By Claudette de la Haye
Detroit – As keynote speaker at the NAACP 64th Annual Fight for Freedom Fund Dinner, before some 10,000 guests, Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris repeatedly stated that it is time for our leaders “to speak truth.” In a fiery speech punctuated with cheers and applause, Harris also said, “We must push for change not only from the outside but also from the inside and at the table where the decisions are being made.”
Harris also honored the late Judge Damon Keith, who died on April 28, 2019, in Detroit. “His rulings advanced the cause of equality and his legacy will have a lasting impact on generations to come,” Harris said. Keith, who as a lawyer, judge and civil rights champion stared down discrimination by President Nixon and Attorney General John Ashcroft and decided landmark cases on housing and job discrimination that changed the fabric of America.
Saying that the country needs “a new kind of leadership,” Harris pointed to the current climate of mistrust and a president who has a discrepant relationship with the truth in Washington. “The United States attorney general … lied to Congress and lied to you, and is clearly more interested in representing the president than the American people,” she said. “We need leaders who have the courage to speak truth.”
Harris went on to address a number of subjects on the minds of voters ranging from supporting Medicare for All to fixing a deeply broken, bias-infected criminal justice system. She also proposed new tax cuts against the wealthy and pledged to raise teachers’ pay.
Harris also charged President Trump with “feeding hate” and said the economy is not conducive to the working class, especially for Black people. “Black women are still paid 61 cents on the white man’s dollar” and “Black families own $5 of wealth for every $100 of their white counterparts,” Harris said.
Accentuating the inequities that many Americans face regularly, Harris continued, “In 99 percent of counties, if you are a minimum wage worker working full time, you cannot afford market rate for a one-bedroom apartment” and “Last year, 12 million Americans borrowed an average of $400 from the payday lender at up to a 300 percent interest rate.”
If she wins her party’s nomination and goes on to become president of the United States, Harris said she would implement the following policies:
- Give a tax cut to the middle class and working-class Americans who can’t afford to pay for an unexpected expense. Families making less than $100,000 a year would receive $6,000 that they could access at up to $500 a month.
- Institute the largest investment in teacher pay in our country and close the teacher pay gap, giving the average teacher a $13,500 raise.
- Propose a new Voting Rights Act that would automatically register people to vote. Election Day would be a national holiday and her administration would fight back against Republican efforts to suppress the vote.
- Give Congress 100 days to enact gun control – expand background checks, take licenses away from gun dealers who break the law, stop domestic abusers from getting guns – or she would sign an executive order to accomplish her goals on guns.
- Implement Medicare for All so that all people, especially African Americans, who are the fastest growing group of uninsured in America, have access to affordable health care.
- Increase criminal justice investigations into law enforcement patterns and practices and enforce current and future consent decrees with city police departments and end the cash bail system that hits poor and minority communities especially hard.
Harris also charged President Trump with “feeding hate,” referencing his racially charged rhetoric and policies, which have been directed against immigrants, communities of color and certain African and Caribbean nations. “Let’s speak truth here today,” Harris said.
“This president isn’t trying to make America great. He’s trying to make America hate.” She went to say that American needs a new president, a leader who speaks out against hate in all its forms, and that “it’s time we had leaders who bring people together rather than rip people apart.”
In seeking her party’s nomination for president, Harris is following in the footsteps of the late Shirley Chisholm who, in 1972, became the first Black woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. In fact, Harris announced her candidacy on the 47th anniversary of Chisholm’s bid for the nomination and has adopted a similar red-and-yellow color scheme for her campaign logo in recognition of Chisholm.
As her campaign progresses, Harris’ show in early primary bellweather states such New Hampshire and Iowa will indicate where she stands with voters across the United States in a crowded field of contenders for the Democratic nomination and who will get the support of the party going forward.
Transcript of Sen. Kamala Harris’ speech
This version was submitted by Kamala Harris to the NAACP.
Honored to join you. It’s great to be here with all the outstanding lawmakers tonight including my colleagues in the Senate, Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters. We need to keep Gary in the Senate in 2020.
First, I want to take a moment to honor the life and legacy of Judge Damon Keith. He was a brilliant Howard-educated lawyer with an unwavering commitment to fairness and willingness to speak truth. His rulings advanced the cause of equality and his legacy will have a lasting impact on Americans for generations.
I also want to thank Dr. Anthony for your leadership of this historic organization – the oldest NAACP chapter in the country. The Detroit NAACP has been at the forefront of the fight for justice – from taking on school desegregation to housing discrimination to voter suppression. You are a national model.
I grew up in that fight. I was born in Oakland, California, in a place where people also spoke up in our fight for justice.
My parents met when they were graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley, and they were active in the Civil Rights Movement. So my sister and I joke we grew up surrounded by a bunch of adults who spent full time marching and shouting for this thing called justice.
Growing up, the heroes of my youth were the leaders of the Civil Rights Movement – like NAACP lawyers Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley, who translated the passion from the streets to the courtrooms of our country.
When I finished law school and the time came for me to decide on a career, my family gathered around after I graduated and they said, “OK, Kamala, what are you going to do in your fight for justice?”
And I got all excited and I said, “I’ve decided to become a prosecutor!”
Well, my family looked at me and they were like, “Oh, that’s interesting …” And then, I had to explain why … And what I said then and what I believe now is, first, all people want to be safe. They want law enforcement that protects and respects. And those who are most vulnerable and voiceless among us need leaders who will stand up for them.
And second, knowing that the criminal justice system is broken … and is in desperate need of reform … we must push for change not only from the outside, but also from the inside at the table where the decisions are made.
Knowing the system is in need of reform, let’s have people on the inside prepared to use their power to open doors and prepared to implement the agenda to make the system more fair and just.
And that is what I have done from the first day I walked into the San Francisco DA’s Office, from the first day I walked into the California Attorney General’s Office, from the first day I walked into the United States Senate.
And that is what I WILL do the first day I walk into the Oval office. NAACP, we need a new kind of leadership in our country. Because, right now, there are a lot of people who are distrustful of our government, its institutions and its leaders.
And the thing about a relationship of trust is that it is a reciprocal one. You give and you receive trust. And one of the most important elements of trust is truth. And that’s something we don’t get out of Washington these days.
But there’s a funny thing about truth – speaking truth can often make people quite uncomfortable.
And for those of us who often speak from behind a podium, there is an incentive that when we speak we’ll make everyone feel lovely. Well, speaking truth doesn’t always accomplish that goal.
But here’s the other thing about speaking truth. Yes, people may walk away from that conversation thinking: “You know, I don’t particularly like what I had to hear.” But they will also walk away from that conversation knowing it was an honest conversation.
So I believe this is a moment in time where we need to speak truth.
Take for example, the United States attorney general, who lied to Congress and lied to you. And is clearly more interested in representing the president than the American people. We need leaders who have the courage to speak truth.
So let’s speak some truth today.
Let’s speak truth – our economy is not working for working people. How do we know that? Well, almost half of American families cannot afford a $400 unexpected expense.
In 99 percent of counties, if you are a minimum wage worker working full time, you cannot afford market rate for a one-bedroom apartment. Last year, 12 million Americans borrowed an average of $400 from the payday lender at up to a 300 percent interest rate. And we know that’s especially true for Black families.
When today Black families own $5 of wealth for every $100 of their white counterparts, speak that truth. When Black women are still paid 61 cents on the dollar, speak that truth.
When more than a third of Black children live in poverty and Black infants are now more than twice as likely to die than other babies. Speak that truth. And in our America, no child of any race should live in poverty or die during infancy.
So as president I’ll pass the largest tax cut for middle class and working families in a generation. Families making less than $100,000 a year would receive $6,000 that they can access at up to $500 a month.
It will mean being able to cover that unexpected expense. It will mean food on the table, making rent, or paying for expensive prescription drugs or childcare. It will lift up one in two American households and two in three children – and 60 percent of Black families.
And when people ask me “How are you going to pay for it?” I tell you, I’m going to repeal that Trump trillion dollar tax cut that benefitted the top 1 percent and the biggest corporations in our country.
Let’s speak truth. Health care should be a right, not a privilege. Dr. King said, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” And he was right.
Nearly 30 million Americans are uninsured and that number will rise because of Donald Trump and his war to destroy Obamacare. And the fastest growing group of uninsured in America? African Americans. And for me, health care isn’t about politics. It is personal.
