House Whip James Clyburn Calls Barr’s Slavery Comment the Most ‘God-Awful Thing I’ve Ever Heard’

Clyburn, a 14-term U.S. Congressman and the dean of the South Carolina congressional delegation has spent his career working to improve and empower the lives of African Americans. Former President Barack Obama once noted that Clyburn is "one of a handful of people who, when they speak, the entire Congress listens."

William Cummings – House Majority Whip James Clyburn reacted sharply to Attorney General William Barr’s comment that evoked slavery while decrying government overreach with coronavirus restrictions, calling it “the most ridiculous, tone-deaf, God-awful thing I’ve ever heard.” 

Clyburn, the highest-ranking African-American member of Congress, told CNN Thursday it was “incredible” the “chief law enforcement officer in this country would equate human bondage to expert advice to save lives. Slavery was not about saving lives, it was about devaluing lives.”

Barr’s remark came during a Wednesday question and answer session at Hillsdale College after Barr delivered an address. That speech sparked its own reaction when Barr defended his personal involvement in recent high-profile criminal cases by likening some federal prosecutors to “headhunters.”

After his speech, the moderator asked Barr about the constitutionality of the coronavirus restrictions. Barr suggested that instead of imposing lockdowns, states should have allowed businesses to try to “adapt” to new rules. Then, “you’ll have ingenuity and people will at least have the freedom to try to earn a living,” he argued.

“But putting a national lockdown, stay at home orders, is like house arrest,” Barr continued. “Other than slavery, which was a different kind of restraint, this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history.”

Barr has long been wary of the measures imposed to control of the spread of the virus, which has killed nearly 200,000 people in the U.S. On April 27, Barr issued a memorandum calling on U.S. attorneys to “be on the lookout for state and local directives that could be violating the constitutional rights and civil liberties of individual citizens.”

Though a federally mandated, national lockdown was never put in place, most of the states’ governors imposed various kinds of coronavirus restrictions.

According to CNN, Barr went on to say “governors do what bureaucrats always do,” which is “defy common sense,” and “treat free citizens as babies that can’t take responsibility for themselves and others.”

Clyburn argued that if Trump had imposed federal restrictions, the U.S. might have the pandemic under control.

“It would have been great if we had a national lockdown, so that people’s lives would be saved, and our children will be going on with their lives today, as they should be,” he said.

Clyburn was one of severl critics to express outrage at Barr’s comment about slavery.

Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, called Barr’s it an “obscene comparison.”

“Only an evil fool could talk that way,” he said.

“Bill Barr equates quarantine with chattel slavery as one of the greatest intrusions of civil liberties in American history. Statements like these make you realize many in this country know nothing about what it truly means to be oppressed,” tweeted Sunny Hostin, a co-host of ABC’s “The View.”

Others pointed out there have been far worse civil rights infringements than the temporary lockdowns.

“Offensiveness aside, Barr’s comparing lockdowns with slavery are historically absurd,” tweeted John Marshall, founder of Talking Points Memo.

Historian Jon Meacham agreed, telling CNN that Barr’s assertion ignored many dark chapters in American history, such as the anti-communist crackdowns that criminalized political affiliations and disproportionately punished immigrant communities, as well as the Jim Crow laws that enforced racial segregation in the South.

“If you think that this is the greatest intrusion on civil liberties in American history, I’d suggest you read up on the Alien Sedition Acts,” Meacham said. “I’d suggest you talk to the Japanese Americans who were interned during the Second World War. Talk to the victims of Joe McCarthy. Talk to the victims of one of Barr’s predecessors, A. Mitchel Palmer,  who led raids in 1919 and 1920 as part of the first Red Scare. And talk to the Black folks who, in my native region, lived under apartheid until about 60 years ago.”

Like other critics of Barr’s remarks, Meacham also disputed the attorney general’s implication the restrictions were unnecessary.

Study:Coronavirus shutdowns prevented 60 million infections in the USA

“We’re talking about scientifically uncontroversial public health measures. This is not some ideologically-driven plot on behalf of the public health officials, and the alleged deep state, to change American lives. It’s to try to save American lives because of a global pandemic,” Meacham said.

Barr said Wednesday that just because scientists agree that something is beneficial, elected officials are not required to follow their recommendations in a democracy.

“The person in the white coat is not the grand seer who can come up with the right decisions for society. A free people makes its determination through its elected representatives,” Barr said.

Contributing: Kevin Johnson

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