Maybe it’s the New Yorker in him—or maybe it’s an ingrained ethos to serve and protect, nearly two decades as a fierce litigator, and ten equally momentous years navigating politics and public service that give Hakeem Jeffries his confidence. Whatever it may be, each time he takes the House floor, what he delivers is an unapologetic representation of the people he speaks for and the communities he has come to embody.
“It’s been an honor to bring a little bit of Brooklyn to the United States capitol,” Jeffries tells ESSENCE during a recent interview.
Last month, the founding chapter of One Hundred Black Men honored the newly minted Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus with the “Honorable Robert J. Mangum Public Service Award.” When accepting the recognition on a cold Thursday night in midtown Manhattan, Jeffries charismatically reminded attendees that regardless of how far he climbs—many say he’s on his way to becoming Speaker of the House—he will always carry the borough that raised him on his back.
“I ran into someone on Fulton street,” the Crown Heights native recalls during his acceptance speech. “He says, ‘Aren’t you the congressman who a year ago shouted out Biggie Smalls on the floor of the House of Representatives?’
I said, ‘Yes sir. That’s me.’
‘And now you’re the number five democrat in the U.S. Congress?’
‘Yea… that kind of worked out.’
And then without missing a beat he said, ‘How the heck did that happen?’
And I responded the only way that I could. ‘You never thought that hip-hop would take it this far.’”
Some—maybe even most—did not. But the same can’t be said about the young boy from the borough that gave the Notorious B.I.G. his identity; the young gent who grew up during the 1980s crack epidemic but found refuge at Bed Stuy’s historic Cornerstone Baptist Church; nor the man who was raised by a woman whom OHBM board director Bill Howell called “the Rock of Gibraltar” from which the 48-year-old rising star gets his moral compass.
No. Jeffries has been steadily proving himself as a leader since before his days at Georgetown, NYU, or even the halls of congress for that matter. And although the two-term congressman has come a long way, he insists, “It would be impossible to represent the 8th Congressional District in Brooklyn and Queens without representing Biggie, the 1990s and all that that era represented for the culture.”
For New York City, the 90s will undoubtedly be remembered for bringing forth some of the greatest hip-hop acts this world will ever know, but it was also the era that saw a significant spike in Black incarceration rates, birthed the term “superpredators,” and convicted five Black and Brown teens from East Harlem for a crime they did not commit. The effects of this time period are still being felt today, and in December, Jeffries helped in taking the first step to rectify the damage.
“The FIRST STEP Act will help currently-incarcerated individuals successfully transition back into society by giving them the skills, job training, substance abuse treatment and mental health counseling that will help them become productive members of the community,” Jeffries, who co-sponsored the bill, explains.
The father of two young, Black men also added that the legislation allows incarcerated individuals to return back into their communities earlier than what they might otherwise have, because “we were able to roll back some of the draconian drug laws that were put into place during the crack cocaine epidemic.”
Ironically, President Donald Trump, the man who put pen to paper and made “the most important criminal justice reform effort in decades” an actual law, is the same man who demonized the young, East Harlem defendants, who would come to be known as “The Central Park Five.” The rhetoric he used towards them nearly 30 years ago is uncannily similar to the rhetoric used for Black and Brown foreigners today.
Some will remember that the 90s also solidified the “Big Apple” as a “City of Immigrants.” And in Brooklyn and Queens, large groups of Africans, West Indians, and Latinos still call the five boroughs home to this day. As of late, they’ve been calling on Jeffries more often to lament about the current treatment of their communities.
“Every day that I’m in the community — including as recently as this weekend — there were individuals who approached me who I’m privileged to represent concerned about their undocumented status, and the fact that at any moment they feel as if they can be ripped away from their family,” Jeffries shares. “We have a broken immigration system in this country, and therefore it’s important that we undertake comprehensive immigration reform and do so in a bi-partisan way.”
The former New York State Assemblyman who represents, as he describes, “one of the most diverse districts in the nation,” finds the xenophobic nature of the Trump administration deeply troubling. By Jeffries’ account, the people he serves are “hardworking, entrepreneurial, community-centered, spiritually-grounded and determined to pursue the American dream in all its glory.” So he’s adamant that instead of the White House choosing to demonize immigrants, they should be celebrating them and the rich contributions that they bring.
It’s a tall order for a man, who as recently as last month, declared a fake emergency at the border in an effort to secure funding for a wall he previously claimed Mexico would pay for. A man who Jeffries bluntly characterizes as “a reality show host who’s running around the Oval Office masquerading to be the President of the United States of America.” But while Trump puts on a daily show in Washington, Jeffries insists that he remains committed to getting things done for the people who elected him.
That includes protecting Dreamers and the recipients of DACA, working towards putting an end to the police brutality epidemic now prevalent throughout the nation, and bringing forth legislation to ensure that the criminal justice system one day provides justice for people of all races and ethnicities.
“It’s an honor to serve in the U.S. Congress at this particular moment in time. It’s a challenging time that we’re living through,” Jeffries says from the podium on that cold Thursday night during Black History Month. “But we stand on the shoulders of a whole lot of folk. We stand on the shoulders of so many who have come before us.”