So, my mother was a breast cancer researcher. Sadly, she ultimately passed away from cancer. And if you have ever had the unfortunate experience of going through the healthcare system with someone who has an acute illness – you have the experience of going in and out of hospitals, of helping someone who is frail and weak, of helping them get out of cars to get into the facility.
You look at their different medical charts and sometimes the medicine is the same and sometimes it isn’t. You go through the process of trying to figure out, Is there something I can cook that will make them be able to eat and hold it down?
Now, thankfully, our mother had Medicare. But for people who are going through this process – which is every day in America – they also have to figure out how to pay that bill. And that’s why I support Medicare for All. So NO one has to worry about paying a bill to stay alive.
Let’s speak another truth: Our right to vote, the very foundation of our democracy, is under attack.
We watched as the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, and then states across the country passed laws to suppress the vote.
And let’s say this loud and clear: Without voter suppression, Stacey Abrams is Gov. Stacey Abrams. Andrew Gillum is Gov. Andrew Gillum.
So the truth is, we need a NEW voting rights act in this country with automatic voter registration, Election Day as a national holiday, and we need to fight back against Republicans who suppress our constitutional right to vote.
Let’s speak truth about America’s children, that in America this evening, children will tell their parents about a drill where they learned to hide in the closet if there is a shooter roaming the hallways. And in America, a parent will teach a child to crouch in the bathtub if they hear gunfire.
And why? Because we have supposed leaders in Washington, D.C., who have failed to have the courage to reject a false choice that suggests that you either support the Second Amendment or want to take people’s guns away.
I’ve seen unthinkable tragedies. The tragedy that gun violence is the leading cause of death for young Black men in this country – more than the next nine leading causes combined.
The tragedies we’ve seen from Sandy Hook to the Pulse Nightclub to Las Vegas to Parkland to Charleston to my home state last week in Poway.
This has to end. We’re not waiting for ideas. What’s missing is courage.
When I am president, I’ll give Congress 100 days to get their act together, and if they don’t, I will take executive action to expand background checks, to take away licenses away from gun dealers who break the law, to stop domestic abusers from getting guns, and to reverse this president’s decision to let fugitives from justice buy guns.
Let’s speak another truth – and this room knows it all too well. In our country, there are parents who have to sit down with their child when they turn 12 years old to have what’s called “the talk,” where they explain: “Son, you may be stopped. You may be arrested. You may be chased. You may even be shot because of the color of your skin.”
We have a criminal justice system that is deeply flawed, infected with bias and in need of reform: 65 years since Emmett Till, 52 years since three young Black men were killed at the Algiers Motel, seven years since Trayvon Martin.
This is still everyday life for young Black people in America. Let’s speak that truth.
And what has this president and his Justice Department done? Stopped enforcing consent decrees. Stopped investigations into discrimination and racism in police departments. And re-ignited the war on drugs.
When I’m president, we will increase pattern and practice investigations like those I launched in California, and we’ll enforce consent decrees. And we will end the discriminatory cash bail system and treat drug addiction like what it is – a public health crisis.
Let’s speak truth – we are a society that pretends to care about education but not so much the education of other people’s children.
I have met more teachers around our country who are working two or three jobs to help pay the bills, and 94 percent of teachers take money out of their own pocket to pay for school supplies. Teachers are paid about 11 percent less than similar college educated professionals.
And let’s be clear – there are two groups of people raising our children: parents, often with the assistance of grandparents and aunties and uncles, and our teachers.
Teachers are helping to raise the next generation of leaders and we are not paying them their value. And this is personal. My first grade teacher, Mrs. Francis Wilson, attended my law school graduation.
So as president: I’ll make the largest investment in teacher pay in our country’s history and close that teacher pay gap, giving the average teacher a $13,500 raise.
This isn’t just about the dignity and worth of a noble profession. It’s also about recruiting and retaining teachers in every zip code, especially in the places most in need.
Why? Because we know that when a Black child has a Black teacher by third grade, they are 13 percent more likely to go to college. If that child had two Black teachers, they’re 32 percent more likely to go to college.
Right now, we have a president who would rather give a teacher a gun than a raise. That stops when I’m president.
Let’s speak a hard truth. Racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia and transphobia are real in this country. These are old forms of hate, but this president has given them new fuel.
