February 16, 2017

Black History Month Floor Statement

"Mr. President, I rise today to celebrate Black History Month, a time to honor and reflect on the many achievements and sacrifices of African Americans throughout our Nation’s history.

"This February, we highlight the titans of African-American history. We honor the culture-shifting accomplishments of civil rights icons such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Dorothy Height, and our esteemed colleague, Congressman John Lewis.

"As the senior Senator from Maryland, I would be remiss if I didn’t also honor Harriet Tubman, Thurgood Marshall, and – perhaps one of the greatest Marylanders in our long history – Frederick Douglass.  There are some out there who may not know it, but Douglass was born in Maryland around 1818.  He learned to read and write in Baltimore before escaping slavery.  Despite unknowable hardship and systemic discrimination, he went on to become one of the most influential writers, orators, publishers, and abolitionists of his time.  Though Douglass fiercely and vocally opposed slavery, he would want us to remember that he stood for the rights of all Americans regardless of race, color, religion, gender, or national origin.  These views – revolutionary for the time – gained him increasing prominence, leading to 1872, when Victoria Woodhull chose him as her Vice Presidential nominee.

"Frederick Douglass was the first Black American ever to hold that title.  His legacy continues to make Maryland proud.

"While we take time to recognize Frederick Douglass and others this month, we must also celebrate the countless men and women whose names and heroism will never grace the history books.  Let us never forget all of those who suffered discrimination in silence, who endured civil rights abuses without recognition, who sat-in and stood up to oppression without accolade.  We should use this month to lift up their memories and to recommit to the causes of justice and equality for which they also fought so diligently.

"In particular, we should honor the black teachers who taught generations of children in the dark, against the odds and sometimes the law, with little more than old, secondhand books and makeshift buildings.  We honor the business owners who laid the foundations of the black community in places like Baltimore, Harlem, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Tulsa.  We honor the Civil Rights Movement foot soldiers who rejected subservience and embraced rebellion by marching in the streets of Selma and Birmingham.  We honor the factory workers who left the South behind with hopes of a brighter future, only to struggle in Northern cities for pennies.

"For too long, Black Americans’ rich and vibrant history has been ignored or obscured by the specter of prejudice.  But today, and for the rest of the month, in classrooms and cities across our Nation, we will shine a spotlight on that history.

"We will vow to honor it here, now, in the present and in the future, through protecting both the legacy of Civil Rights and the Americans who are counting on us to uphold them.  As lawmakers and as leaders, it is our duty to fight on their behalf. It is our duty to pass laws that will protect all Americans, support all Americans, and defend all Americans, especially those who have been victims of institutional and systemic prejudice.

"That is why I introduced the End Racial Profiling Act in 2011.  It is incumbent upon every Member in this chamber to be an advocate for the men and women of color who are singled out every day simply because of their skin color and appearance.  These individuals are your constituents.  They are my constituents.  They are our fellow Americans.

"They deserve our commitment and an attention span that lasts longer than one month a year.

"Discriminatory profiling based on race – or religion or gender identity, nation of origin, sexual orientation – has no place in our society.  It’s un-American; it’s also counter-productive.  Racial profiling doesn’t keep us safer.  To the contrary: it breeds hostility and distrust, and it turns communities against law enforcement and against each other.  It wastes resources that our law enforcement agencies can’t afford to spend.  And the more time we waste targeting Americans because of their race or religion, the less time we’re devoting to those who are actually committing crimes or trying to harm us.

"My bill, which I reintroduced last week as the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act, would eliminate this harmful practice and instead offer resources for more police training, mandate greater accountability, and offer recourse for Americans who have been unduly profiled.

"Our duty to African Americans does not end there.  That is why, as Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, I intend to introduce the National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act, which would codify and build upon President Obama’s efforts to diversify our national security workforce.  Having a workforce that looks like America is not just good personnel policy – it is also a national security imperative.

"Our diversity is one of the strongest assets that the United States has.  It allows us to connect and work with different communities and countries across the globe; it helps us to foster the relationships we need to fight terrorism across the globe.  And having a diverse set of backgrounds, skills, knowledge, perspectives, and experiences contributes to better national security decision-making.  We should lead the world and protect our homeland not just by preaching pluralism and tolerance, but by practicing it.

"While we embark on that mission, we should take with us the words of Frederick Douglass: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”  Everyone in this body has a responsibility to be part of the struggle and, through it, to be part of progress.  Everyone in this body has a responsibility to embrace struggle, even when it occurs right here on this floor, if it’s in the name of progress.

"I’m talking about protecting the Voting Rights Act.  The right to vote is fundamental to every democracy.  Every vote counts and must be counted fairly.

"I’m talking about ending the senseless and discriminatory practice of racial profiling.  It is painful that in 2017, we still need to explain that Americans should not be considered suspects or targets because of the color of their skin.

"I’m talking about criminal justice reform – and prioritizing criminal justice reform in this Congress.

"I’m talking about recognizing the incredible contributions of Frederick Douglass, Dorothy Height, Harriet Tubman, Katherine Johnson, Mae Jemison and others in our public school curricula.

"Many Americans would not even recognize their names, and that is a tragic failure on our part to honor Black history.

"I’m talking about not just talking – but committing to these causes through actions around our States and through legislation right here in this chamber. Whether through passing my End Racial Profiling Act, or my National Security Diversity and Inclusion Workforce Act, or any other bills introduced by my colleagues – Black History Month reminds us that we can and must do more.   Let us begin by remembering that Black history is American history.  Their story is our story.  When we celebrate Black pioneers and activists and inventors and artists, we celebrate the diversity and the strength of character that are the reasons we are here today."

 

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