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U.S. Sen. John Cornyn faces outcry from Democrats after questioning idea of systemic racism

The two Democrats vying to replace him this fall say he doesn't understand the concept.

U.S. Senator John Cornyn speaks at The American Legion Boys State ceremony on the south steps of the University of Texas a...

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. John Cornyn has faced a barrage of criticism from Texas and national Democrats in recent days for his comments and questions about racism made during a hearing over how to overhaul the country's criminal justice system in the wake of Minneapolis resident George Floyd's death at the hands of police.

Cornyn, a Republican who is up for reelection in the fall, seemed to question in the hearing whether isolated acts of police misconduct ought to be characterized as signs of systemic racism within all police departments and among police officers. The two Democrats who are locked in a battle for their party's nomination released highly critical statements on the state's senior senator, saying Cornyn didn't understand the idea of broader systemic issues in policing and other public institutions harming black people.

“There are a lot of differences between John Cornyn and myself," said state Sen. Royce West of Dallas. "One is that I know systemic racism exists and that it hurts black and brown people disproportionately."

“If Senator Cornyn can’t even grasp the concept of systemic racism, there’s a 0% chance he’s equipped to legislate solutions to address racial injustice in America," said Air Force veteran M.J. Hegar.

At issue was a Tuesday U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that featured as witnesses several advocates who favor dramatic change to law enforcement, including S. Lee Merritt, an attorney for Floyd's family. Several of Cornyn's questions were framed around the notion the phrase "systemic racism" — a term that means that practices within a system can have a disproportionately bad effect on people of color — mean that all people within that system are racist.

Cornyn's most heated exchange was with Vanita Gupta, a former Department of Justice official for during the Obama administration.

"Do you believe that, basically, all Americans are racist?" he asked Gupta.

"We all have implicit bias and racial bias, yes I do," she said, to which Cornyn responded with "Wow."

"And I think that we are an amazing country that strives to be better every single day," she added. "It's why I went into government to make a more perfect union."

"You lost me when you ... took the acts of a few misguided, perhaps malicious individuals, and ascribed that to all Americans, not just our 800,000 police officers, our 18,000 police departments," Cornyn said.

Later, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat, alluded to Cornyn in the hearing.

"I was disheartened to hear our colleagues suggest that when we discuss the fact of systemic racism, we are accusing people within the system and all people within the system of being racist," she said. "That kills the conversation, and it actually insults the intelligence of the American people. It is an extreme and simplistic attempt to reject the seriousness of this issue."

"Let's not fall in a trap of simplifying this in a way that then we don't address the real issue," she added. "And so I encourage our colleagues to not fall into these simplistic traps that are really about suggesting ... if we have to reform the system it's because we're calling everyone racist."

Presumably to reinforce where her remarks were directed, Harris rattled off Texas law enforcement statistics that showed black people are disproportionately harmed in police shootings and arrested for drug possession.

Despite widespread political paralysis on Capitol Hill, there is an urgency in both parties in addressing how criminal justice is administered in light of a video of an officer leaning on Floyd's neck for nearly nine minutes before he died.

Cornyn is likely to be a key player in how Congress addresses policing issues over the summer. On Wednesday morning, he appeared with the leader of the GOP effort, U.S. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, in laying out the Republican plans going forward. That proposal would mandate police departments to better track disciplinary issues with police officers and provides money for police training and de-escalation programs.

One of the points of contention between the Senate and the Democratic-controlled House is whether to have an outright ban on chokeholds. The Senate proposal withholds money from departments that do not ban the practice.

Cornyn, a senior member of the committee that handles judicial matters, is a former Senate GOP whip and former Texas attorney general. In 2018, Cornyn was a force in moving a criminal justice bill through the Senate. That bill primarily addressed the treatment and rights of individuals once they are incarcerated.

His challengers, West and Hegar, are in a summer runoff for the Democratic nomination to take on Cornyn in the fall. Both released lengthy statements on the exchange.

"As he tries for his fourth term in the senate, let’s look at our records," West also said in his statement. "John Cornyn has still not awoken to the fact that systemic racism exists in this country. His press conference with other Republicans today shows how far behind the curve he is. I started working on criminal justice reform in the Texas Legislature decades ago."

"I’m proactive. Not reactive," he added. "This is the case on many issues, not just criminal justice reform. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard John Cornyn say the phrase 'black lives matter.' Millions of Texans believe this to be true. Why can’t John Cornyn say it?"

"It’s unacceptable that after 18 years in the Senate, Cornyn still refuses to acknowledge the reality of these obvious, deadly problems that systemically target Black communities," Hegar said. "Texans deserve better than a failed senator who hides behind a veil of ignorance as innocent lives are lost,”

Asked Wednesday about his comments at the hearing, Cornyn told Texas reporters that he was "trying to understand what people mean when they use the term." Some witness said all police are systemically racist, Cornyn said.

"I just simply don't agree with that, but I was glad to hear the witnesses say that because I think what that shows is they're painting with a broad brush," Cornyn said. Cornyn said that approach avoids "individual responsibility" because in his view, if everyone is considered a racist, then no single person can take responsibility.

Republican leaders aim to bring the matter to the floor next week. It is unclear if that chamber can square away differences with the Democratic-controlled House proposal.

Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.

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