Courtesy of Eddie Bernice Johnson

Barrier Breaking

U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the first Black woman to chair the House science committee, talks racism and COVID-19 disparities.


A version of this story ran in the March / April 2021 issue.

From the March/April 2021 issue.

In 1990, Eddie Bernice Johnson, then a Texas State Senator, told the Chicago Tribune that “being a woman and being Black is perhaps a double handicap.” Despite the challenges of working in a mostly white Legislature and Congress, the Dallas Democrat has broken many barriers in her nearly half century in government. When she won a Texas state House seat in 1972, now-Congresswoman Johnson became the first Black woman elected to the Legislature from Dallas. A registered nurse who began her career at the veterans’ hospital in Dallas, she was the first registered nurse to hold office in the Texas House, the Texas Senate, and, eventually, the United States Congress. When Democrats won control of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018, the 85-year-old legislator and Waco native became the first woman and the first African American to chair the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. 

At the start of what she’s said will be her final term in Congressthough she has said that beforeJohnson spoke with the Observer in January about the U.S. Capitol insurrection, criminal justice reform, and the coronavirus pandemic.  

How are you doing, especially after the recent violence at the Capitol?

Well, I’m doing OK. A lot of the emotion is still pretty raw here. I left the [House] floor and came to my office and locked the door. My office window faces the Capitol. And I could see the huge mass of people, almost like something you see in a movie—everybody running, it seems like everybody has something in their hands. And it was clear it was not a friendly crowd. They were climbing up, going into windows, breaking windows to get in, walking on the roof of the Capitol, looking for ways to enter other than the doors. 

It has been very clear to me that this particular president [Donald Trump] has been very overtly racist, overtly biased, and he is getting the attention of all those people that have all this pent up and organizing them into, really, wars. This was a war.

Last summer, sweeping police reform passed the U.S. House, but stalled in the GOP-led Senate. You told Texas Standard at the time that “if we had made a bit more effort in trying to make it more bipartisan we probably would have had a bit more success.” What did you mean by that?

I can talk with you for the next 10 hours and probably not get finished with what I could say about race relations and how they’re kind of up and down, depending on what national figure has the attention. 

 [Trump] had a few people that had a little color in their skin who said decent things about him. But I don’t have any feeling that any person of color can seriously respect him as a leader for all the people.

A few years ago, you said you’re “not sorry” for supporting the 1994 crime bill, sponsored by then-Senator Joe Biden, which critics say drove mass incarceration, especially of Black people, in the 1990s.

I’m not. If the same situation came up today, I would react to it in the same way.

Why is that?

The crack cocaine epidemic was all over [Dallas]. I went home, I was having town hall meetings, and it was my community and my district that said, “You have got to vote for that bill, we’ve got to get some of these people off the streets.” My instructions came directly from my constituency. That’s who instructed me to vote for the bill. 

Let’s talk about COVID-19. You’ve been chair of the House science committee under an administration that vehemently opposed the advice of many top scientists. What has that been like?

The greatest responsibility that my committee has is to make sure that we fund research. My role is to make sure that we did research: that we could reach some type of vaccine or a method to eradicate the virus. To make sure that the research to come up with outcomes that could attack this virus was never forgotten.

I didn’t even think about the [Trump] administration. I was thinking about my responsibility and I was working on legislation, not working with him. I try to uphold oaths, and I would try to do that no matter who was in the White House. I haven’t worked with this president at all, but I have worked with three. I worked with Clinton, Bush, and Obama. With this president, I have not worked directly with him on anything.

You’ve spoken about COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on Black people in the United States. What should the government do on this issue?

Many of those problems have been present all the time. Poor environments, poor working conditions, poor access to health care, poor transportation—keeping the stress up, keeping the blood pressure up, being in food deserts where you can’t get fresh food. Which lends itself to all of the things that makes them vulnerable. Not only for this virus, but lots of other things: high blood pressure, diabetes. 

Those are preconditions that make one vulnerable. So it’s really not uncommon for people that live in those conditions to be affected more drastically than those who live in a very high standard of living, where you’ve got nice vegetables [and] you can go to work and get home at decent hours, if you’re working at all. That is just not common for poor people. They have a harder time, making the least amount of money. 

With COVID, all we can do is try to make sure they get adequate testing where they can get to it, where they can get the results, and make sure that they can get on a priority vaccine list, so that they can be more protected. 

There’s been polling suggesting that Black people in the U.S. are more reticent about getting a COVID-19 vaccine. How can we better instill trust?

Well, you know, most of the people are asking me, “Where can I get it?” I’ve had tremendous numbers of African Americans say to me, “I’ve called. I don’t know where to go. When is it going to be available? I went here, and now they tell me to get on a list.” So the availability has not been that great. And I’m going to try to improve that. 

[Black people] have no real reason to trust too much because they’ve never been involved that much with the field-testing, and they’ve been tricked into doing a lot of things that they didn’t even know was happening to them. But I think that people they work with, that they trust, that they live with—their ministers, their relatives, their co-workers, their leaders that have shown that they can be trusted—can help them understand. And then, the availability has to be there where they can get to it.   

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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