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Secretary Cuomo's Remarks
Latino Civil Rights Center Awards Dinner

Washington DC
June 15, 1999

It is truly my pleasure to be back in the U.S. and it is my pleasure to be here this evening. This organization has been doing great, great work.. It is amazing how much you have accomplished in such a relatively short period of time as the life span of organizations go, but you have the impetus. Mount Pleasant was the impetus. We see that kind of cruelty, and that kind of anger causes - demands -- an intelligent and effective response. And that's exactly what you are providing and the issues you were working on, in my opinion, are the issues that face this country in the new millennium.

Police misconduct is very much alive and well in the United States of America today; poverty is very much alive and well and discrimination is very much alive and well. God bless you for working on these issues and God bless you for being here tonight.

Mario Acosta, your leadership and your ingenuity and your creativity are really something special. They said to me ,when I was coming in, they were briefing me on Mr. Acosta and what he has done. They said, well, he is a lot like what you have done. He took an organization that had financial trouble, that was wavering and he turned it around. Then I met Mario, and saw that he's Latin, he is younger and he is better looking and he is more talented than I am. (laughter). Otherwise he's sort of like me. Congratulations!

Bobby Garcia, I see is here tonight. He is an old friend from New York who has done great things (applause). God Bless Bobby Garcia. And for the very kind introduction, Rita Di Martino. You know, how nicely she says the Cuomo name? You know why she says Cuomo so well? She does not say Cumo. She does not say Cucumo. Because she is a New Yorker, is Rita Di Martino. She is a Staten Islander, actually. And that's why she says it so well.

She was very kind in her introduction, and as the HUD Secretary you need a kind person to introduce you (laughter). HUD is not the most glamorous position in the President's cabinet. It's not the most streamlined, most effective, most lovable agency.

Your family always tells you the way it is. My brother-in-law, Joe Kennedy was congressman from Boston Massachusetts. He was also the head of the Housing Subcommittee. So as the Housing Secretary, he and I were often together and he often introduced me at events and programs. And he had one line that he loved, Joe, he would say it 4 or 5 times a day. He would say: "Now, ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to introduce, my brother-in-law, Andrew Cuomo, the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Because no-one else was stupid enough to take the job."

But we have come a long way at HUD. Not as far as your organization has come, but we have come a long way. We have a lot to celebrate and it is my pleasure to be able to bring you greetings from President Clinton, to celebrate what you have done and to celebrate what the nation's done.

Because the truth is you cannot overlook these issues. The context, overall, this country is doing extraordinarily well. On almost every economic level, we are breaking new records on what seems like almost a weekly basis. 18 million new jobs, lowest peacetime unemployment since I was born 41 years ago, crime down, poverty down, welfare down, interest rates down -- an economy doing better than anyone said it could do.

The experts said that this kind of economic growth was impossible. Highest ownership rate in history -- 66.7%. I told President Clinton, maybe it is a coincidence that the ownership rate is the highest in history at the same time I am the Housing Secretary, but I'm going to take the credit, I'll tell you the truth (laughter). I'm going to take the credit because the Lord knows, if the numbers were going the other way, I would be getting the blame for it.

And that success is the overall success, but it is also a success for many minority groups. It is also a Latino and a Latina success.

Listen to this: Record low unemployment for Latinos - 5.8% in 1999, down from 11.6% in 1992; 11% increase in income - the largest two-year increase in Hispanic income on record within these past two years. Largest Hispanic drop in poverty in two decades. Highest ownership rate ever for Latinos and Latinas - 46.2%, up from 39%. That is a record to be proud of. And the Clinton Administration is proud of it.

We are also proud, as Rita mentioned, of what we have done internationally. We had a series of terrible, terrible disasters. Almost unparalleled. Anyone who says that there is not something funny going on with our environment, our global environment, is not looking at the facts. We've had hurricanes, tornadoes, floods of almost biblical proportions.

And it has hurt our Latino and Latina brothers and sisters disproportionately hard. Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Georges. I went down with Governor Rosello the week after. We came up with a full plan that would help Puerto Rico recover. The President was very much behind the island--over $700 million dollars in US federal aid has gone to Puerto Rico. We are actually going to take a disastrous situation and turn into a silver lining.

I was in Mexico just a few weeks ago and we're doing all sorts of great things with Mexico. Because they're doing some really innovative housing and community development activities. They're doing some great things in Chiapas, around the disaster repair. You had Hurricane Georges, Hurricane Mitch. In Chiapas you had flooding, which was associated with El Ni´┐Żo. Flooding that took out entire towns and villages -- always the poorest town, always the poorest people in the town, always the poorest region.

So, Chiapas, which was battling so many issues, now has on top of it this disaster to contend with. We've been working with them, and we're doing good things, and we invited them here within the next few weeks and they are going top be coming up.