He’s said neo-Nazis were fine people when they marched on Charlottesville. He’s attacked communities of color and leaders of color by name.
And he’s denigrated entire countries on the continent of Africa with foul language no president should speak.
Let’s speak truth here today – this president isn’t trying to make America great; he’s trying to make America hate.
So it is critical to our security, our dignity, and our unity as a nation when I say: We need a new president.
It’s time we had a president who brings people together rather than rip them apart. It’s time we had a president who speaks out against hate in all its forms.
It’s time we had a president who’s not scared to call neo-Nazi violence what it is: domestic terrorism.
I know we are better than this. I will be that president. I believe we must speak truth:
- When Black worshipers are gunned down during Bible study in Charleston – that is terrorism.
- When a bomb is set off at a mosque in Minnesota – that is terrorism.
- When a man shoots up a synagogue yelling anti-Semitic slurs – that is terrorism.
- When Black churches are burned to the ground in Louisiana – that is terrorism.
2018 was the deadliest year on record for domestic terrorism since the Oklahoma City Bombing more than 20 years ago.
And as president, I won’t feed it. I won’t ignore it. And I won’t tolerate it.
I am going to put the United States Department of Justice back in the business of justice, using the Civil Rights Division and directing law enforcement to counter this extremism.
I’ll hold social media platforms accountable for the hate infiltrating their platforms because they have a responsibility to help lead the fight against this threat to our democracy.
And if you profit off hate, if you act as a megaphone for misinformation or cyberwarfare, if you don’t police your platforms, we are going to hold you accountable.
And here’s a final truth that is important when there are so many powerful forces trying to sow hate and division among us – here is a powerful truth: The vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us.
And here’s how I think about that truth. It’s based on what I call the middle of the night thought. Some people call it the three in the morning thought. When you wake up with that thought that’s been weighing on you.
For the vast majority of us, when we wake up thinking that thought, it is never through the lens of the party with which we’re registered to vote. It is never through the lens of some simplistic demographic box a pollster put us in.
And for the vast majority of us, when we wake up thinking that thought, it usually has to do with one of just a very few things. Our personal health, the health of our children or our parents. Can I get a job, keep a job, pay the bills by the end of the month, retire with dignity?
The vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us. And speaking of simplistic boxes. Let me just say one thing about how I approach this race.
There has been a conversation by pundits about “electability” and “who can speak to the Midwest?” But when they say that, they usually put the Midwest in a simplistic box and a narrow narrative.
And too often their definition of the Midwest leaves people out. It leaves out people in this room who helped build cities like Detroit. It leaves out working women who are on their feet all day – many of them working without equal pay.
And the conversation too often suggests certain voters will only vote for certain candidates regardless of whether their ideas will lift up all our families. It’s short sighted. It’s wrong. And voters deserve better.
As a party, we can’t let ourselves be drawn into thinking in those boxes or falling into those assumptions. We cannot get dragged into simplistic narratives or yesterday’s politics.
Why? Because it’s a conversation that ignores our commonality and complexity. Our party is the UAW line worker at GM worried about getting laid off.
Our party is the young entrepreneur looking for access to capital so he or she can participate in the economic rebirth of their city. Our party is the teacher who is underpaid and undervalued in Dearborn.
Our party is the senior citizen in Lansing who deserves to retire with dignity. Our party is the mom in Traverse City who is caring for her children AND other people’s children.
Our party is not white or Black, Hispanic or Asian, immigrant or indigenous. It is all of us. This is our party.
This is the America we believe in. And it’s the America I’ll always fight for as president.
So as we march toward 2020, let’s remember the theme of this dinner, “Freedom Knows Only One Direction: Forward.” Hold onto that. Because years from now, our children, our grandchildren, they will look at us and they will ask us, “where were you at that inflection moment?”
And what we will tell them is that we were hanging out together one Sunday night in Detroit. But I also know we will tell them more than just how we felt at this moment. We are going to tell them what we did.
We will tell them what action we took. We will tell them that we stood up and spoke up. That we registered folks, turned them out and took them to the polls.
And we will tell them we won.
That is what we will tell them. That we fought for the best of who we are and moved this country forward.
Claudette de la Haye, a Detroit journalist with roots in Jamaica, is the founder of the Caribbean Financial Network News and Caribbean News Now. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Bay View.