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Warren outlines a system of racial oppression

Jule Pattison-Gordon
Warren outlines a system of racial oppression
U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren addresses a gathering at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute. (Photo: Photo courtesy EMK Institute)

U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren spoke in support of racial justice activism and called for reforms during an address at the Edward M. Kenney Institute Tuesday. In her speech, she illuminated the web of financial, political and institutional injustices that she says contribute to disenfranchising black Americans.

“The first civil rights battles were hard fought. But they established that Black Lives Matter. That Black Citizens Matter. That Black Families Matter,” said Warren. “Half a century later, we have made real progress, but we have not made ENOUGH progress.”

Warren helped design the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and she brought her expertise on bankruptcy and the economic pressures on the middle class to exposing the systemic forces that for decades have undermined blacks’ success.

Her speech came as part of the Institute’s Getting to the Point Series, which brings presenters with diverse perspectives on current issues in government and communities.

Decades of unequal development

“[In the 20th Century,] entire legal structures were created to prevent African Americans from building economic security through home ownership,” said Warren. “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.”

Democracy denied

For decades, politicians have sought to deny voting rights to minorities. Today, they simply use different mechanisms to work the same oppression, said Warren.

“Two years ago, five conservative justices on the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act, opening the floodgates ever wider for measures designed to suppress minority voting,” she said.

“Today, the specific tools of oppression have changed — voter ID laws, racial gerrymandering, and mass disfranchisement through a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates black citizens. The tools have changed, but black voters are still deliberately cut out of the political process.

“Voting should be simple. Voter registration should be automatic. Get a driver’s license, get registered automatically. Nonviolent, law-abiding citizens should not lose the right to vote because of a prior conviction. Election Day should be a holiday, so no one has to choose between a paycheck and a vote. Early voting and vote by mail would give fast food and retail workers who don’t get holidays day off a chance to proudly cast their votes. The hidden discrimination that comes with purging voter rolls and short-staffing polling places must stop.”

Police for the people

The fractured trust between police and citizens is a critical issue, Warren said and called for police to be grounded in their communities.

“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. They should reach out to support and defend the community – working with people in neighborhoods before problems arise. All police forces—not just some—must be trained to de-escalate and to avoid the likelihood of violence.”

Wealth gap’s deliberate expansion

Past discrimination put many blacks in positions of less economic power, a situation that only becomes exacerbated as policies continue to favor the already-rich, Warren said.

“Today, 90 percent of Americans see no real wage growth. For African-Americans, who were so far behind earlier in the 20th Century, this means that since the 1980s they have been hit particularly hard. In January of this year, African American unemployment was 10.3% – more than twice the rate of white unemployment,” she said.

Blacks were also especially exposed to suffer from the 2008 housing collapse, Warren said.

“Because middle class black families’ wealth was disproportionately tied up in homeownership and not other forms of savings, these families were hit harder by the housing collapse. But they also got hit harder because of discriminatory lending practices—yes, discriminatory lending practices in the 21st Century.

“Recently several big banks and other mortgage lenders paid hundreds of millions in fines, admitting that they illegally steered black and Latino borrowers into more expensive mortgages than white borrowers who had similar credit…. And it’s still happening – earlier this month, the National Fair Housing alliance filed a discrimination complaint against real estate agents in Mississippi after an investigation showed those agents consistently steering white buyers away from interracial neighborhoods and black buyers away from affluent ones.”

Economics and beyond

“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,” said Warren. “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.”

The Civil Rights movement secured vital protections, but the struggle has far to go, she said.

“Economic opportunities opened up when Congress passed civil rights laws that protected equal access to employment, public accommodations, and housing. In the same way that the tools of oppression were woven together, a package of civil rights laws came together to protect black people from violence, to ensure access to the ballot box, and to build economic opportunity. Or to say it another way, these laws made three powerful declarations: Black lives matter. Black citizens matter. Black families matter.

“Fifty years later, we have made real progress toward creating the conditions of freedom — but we have not made ENOUGH progress,” she said. “It comes to us to continue the fight, to make, as John Lewis said, the ‘necessary trouble’ until we can truly say that in America, every citizen enjoys the conditions of freedom.”