Dominican Republic -- we have been working with them to recuperate from Hurricane Georges, with President Fernandez, I was in Honduras a couple of weeks ago with President Flores who's trying to get his country ready for yet another hurricane season, which is actually starting as we speak. They are still repairing the damage from last year. And now they are starting to get ready for this year. We met in Tegucigalpa, which is literally in a valley where water streams down the hill. They are talking of coming up with new ways to protect the city because it is a terrible, terrible situation that is recurring.

President Flores, to give you a small world story-we met a couple of weeks ago -- we were talking about the hurricane disaster recovery, about what we can do. He had redone his office, and he has a new desk which he modeled on the desk that John F. Kennedy used originally, which President Clinton now has taken out of storage and uses as his own desk He was very proud of this, how he emulates President Clinton and President Kennedy in that model. He also said "I don't want you to think that I do not know about the Cuomos. I took all your speeches from the Internet and I have your father's speech on CD (laughter) So the world is getting smaller every day. "

We're working in Nicaragua. We're taking these situations, which were truly disastrous situations, on the theory of not just building back, but seizing the opportunity to do better. We're literally building back better.

Because in many of these situations, internationally and in the U.S., this was work had to be done anyway. These were very poor communities, very often homes that should not have been there on the first place, built on flood plains etc. They were substandard. So we are trying to rebuild, do the community development work that we should have been doing all along. So, that's more on the good news front to celebrate.

And also on the good news front, we have more Latino and Latina representation in the Clinton administration, more high-level political appointees than any federal administration in history. Period. (clapping)

And, following that model and that prototype, I am very proud to be able to say that I am the Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development with a Deputy Secretary, named Saul Ramirez, former mayor of Laredo,Texas. Assistant Secretary Eva Plaza is here tonight , who is the assistant secretary for Fair Housing. We have About ten or fifteen people here at this dinner tonight who are part of the Hispanic contingent at HUD. Twenty five percent of the highest level appointees - the highest number of Latino appointees in HUD in history -- is under this Administration, and I am proud of that (clapping).

So a lot of good news to celebrate -- economically, internationally, progress that we have made in terms of representation within the Federal government. But the reason you are here tonight, is not for the progress we have made today, but for the distance we have left to travel. And make no mistake-we have a distance left to travel.

When anyone says -"Well everything is good, the economy is strong. we're a success as a nation", you point back and you say "No, we have come a long way, but we have further to go." You will never solve a problem if you do not recognize it, and sometimes it is easier as society, or as a people or as a country to say "I don't see that problem." Because the recognition of the problem pains me too much.

But then you are doomed to live with that problem forever. And when people say, "No, we are doing very well. Everything is good " you look back and you say "Yes, we have made progress, but the truth is also that discrimination is very much alive and well in America in 1999 as we head to the new millennium and until we are willing to admit it, we will be condemned to live with it forever.

And it is alive and well. We have the same acts of physical discrimination and vulgar discrimination that we had in the 1960s. Maybe do we not have the frequency of them, but we have the inherent ugliness of them. And the abhorrence of them. We deal at the Department every day with the Fair Housing Act. Hatred is just as atrocious as bad as anything that ever happened to this nation.

In case you forget, we have Jasper, Texas to remind us, where just last year an African-American man was chained to the back of a pick-up truck and dragged to his death. Because he happened to be African-American. In Coldwell Idaho, we had the case of the Fernandez family-a white woman married a Hispanic male, went to buy a mobile home, in Coldwell, Ohio, in the Midwest, nd they said "You cannot buy a home in this park because Fernandez is Hispanic and we do not want any Hispanics here. "

Mathew Sheppard, Wyoming, man who happened to be gay, and was taken outside of a bar and hung on a fence like an animal to die because he happened to be gay.

Discrimination is very much alive and well. I happen to be an Italian American. And I feel only in a small way what the African Americans or Latino and Latina brothers and sisters feel. I remember doing a poll for Mario Cuomo. He was thinking of running for national office. Six percent of the poll have never heard of Mario Cuomo's name - but 9 percent thought that he must have connections to organized crime. They had never heard the name before, but just from the vowels, they believed that he must be in organized crime.

These stereotypes are very much with us today. They are part of our culture and we have to fight them desperately. We have to fight the physical, the brutal, and also, the 90s style discrimination. Because we also have a very sophisticated form of discrimination. It is not physical, it is not in your face. As a matter of fact, if you're not careful you will not even see, you will not even know what happened.

You can walk into a bank now and apply for a loan, and the bank officer will come back and say "Loan Denied". No reason. But it had nothing to do with the numbers on your form, but rather the color of your skin and the color box on the form. We have people who apply for home mortgages through automated underwriting systems that deny mortgages, but nobody knows what the criteria they used were. This is going to be our challenge as we move forward. Not just for those who are discriminated against, but for all Americans. This nation is going to be a majority minority in twenty years and the question is how well the people will become a majority-minority. And if you have these same racial tensions and if you have these fears and these vulgarities, and you have more minority in the numbers you will literally be fighting yourself, literally fighting yourself. The conflict will be within and that is when America will no longer be America.

