I thank you for inviting me to be with you today and I thank you for the work you continue to do as leaders for civil rights and advocates for urban America.
For over 100 years, the National Urban League has been a resource to me and other progressive policymakers, providing research and policy recommendations to address the most significant urban problems that you and I care so deeply about. And when public policy has not kept pace with the needs of urban communities, you have never waited for someone else to do the hard work. You have rolled up your sleeves and helped people, one by one, through direct service to millions of Americans.
You have provided job training, helped small businesses to secure financing and contracts, and you have helped families with the counseling they need to realize the American dream of home ownership, just to name a few or your important programs. I commend you for your important work.
I would like to begin my remarks by quoting Marc (Morial, the President and CEO of the National Urban League), from your recent report on the 2015 State of Black America.
Few times in our nation’s history is the conscience of its citizens shocked and awakened across racial, economic, generational, and even ideological lines. These are the times when the collective consciousness of a people unapologetically screams that it’s time for change – and that it must start today.
I could not agree more.
In my view, the American people are sick and tired of establishment politics, establishment economics and the establishment media telling us that it is impossible to bring about real change. They are sick and tired of the establishment telling them that we cannot afford to make it easier for families to send their kids to college; that we cannot afford to create the millions of jobs that the American people, particularly young African Americans, desperately need; that we cannot guarantee healthcare as a right of citizenship to all Americans; that we cannot expand Social Security and lift millions of senior citizens out of poverty; that we cannot provide free and universal childcare to all of our children; and that it is just too hard to end structural racism and reform our criminal justice system.
I don’t believe that for a second, and neither should you. But, in my view, the only way we can bring about real change in this country is to build a political revolution of millions of Americans who are prepared to stand up and fight back against the establishment and the billionaire class and say enough is enough!
No, we will not give tax breaks to billionaires when children in this country are going hungry!
No, we will not tolerate racist police officers shooting black men in the back or yanking black women out of their cars for minor traffic violations. You know and I know that Sandra Bland would be alive today if she was a middle class white woman. That is unacceptable and that has got to change! We have got to say loudly and clearly that we will no longer tolerate police brutality in this country! We have got to come together as a nation and work to eliminate structural racism in this country.
Before I go any further, let me take a moment to let you know a little bit about my background. I was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, from 1981-1989, Vermont’s lone congressman from 1990-2006 and a U.S. senator from Vermont from 2007 until today.
I was born in Brooklyn, New York. My father came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 without a penny in his pocket and without much of an education. My mother graduated from high school in New York City. My father worked for almost his entire life as a paint salesman and we lived with my brother in a small rent-controlled apartment. My mother’s dream was to move out of that three-room apartment into a home of our own. She died young and her dream was never fulfilled. As a kid I learned what lack of money means to a family, a lesson I have never forgotten.
When I was a young college student, I came to Washington, D.C., to participate in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. I heard the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., deliver his famous speech, and he inspired me, just as he inspired a whole generation – black and white – to get involved in the civil rights movement. In Chicago, I worked for housing desegregation and was arrested protesting public school segregation. During that time I was active in the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), which was headed up by the late James Farmer.
Let me take this opportunity to quote from an excellent article by the columnist Eugene Robinson which appeared in the Washington Post:
As we celebrate King’s great achievement and sacrifice, it is wrong to round off the sharp edges of his legacy. He saw inequality as a fundamental and tragic flaw in this society, and he made clear in the weeks leading up to his assassination that economic issues were becoming the central focus of his advocacy.
What Dr. King saw in 1968 — and what we all should recognize today — is that it is not enough to address race alone without also taking on the larger issue of inequality. Let us not forget that when Dr. King was assassinated he was fighting to improve the wages and working conditions of sanitation workers who were on strike in Memphis, Tennessee.
As Dr. King said:
Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t earn enough money to buy a hamburger and a cup of coffee?
Sadly, in too many respects, what Dr. King said back then still rings true today.
Today, we live in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, but that reality means little because almost all of that wealth is controlled by a tiny handful of individuals. America now has more income and wealth inequality than any major country on earth, and the gap between the very rich and everyone else is wider than at any time since the 1920s. The issue of wealth and income inequality and the issue of racial inequality are the great moral issues of our time, they are the great economic issues of our time and they are the great political issues of our time.
There is something profoundly wrong when the top one-tenth of one percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom ninety percent, and when 58 percent of all new income goes to the top one percent. There is something profoundly wrong when we have a proliferation of millionaires and billionaires at the same time as millions of Americans work longer hours for lower wages and we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country on earth.
There is something profoundly wrong when nearly 40 percent of black children in America live in poverty. It is a national disgrace that one family owns more wealth than the bottom 130 million Americans. This grotesque level of inequality is immoral. It is bad economics. It is unsustainable. This type of rigged economy is not what America is supposed to be about. This has got to change.
We need to simultaneously address the structural and institutional racism which exists in this country, while at the same time we vigorously attack the grotesque level of income and wealth inequality which is making the very rich much richer while everyone else – especially the African-American community, the Hispanic community, and working-class whites – are becoming poorer.
