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New ACLU President On The Fight For Racial Justice

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The American Civil Liberties Union is known as a defender of free speech. Now, 101 years after its founding, it is recalibrating its focus - to focus even more intensely now on the fight for racial justice. The group says it is time for, quote, "a real reckoning with the legacy of our racist past." And as part of that reckoning, they're asking President Biden to support a bill to study reparations for Black Americans. Civil rights attorney Deborah Archer is the ACLU's newly elected board president and the first Black person to assume that role.

Welcome.

DEBORAH ARCHER: Thank you for having me.

CHANG: So you have worked with the ACLU over the past several decades - all the way back to the 1990s, I understand, when you were a legal fellow there. This decision by the ACLU to shift its long-time emphasis from protecting free speech to addressing systemic racism in a dedicated, focused way - can you tell us why this feels like the right time for that shift?

ARCHER: First, I'd like to say we are absolutely focused on deepening our work on racial justice, but it doesn't mean that we're turning away from any of the issues that we worked on in the past, including First Amendment. But I do think that if we look at the time that we're in now and what has happened over the past year, advancing racial justice really has to be at the forefront of our work.

CHANG: Well, let's talk about a few elements of the ACLU's new racial justice agenda. I want to start with the organization's support for a reparations bill. What exactly do you want to see from lawmakers and the Biden administration on that front?

ARCHER: The ACLU thinks that reparations is an important part of reconciling with the past, which we think is necessary to advancing systemic equality and fighting for racial justice. Reconciliation and reparations are not about taking from one to give to the other. But rather it is a means of using our nation's resources, much of which have been accumulated through the exploitation of Black communities, to provide those same communities with access to the economic ladder that they've been denied for hundreds of years. And so the ACLU believes the issue of reparations should be seriously considered by all Americans.

CHANG: Well, you're going to be urging the Biden administration to get behind policies that support the economic well-being of all Americans - things like fair, affordable housing, canceling student debt, providing basic banking services at post offices. And I know that what I'm about to ask is a big question with a big answer, but can you just explain how getting at some of these very basic economic ideas furthers racial justice?

ARCHER: At a very fundamental level, economic inequality inhibits our ability to enjoy our full array of fundamental and constitutional rights. For example, today 1 in 4 Americans are unbanked or underbanked. And predictably, for Black people, financial marginalization is much worse. We are thinking about ways to increase access in Black communities to some of these essential financial services.

CHANG: Well, I do want to point out that President Biden is the first-ever president who is a card-carrying member of the ACLU. Do you think that makes your job any easier?

ARCHER: It doesn't. Now the work begins for the ACLU to hold President Biden and his administration accountable for his oath to uphold the Constitution for everyone. We believe that President Biden and Vice President Harris must not only prioritize undoing the many harms of the previous administration, but they have to work toward a vision of the country that heralds justice, fairness and equality for all of us. And that certainly is a very large agenda.

CHANG: Well, if President Biden does not get behind the policies that you want to see him get behind, what is the ACLU's strategy? I mean, it's worth noting that the ACLU sued the Trump administration more than 400 times. Do you see litigation as a tool that you are absolutely willing to resort to during this new administration?

ARCHER: I think the ACLU is ready to use every tool that we have and to rise to this moment, just as we rose to the moment following the election of Donald Trump. We spent most of the past four years on the defensive, trying to stop efforts to roll back fundamental civil rights and civil liberties and challenging laws that targeted vulnerable and marginalized communities. But now the ACLU has an opportunity - and I would say responsibility - to work to support the communities most hurt by the prior administration and to roll back that toxic legacy to protect and expand civil rights and civil liberties and to deepen our racial justice work. But - and as I said, we have to hold the Biden administration accountable for doing everything that they can, again, to roll back the toxic legacy and to expand civil rights and civil liberties.

CHANG: Deborah Archer is the ACLU's new board president.

Thanks very much for being with us today.

ARCHER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.