Paul Cienfuegos’ September 29th, 2015 Commentary on KBOO Evening News
(His weekly commentaries are broadcast every Tuesday evening. You can view or listen to them all at PaulCienfuegos.com, CommunityRightsPDX.org/podcast, or subscribe via ITunes.)
Greetings! You are listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos.
This past Sunday, US Senator Elizabeth Warren gave a major speech on racial justice that has grabbed national attention. Today I’m going to share a few excerpts from her remarkable speech.
A half-century ago, when Senator Kennedy spoke of the Civil Rights Act, entrenched, racist power did everything it could to sustain oppression of African-Americans, and violence was its first tool. Lynchings, terrorism, intimidation. The 16th Street Baptist Church. Medgar Evers. Emmett Till. When Alabama Governor George Wallace stood before the nation and declared during his 1963 inaugural address that he would defend “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” he made clear that the state would stand with those who used violence.
But violence was not the only tool. African Americans were effectively stripped of citizenship when they were denied the right to vote. The tools varied – literacy tests, poll taxes, moral character tests, grandfather clauses – but the results were the same. They were denied basic rights of citizenship and the chance to participate in self-government.
[Another] tool of oppression was to deliberately deny millions of African Americans economic opportunities solely because of the color of their skin. …
[F]or most middle class families in America, buying a home is the number one way to build wealth. It’s a retirement plan – pay off the house and live on Social Security. An investment option – mortgage the house to start a business. It’s a way to help the kids get through college, a safety net if someone gets really sick, and, if all goes well and Grandma and Grandpa can hang on to the house until they die, it’s a way to give the next generation a boost – extra money to move the family up the ladder.
For much of the 20th Century, that’s how it worked for generation after generation of white Americans – but not black Americans. Entire legal structures were created to prevent African Americans from building economic security through home ownership. Legally-enforced segregation. Restrictive deeds. Redlining. Land contracts. Coming out of the Great Depression, America built a middle class, but systematic discrimination kept most African-American families from being part of it.
State-sanctioned discrimination wasn’t limited to homeownership. The government enforced discrimination in public accommodations, discrimination in schools, discrimination in credit – it was a long and spiteful list.
Economic justice is not – and has never been – sufficient to ensure racial justice. Owning a home won’t stop someone from burning a cross on the front lawn. Admission to a school won’t prevent a beating on the sidewalk outside. But when Dr. King led hundreds of thousands of people to march on Washington, he talked about an end to violence, access to voting AND economic opportunity. As Dr. King once wrote, “the inseparable twin of racial injustice was economic injustice.”
The tools of oppression were woven together, and the civil rights struggle was fought against that oppression wherever it was found. …
The battles were bitter and sometimes deadly. … But the civil rights movement pushed this country in a new direction. Fifty years later, we have made real progress toward creating the conditions of freedom – but we have not made ENOUGH progress. …
Fifty years later, violence against African Americans has not disappeared. Consider law enforcement. … We’ve seen sickening videos of unarmed, black Americans cut down by bullets, choked to death while gasping for air – their lives ended by those who are sworn to protect them. Peaceful, unarmed protestors have been beaten. Journalists have been jailed. And, in some cities, white vigilantes with weapons freely walk the streets. …
I speak today with the full knowledge that I have not personally experienced and can never truly understand the fear, the oppression, and the pain that confronts African Americans every day. But none of us can ignore what is happening in this country. Not when our black friends, family, neighbors literally fear dying in the streets.
Listen to the brave, powerful voices of today’s new generation of civil rights leaders. Incredible voices. Listen to them say: “If I die in police custody, know that I did not commit suicide.” Watch them march through the streets, “hands up don’t shoot” – not to incite a riot, but to fight for their lives. …
This is the reality all of us must confront, as uncomfortable and ugly as that reality may be. It comes to us to once again affirm that black lives matter, that black citizens matter, that black families matter.
Once again, the task begins with safeguarding our communities from violence. We have made progress, but it is a tragedy when any American cannot trust those who have sworn to protect and serve. This pervasive and persistent distrust isn’t based on myths. It is grounded in the reality of unjustified violence.
Policing must become a truly community endeavor – not in just a few cities, but everywhere. Police forces should look like, and come from, the neighborhoods they serve. … We honor the bravery and sacrifice that our law enforcement officers show every day on the job. … But police are not occupying armies. This is America, not a war zone – and policing practices in all cities – not just some – need to reflect that.
… So it comes to us to continue the fight, to make, as [Congressman] John Lewis said, the “necessary trouble” until we can truly say that in America, every citizen enjoys the conditions of freedom.
I’ve been reading excerpts from Senator Elizabeth Warren’s major speech this past Sunday on racial justice. The full transcript and video of her 55-minute speech is available on her website.
You’ve been listening to the weekly commentary by yours truly, Paul Cienfuegos. You can hear future commentaries every Tuesday on the KBOO Evening News in Portland, Oregon, and on a growing number of other radio stations. I welcome your feedback.
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