I’d like to talk for a moment about the continuing struggle for racial justice in America and the need to combat structural racism. Let’s start with the facts. The horrible facts.
- If current trends continue, one in four black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during their lifetime. This is an unspeakable tragedy.
- Blacks are imprisoned at six times the rate of whites.
- A report by the Department of Justice found that blacks were three times more likely to be searched during a traffic stop, compared to white motorists.
- African-Americans are twice as likely to be arrested and almost four times as likely to experience the use of force during encounters with the police.
- Thirteen percent of African-American men have lost the right to vote due to felony convictions.
Too many African-Americans today, especially in our urban centers, are simultaneously having to deal with the crisis of racial injustice while coping with the effects of poverty and economic deprivation, such as drugs, crime, and despair.
Across the nation, too many African-Americans and other minorities find themselves subjected to a system that treats citizens who have not committed crimes like criminals. A growing number of communities do not trust the police and the police have become disconnected from the communities they are sworn to protect.
We must reform our criminal justice system. Black lives do matter. And we must value black lives.
We must move away from the militarization of police forces. We must invest in community policing. We need a federal initiative to completely redo how we train police officers in this country and give them body cameras.
It is an obscenity that we stigmatize so many young Americans with a criminal record for smoking marijuana, but not one major Wall Street executive has been prosecuted for causing the near collapse of our entire economy. This must change.
It is morally repugnant and a national tragedy that we have privatized prisons all over America. In my view, corporations should not be allowed to make a profit by building more jails and keeping more Americans behind bars. We have got to end the private-for-profit prison racket in America!
The measure of success for law enforcement should not be how many people get locked up. We need to invest in drug courts and medical and mental health interventions for people with substance abuse problems, so that people struggling with addiction do not end up in prison, they end up in treatment.
For people who have committed crimes that have landed them in jail, there needs to be a path back from prison. The federal system of parole needs to be reinstated. We need real education and real skills training for the incarcerated.
We must end the over incarceration of non-violent young Americans who do not pose a serious threat to our society. It is an international embarrassment that we have more people locked up in jail than any other country on earth – more than even the Communist totalitarian state of China. That has got to end. Instead of spending money on jails and incarceration, we should be investing in jobs and education!
That’s why I have introduced legislation with Congressman John Conyers to put 1 million disadvantaged young Americans to work by investing $5.5 billion on a youth jobs program.
And I have also introduced legislation to invest $1 trillion over a five year period in a major jobs program to put 13 million Americans to work rebuilding our roads, bridges, public transportation, subways, airports, sewers, and Broadband. If we can spend trillions of dollars on an unnecessary and misguided war in Iraq, we ought to be able to invest $1 trillion rebuilding our cities and towns.
We must keep kids in school. We must ensure that children graduate from high school and don’t drop out. This is a complicated problem and I’m not going to stand here and say I have all the answers.
But one thing that will help kids stay in school is if they have a belief that they will be able to get a college education. For too many families, college seems like an impossibility. We have got to change that. We need to give our children, regardless of their race or their income, a fair shot at attending college. That’s why I have introduced legislation to make all public colleges and universities tuition free. And, do you know how we’re going to pay for that? We’re going to pay for that by imposing a tax on Wall Street speculation.
Let us not forget: It was the greed, recklessness, and illegal behavior on Wall Street that nearly drove the economy off of the cliff seven years ago. Millions of Americans lost their jobs, homes, life savings, and ability to send their kids to college. African Americans who were steered into expensive subprime mortgages were the hardest hit.
If we could bail out Wall Street seven years ago, we have got to make sure that every qualified American, regardless of income, can go to college without going into debt. And, Wall Street has a responsibility to pay for that.
And, if we are serious about saving our cities, we have got to increase the wages of the American people.
Today, millions of Americans are now working for totally inadequate wages. The current federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour is a starvation wage and must be raised. The minimum wage must become a living wage – which means raising it to $15 an hour by 2020. The benchmark of full time work in America should be simple and concrete – that no full-time worker should live in poverty.
And a living wage should not only be fair, it should be equitable. That is why we must establish pay equity for women workers by law. It’s unconscionable that black women earn 64 cents on the dollar compared to white men.
The United States remains the only major country on earth that does not guarantee health care for all as a right. Despite the gains of the Affordable Care Act, 35 million Americans continue to lack health insurance and many more are under-insured. Yet, we continue paying far more per capita for health care than any other nation. The United States must join the rest of the industrialized world and guarantee health care to all as a right by moving toward a Medicare-for-All single-payer system.
In conclusion, I believe the time has come to say loudly and clearly: enough is enough. This great nation and its government belong to all of the people, and not to a handful of billionaires, their Super-PACs and their lobbyists.
Now is not the time for thinking small. Now is not the time for the same-old, same-old establishment politics and stale inside-the-beltway ideas.
Now is the time for millions of working families – black and white, Latino and Native American, gay and straight – to come together, to revitalize American democracy, to end the collapse of the American middle class and to make certain that our children and grandchildren are able to enjoy a quality of life that brings them health, prosperity, security and joy – and that once again makes the United States the leader in the world in the fight for economic and social justice, for environmental sanity and for a world of peace.