This is not to discourage us that we should have problems, and we should have issues, because there are also opportunities. Cesar Chavez said "It is possible to become discouraged about the injustice we see everywhere -- but God did not promise us that the world would be humane and just. He gives us the gift of life and allows us to choose the way we would use our limited time on earth."

It is an awesome opportunity, but it is our opportunity and if the opportunity you take tonight. We know what needs to be done-enforce the law. Mario was right we are a nation of laws. We are very good at enforcing the law. We are very good at taking a 10-, 14 year-old who made a mistake and has a drug problem and throwing our kids in jail.

We know how to enforce the law. We know how to have outrage over the law when it is not enforced. Well let's bring that same sense of outrage to the civil rights laws, equal opportunity laws to the Fair housing laws, be that adamant when it comes to enforcing laws that make it illegal to discriminate-that's step one. Step two, is you have to have an affirmative agenda that fulfills the promise of America, that brings people into this nation, and says we will work with you to lift yourselves because when you lift yourself you raise us all. And that is what the country always promised, generation after generation of immigrants That was the founding premise of this nation. That's what made us unique. Started with no common color - unless you want to say the American Indian was the only original American, the only American who can say this is my land-where did you come from? (applause)

The only that can say that and they are sitting out on reservations unheard. So everyone else in this nation was an immigrant. And it promised everyone the same -- we will work with you to do the best you can for yourself and your family. No guarantee, no hand outs, no free check, no free lunch but we will work to do the best. As you are willing to work with us, if you are willing to work with this great country America, God bless you, you can go anywhere-because we gave you the tools to do the best for yourself. Started with an education system, and our public education systems that said that with whoever you are where ever you came from, we can take you to great heights.

People talk about a crisis in education in this nation. They're right but they are only half right. The crisis in education is not the crisis for the richer people or the richer places. Make no mistake, if you have money in this country you can get the best education on the globe, period. The education crisis is in the poorer areas and the middle income areas and the urban areas because there the school district doesn't have the tax base and therefore doesn't have the teachers and its doesn't have computers, and it doesn't have the technology that the richer school districts do. And unless we do something about our education system, the great equalizer that made the American dream possible for everyone will be lost. We have a crisis in housing in this nation, the strong economy ironically has pushed up the rents so now we have 5.3 million American families who need affordable housing, the highest number in history. We know how to provide housing. Subsidize the housing, provide Section 8, provide public housing, provide through the HOME program, but provide public housing. If we are going to guarantee civil rights my friends we have to understand that civil rights only truly exist when you have economic rights. And when you have the right to housing and the right to healthcare and the right to education (applause).

And now is the time to do it. Now is the time to do it because we have challenges in all those arenas. In housing we celebrate the 66% home ownership rate, but we also have to recognize and address the 600,000 homeless who are on the street in this great country. You want to talk about building more mansions than ever before, you also have to remember that you still have Cabrini-Green, public housing in Luis Gutierrez' district, just as miserable, as deplorable as it has ever been. We have children growing up in conditions in this country that most people wouldn't let their pets stay in and that is the truth. Great economy-you still have 1 our 5 children sleeping in poverty.

Dow Jones at 10,000. Three out of five aren't even in the stock market. Great success, great distance traveled, further to go. And now is the time to do it. Lets have intelligence to take this great strength, take this great energy and invest it in the people in the places left behind. You could argue that this is an historic opportunity. Take that great economy and invest. The time to fix the hole in the roof is when the sun is shining.. Well it's high noon on the economic clock. Let's have the intelligence to grab this moment in history, and take this nation to a place that it has never been before.

Let's really vindicate the prize that is America-opportunity for all, justice, fairness, color blind, not seeing black and white or yellow -- just seeing Americans. We can do it, we haven't done it yet but we can do it. As we reach for the year 2000 we can take this nation to a level it's never been at before. That should be our challenge. Don't celebrate, don't get complacent, acknowledge the achievement but say now let's go even further. Don't pat each other on the back. Lock arms and say we are going to go further because we do have further to go. That is the moment that we are at, truly vindicating the promise of America. There is poem by Langston Hughes that I would like to read you just a couple of verses from because I think it says it so well.

The poem is called "Let America Be America Again".

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed, Let it be that great strong land of love where opportunity is real and life is free, a quality is in the air we breath. I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart, I am the Negro bearing slavery's scars. I am the red man driven from my land, I am immigrant clutching the hope I seek - I the worker sold to the machine. I am the people, worried, hungry, mean - Hungry yet today despite the dream. I am the man who never got ahead, America never was America to me, a dream still beckoning to me. O, let America be America again, that land that never has been yet, and yet must be.

Our founding fathers said E Pluribus Unum -- out of many one. That was the founding premise. That is the enduring promise. Back in New York they have a saying, Nosotros solos Together we will get there. Thank you.

Thank you very much.

Content Archived: January 20, 2009

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