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Congress’s hip-hop legislation is the latest symbolic gesturing that doesn’t improve Black lives

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US politicians have a fondness for endorsing easy, cultural displays of solidarity.

In a recent move that seemed to go largely unnoticed, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution designating August 11, 2021, as Hip-Hop Celebration Day, August 2021 as Hip-Hop Recognition Month and November 2021 as Hip-Hop History Month.
It was a peculiar moment. No, not because hip-hop doesn’t matter — for decades, the genre has been fertile ground for emcees to fold history into bars and champion a feminist vision of sexual positivity. But because the resolution served as a reminder that, since last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, there have been no national policy achievements that might radically alter the experiences of Black Americans.

This wasn’t the first time this year that Congress’s priorities have felt skewed.

Remember in June when a bill establishing June 19 as Juneteenth National Independence Day — to commemorate the end of slavery in the US, more than two years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation — breezed through Capitol Hill?

The frustration wasn’t that Juneteenth isn’t worth celebrating.

As The New Yorker’s Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote earlier this month, “the creation of the Juneteenth National Independence Day is the closest that our society has come to acknowledging the legacy of slavery as a fact of American life.” This reappraisal, she added, “injects a historical materiality into our understanding of Black communities’ hardships” — an understanding that’s all the more important in light of the ongoing conservative attack on critical race theory and even the facts of history.
As some pointed out, the deeper concern was that relatively decorative gestures alone aren’t transformative; they don’t amount to legislation that would substantively improve Black Americans’ lives.

More urgent legislation

Consider the kind of legislation that would make a fundamental difference for Black Americans — if Republicans got behind it. Put more bluntly, all politicians love strategic gesturing, but today’s Republicans refuse to venture beyond that.

In March, the House of Representatives, led by Democrats, passed a bill designed to prevent police misconduct, an effort that came in the wake of the May 2020 murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin. Yet the bill doesn’t have a clear path in the 50-50 Senate, where, to pass, it would need the support of at least 10 Republicans, who are mostly allergic to checking the police — an institution that, at its core, is oppressive to marginalized populations.
On the voting rights front, Democrats’ attempt to pass the For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would protect access to the franchise and quash schemes that disproportionately disadvantage voters of color, also has hit a snag. Democrats don’t have the votes necessary to break the filibuster and pass the two bills, and Republicans, who have been goosing voter suppression ever since Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 presidential election, have no intention of giving them any.

Here, we can assign some blame to moderate Democrats, two in particular. Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have refused to change Senate rules so that their party can pass key legislation by a simple majority.

Instead, the pair has cleaved to a flawed understanding of history to protect, of all things, the filibuster, “that procedural fillip that’s gotten a million headlines and which, despite unrelenting media coverage, most Americans couldn’t competently explain if you held one of our millions of guns to our heads,” as Slate’s Lili Loofbourow put it.
Democrats also have a penchant for telling their constituents, who are overwhelmingly people of color, to thwart Republicans’ antidemocratic maneuvering by voting harder in the next election. Democrats’ messaging is a kind of whiplash: inform the targeted voters that what they’re up against is the reincarnation of Jim Crow, but then fail to mount a vigorous push to stave off Republicans’ massive assault on the right to vote.

A uniquely cruel gesture

Still, Republicans’ symbolic gesturing is uniquely cruel. At least most Democrats are trying to turn symbols into substance, even if they do bicker over consequential issues such as the eviction moratorium and throw up their hands the moment that the struggle over voting rights becomes fraught. Meanwhile, Republicans support symbols specifically so that they don’t have to do anything else.

Their interest in Juneteenth might bring to mind former President Ronald Reagan’s belated decision, in 1983, to establish a national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.

“Reagan’s pivot on the King holiday provided a two-pronged benefit,” historians Christopher Petrella and Justin Gomer wrote for the Boston Review in 2017. “On the one hand it would pacify critics of his positions on civil rights, but on the other it enabled Reagan to position himself as the inheritor of King’s colorblind ‘dream’ … in order to advance the anti-Black crusade he had waged since the 1960s, now under the alluring mantle of colorblindness.”
In the presence of Coretta Scott King, President Ronald Reagan signs a bill making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a national holiday, November 2, 1983.

In other words, Reagan’s support was a smoke screen, a way for him to promote the same old policies but without catching as much political flak.

Similarly, present-day Republicans’ embrace of things such as a variety of hip-hop observations and Juneteenth National Independence Day doesn’t feel like much more than political sleight of hand. Really, there’s no danger in paying homage to the most popular music genre or acknowledging the end of slavery. For Republicans, these actions even provide cover: While they exult in how supposedly benevolent they are, they can continue on their path toward establishing one-party rule and entrenching the power of White conservatives.


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