04.30.15

Congresswoman Lee Speaks Out Against the Impacts of Persistent Poverty in the African American Community

Washington, D.C. - Today, Congresswoman Lee joined other Members of the Congressional Black Caucus in speaking out against the impacts of persistent poverty in the African American community. Her statement, as prepared for delivery, follows:

“Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I rise first to send my thoughts and prayers to the family of Freddie Gray and the entire city of Baltimore.

Today another family is grieving, another young life is needlessly cut short, and again a community is searching for answers in the face of tragedy and injustice. My own community knows this all too well.

On New Years’ Day 2009, Oscar Grant, a bright young man, was murdered on the Fruitvale Bay Area Rapid Transit platform in Oakland. Our community took to the streets demanding justice.

Freddie Gray, Oscar Grant, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, and the list goes on – all lives cut short.

Today, their stories compel us to come to the House floor to join millions of Americans around our nation in saying that, like all lives, black lives also do matter.

Make no mistake; the issues rocking many communities are not a new phenomenon. These tragedies are part of a dark legacy of injustice born in the sufferings of the middle passage, nurtured through slavery and codified in Jim Crow.

On April 4, 1967, at Stanford University, Dr. King described these issues in his “Two Americas” speech.

He said, “There are literally two Americas; there's one America that is overflowing with the milk of prosperity and honey of opportunity. Tragically and unfortunately, there's another America. This other America has a daily ugliness about it that constantly transforms the ebullience of hope into the fatigue of despair.”

The ugly fact is that the two Americas still exist nearly five decades later.

An African American male is killed by a security officer, a police officer, or a self-proclaimed vigilante every 28 hours in the United States.

One in three black men will be arrested in their lifetime: a reason why men from communities of color unfortunately make up more than 70% of the United States prison population.

And sadly, with our laws having a criminal justice record means a lifetime barrier to the honey of opportunity, as Dr. King described.

A formerly incarcerated individual who has paid his or her dues to society, out of jail, is still denied access to Pell Grants, closing off the opportunity for higher education and a better job. Ten states enforce lifetime bans on receiving food assistance, SNAP benefits for drug-related felonies only. These limitations are components of a system that continues to punish someone for life for having made a mistake.

This system maintains cyclical and systemic barriers that keep generations of African Americans from building pathways out of poverty.

Recently, the Joint Economic Committee, under the leadership of Ranking Member Carolyn Maloney, released a report with the Congressional Black Caucus, on the Economic State of Black America, which Congressman Butterfield laid out the bleak findings.

And I hope Members recognize this is a wake-up call. Children in African American households are nearly twice as likely to be raised in the bottom 20% of income distribution as children in white households.

And while African American students represent 18% of the overall preschool enrollment, they account for 42% of preschool student expulsions. These are kids ages 2 to 5 years old; these children don't even get a start, let alone a head start.

The link between economic inequality, our broken criminal justice system, and education is crystal clear and Congress must do more to break down these systemic barriers.

As our friend and our colleague, our Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus said in his inaugural speech when he was sworn in, he said America is not working for many African Americans and we as the Congressional Black Caucus have an obligation to fight harder and smarter to help repair the damage.

We must come together as never before to address the systemic, structural and rampant racial bias endemic in our institutions and criminal justice system.

We’ve introduced the Half in Ten Act, H.R. 258, to create a national strategy to cut poverty in half in 10 years.

By coordinating and empowering all federal agencies, we can lift 22 million Americans out of poverty and into the middle class,

But that's only one step. We must make serious structural reforms to our broken criminal justice system. I’m proud to be a co-sponsor of the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act. That’s H.R. 1232; because war weapons don't belong on Main Street.

We also need to pass the Police Accountability Act, that’s H.R. 1102, and the Grand Jury Reform Act, that’s H.R. 429, to ensure accountability that deadly force cases are actually heard by a judge.

We also need to stop the racial profiling that disproportionately affects African Americans. We need to pass the End Racial Profiling Act, that’s H.R. 1933, because racial profiling has no place in a 21st century police force.

It’s also time to pass ban the box for federal contractors and agencies. I'm proud to be working with our colleagues on the Senate side, Senator Booker and Brown, to do just that.

We can't stop with the criminal justice system. We've got to create job training, work force training, economic opportunities for people of color, marginalized communities who have been unfortunately impacted by generations of endemic barriers rooted in discrimination.”

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Congresswoman Lee is a member of the Appropriations and Budget Committees, the Steering and Policy Committee, is a Senior Democratic Whip, former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and co-chair of the Progressive Caucus. She serves as chair of the Whip’s Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity.