The Omar agenda: a discussion of Black issues, reparations, and media

Photo courtesy of Associated Press Rep. Ilhan Omar

The conclusion of a two-part conversation

As mentioned in last week’s conversation with U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, she remains a beacon of controversy. The same week the previous article was published, she was fined for misuse of campaign funds, which was attributed to tax accounting errors and travel.

Upon the release of the findings, she released a statement that reads in part, “In addition to complying with the Board’s findings, I plan on closing the account from my State House race and distributing the funds to organizations that help train first-time candidates to run for office — so that the next generation of candidates and their teams know how to adequately track and report campaign expenses.”

It also prompted a local news outlet to publish a scathing commentary on her work. Yet, Omar continues to keep her responses to controversy measured (as the statement above) and uses her live and social media platforms to instead focus on public policies.

In this week’s continuation of the same conversation with the MSR, Omar talks about her work with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), how they are working on intentionally connecting with Black media and digging in on issues directly affecting Black (African and African American) communities.

MSR: How has it been making alliances in Washington, D.C.?

Ilhan Omar: That really has been one of the greatest opportunities we’ve found in the last four and a half months. Because we ran on a really aggressive platform, there were so many organizations in the state and around the country that endorsed our campaign. We’ve been able to feel really connected.

Same here with our colleagues in Congress. Because there is so much noise on whether I should get condemned for this or that, there are so many of them that are constantly approaching us that want to have a conversation, that want to make sure we are able to deliver for our district and the country [and] make sure we feel supported.

So, a lot of conversations that we wouldn’t have been part of, maybe not even our first term, we’re in the center of it because of the increased scrutiny around our place in Congress.

MSR: What kind of work have you been doing with the Black Caucus?

IO: We’ve been on a tour visiting different communities. They’re coming to our community in Minneapolis at the end of August. We’ll have a weekend to talk about the opportunities that exist within the Black community in Minnesota and talk about some of the challenges.

Our focus will be around that unfulfilled promise of prosperity and looking at what kind of economic prosperity the Black community can have, where are the opportunities and where are the challenges.

We’re going to talk about Minnesota being one of the more segregated states when it comes to education. We just had the anniversary of Brown vs. Board of Education, so we are going to revisit that conversation and look at what the education gap looks like, and at schools that are real successes.

I was just in Richfield High School; they have an 80 percent graduation rate, which doesn’t really happen in many parts of the district. They have a Black principal. So, maybe [we’ll be] having a conversation with her about why that is possible for them and how we can duplicate that in other parts of our district.

Possibly [we will] have conversations with some city council members who are trailblazers themselves, to talk about what kind of ordinances have created barriers to having a successful life as an African American, and how they’ve worked to get rid of those ordinances, and what we can do at the federal level.

MSR: What are your thoughts on reparations?

IO: We [CBC] are going to have a conversation about the push for reparations. We are one of the cosponsors of that legislation. It’s a commission that is going to be tasked with a study. With that study, we are hoping proposals will come out of it to address the social effect of slavery and segregation, the kind of implications it’s had on the Black economy.

MSR: How does that tie in?

IO: We all talk about the promise of prosperity for all. I remember former Senator [Al] Franken used to say of “Pull yourself from your bootstraps” that there are so many people who were not born with one and to whom that was never given.

I think about the African American community. For so many years, there has been a conversation about the injustices, the cruelty, the brutality of slavery. But we really haven’t had a focus on the social effects of slavery, segregation, and its continued economic implications.

If we’re really to go back to that thought of prosperity for all, we can’t expect the African American community to have an opportunity for that prosperity if we’re not looking at the root causes of the economic barriers they might have.

Whether it is the lack of access to proper education, the sort of generational trauma that has really impacted their health and lack of access to health care, the brutality of our criminal justice system and the sort of entry to that system having never really been closed…

The policing system — we’ve spent a lot of time while I was at city hall and the state house having lots of conversation about what community policing looks like and having members of the community be part of the police force.

And none of those things will ever make any sense unless we are able to have a conversation about how traumatizing the presence of police is to the African American community. If we are not going to talk about generational trauma and the way people access social, economic and political power, we are not going to have any sort of prosperity for all of us.

 You really have to be an actor. Justice is rooted in fighting for actual liberation internally and externally. You cannot really be at peace to be able to lead a healthy, fulfilling life if you don’t feel you have justice.

And so, this quest for reparations is about undoing injustice and really making sure that internally and externally people feel like their history is accounted for, that they feel seen, that their pain is noted, and that we are going to do everything we can to restore the full being. If we don’t do that as a society, I don’t think we will get to where we want to see ourselves.

MSR: Is there a timeline for this study?

IO: The legislation hasn’t really gotten a hearing or moved. That’s the first step in putting the occasion together to study it. That’s what we are really pushing for. The hope is to continue to have the conversation like I’m doing now with you and for you to cover it and to have more constituents around the country to push their members in being a co-sponsor and pushing the issue to be a priority.

MSR: What other issues related to Black communities are you targeting?

IO: Housing is a top issue in the district, so we are addressing that with the Homes for All bill. Our other proposal is student debt cancelation. We know that every single community struggles with student debt, especially in the Black community. By canceling out student debt, we believe it’s going to be an economic stimulus for our community, as well.

 We are also proposing a jobs guarantee bill that will make sure that the 1.2 million Americans who want to work but can’t find jobs have the opportunity to have that be guaranteed for them. I think it is going to be very impactful in our community.

We’re also addressing a lot of taboo issues within the community — things like mental health, the destigmatization of mental health, particularly with our youth, the increased rates of suicide and attempted suicide by Black youth.

In regards to health care, we know that many of our communities are uninsured or underinsured. I’ve been fighting for Medicare for all and am one of the vice chairs of the caucus. We are a few steps ahead in trying to get that to a floor vote.

With that, we’ve also created a task force to look at Black maternal health. Many of our mothers — regardless of what their socioeconomic status is — are still [facing] challenges during pregnancy because of their Blackness and in the way that doctors interact with them. We are addressing this particular issue in our task force and by working on legislation with Rep. Ayann Presley [D-MA], who has been a leading champion on this particular issue, and Rep. Lauren Underwood [D-IL].

It’s a shock to anybody’s system. Black women are 243 percent more likely to die than White women. It’s an epidemic and not talked about. So we have come together to amplify this particular crisis and want to make sure that we’re doing everything we can — whether it is the expansion of Medicaid coverage to pregnant women to have access to doula services and support systems, or just raising awareness and making sure that the implicit bias that some healthcare providers have isn’t impacting the health of Black women.