude.

I sincerely hope we can address these problems together with a fully functional and physically present Congress that engages in an honest process that requires thoughtful legislation, an open amendments process, and recorded votes on specific proposals rather than the recent hyper-politicized process that bundles together enough proposals to ensure passage, regardless of their relevance or efficacy.

As for me, I’m committed to listening and considering ways to address these problems. A primary legislative focus in this space would be ending civil asset forfeiture — an unconstitutional, unjust, and immoral practice that disproportionately harms people who can’t fund the legal fees to reclaim their own property. America’s justice system must stop seizing the property of innocent Americans without due process.

I am participating in reform discussions and look forward to connecting with constituents, subject matter experts, and my colleagues. As Sam Cooke famously sang, “A Change is Gonna Come,” and I’m going to do my part to make sure that change is better for all Americans.