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Speech of Secretary Andrew Cuomo
to the National Association for
the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)

Atlanta, Georgia
July 14, 1998


SECRETARY CUOMO: I want to thank you not only for the introduction, but for everything you are doing for our nation's cities.

Then I have a special treat - following John Sweeney and General Powell, who are two boys from the Bronx, you see, Bronx, New York. I'm from Queens, New York, which was right on the other side of the bridge.

But just to give you a sense of how everything is relative, when we were back in Queens, what we used to say about those boys from the Bronx is, they have funny accents, don't they? Yes, the world is relative.

It's fitting that we should be in Atlanta today, and that this convention should be held in Atlanta, because this is where the "greats" started - where greats like Martin Luther King and Ida Wells Barnett and W. E. B. Du Bois started this great movement - and that we should now be here today with an exciting new leadership which is promising to stand on those shoulders and lift us even higher, President Mfume and Chairman Bond, and what they have done for the NAACP. I bring you greetings and a very simple message from President Bill Clinton, which is, we need the NAACP today more than ever before.

The President released a report just a couple of weeks ago, called the State of the Cities report, which speaks to how our nation's cities are doing. It was at the conference that Mayor Campbell spoke about. The State of the Cities report basically says there are two messages. There are almost dual realities in this country at this time.

One reality, one very powerful story, is how well this nation is doing. It is doing well. On one set of books, the nation is doing extraordinarily well. The nation is at peace. The economic success that this nation is experiencing is breaking all types of records in one part of this nation.

If you asked people four years ago, "could you have this kind of economic progress, this kind of sustained growth?" they would have said you couldn't. You have more millionaires than at any time in American society. You have the highest home ownership rate. Sixty-six percent of Americans now own their own homes. Crime is down; a tremendous success story.

But at the same time you have that story of success, you have a story which is in the shadow of that success. Because that great economic success is not working for everyone everywhere. It is a very different story in America, which says while some are doing very well, some are doing even worse by the comparison to those who are doing so well. The brightest light casts the greatest shadows.

There is one story of America, which is very much a story of the shadows. You have more millionaires than ever before, but you still have one out of five children living in poverty. You have the highest home ownership in history, sixty- six percent, but you still have 600,000 homeless Americans, who sleep on our streets. You can't say that you are a success when you have that kind of polarization, when you have that kind of division.

You have the strongest economy in history, but as you heard from John Sweeney, you also have the highest income inequality in history. More people are making more; more people are making less. The top ten percent in our society makes more than the bottom ninety percent, combined. That is not economic success in this country.

You have some people in the corporate structure, the high end, which are doing very, very well. CEOs are doing very, very well. Shareholders are doing very, very well, but they are doing it on the backs of the American workers, and that is not economic success.

African Americans have made extraordinary progress. We should recognize that progress, and we should be pleased with our success. A great deal of that success is due to the NAACP and that type of advocacy. But we have a long, long way to go before we rest.

You look at who is sharing in the American dream and who isn't. Disproportionately, African Americans still are not part of the dream. Eighty percent of those people living in urban poverty are African Americans. African American babies are twice as likely to die as white babies. African American children are five times as likely to get shot as non-African Americans.

African American teenagers are ten times more likely to drop out of school. The murder rate for African American males, 18 to 24, is ten times what it is for non-African Americans. That is not success.

It is not success when you have a society that puts more people in prison than any other industrialized nation on the globe…where we spend more money to keep a person in a jail cell than it would have cost for an education at Harvard University. More of the people in those cells are African Americans than any other color. That is not success; not for this country and not for African Americans.

The truth is, which is the truth of this convention, the painful, simple truth which we must acknowledge, if we are going to get past it, is that racism is still alive and well in this country, America. That is the truth.

I feel it in some small way, as an Italian American. I hear the whispers, still, the stereotypes, still. When you turn your back, you are still a ginny, you are still a WAP. Just because you are an Italian American, for some reason, there is an affiliation with organized crime in your background.

I feel like saying, you don't know me. You don't know my parents. You don't know my family. You don't know my history. For you to hear a vowel in my name and say, I'm a member of organized crime, that is not America.

If I feel it as an Italian American, that is only one small taste, one little dose of what it's like to be an African American. For me, it's a vowel in my name. For you, it's the color of your skin. To have that stereotype slap you in the face, that's not America.

That is very much a part of our society. We see it at HUD every day. Discrimination continues and continues and continues. You have to be careful, because it's gotten a little more sophisticated as we've moved on, a little more subtle. Now there is what we call discrimination with a smile. So you don't know that it's happening. You don't feel it. It's not as obvious. It's not as obnoxious.

The employer looks at you with a smile and says, I'm sorry, but you don't have the right job qualifications, when all the employer is looking at is the color of your skin, and never really looked at the facts on that application to begin with.

Discrimination with a smile, where a banker says, I'm sorry, you don't qualify for the loan. But all that banker saw was the color box on that form, and never really looked at any of the numbers. Discrimination with a smile, where the cab driver drives right past you, when you have your hand out, as if you were invisible; but he did it with a smile.

The landlord, who says that apartment is no longer available for rent, but it's still vacant; all with a smile. But it's all just as dangerous, just as destructive as any other discrimination we've ever faced.

We still have the more obnoxious, the more blatant discrimination. That is still real. At HUD, we did 557 cases in this past year alone. We are now doing 10 a week. We could do as many as we have hours in the day, because discrimination exists, coast to coast, with a smile, but also the same type of ugly, brutal discrimination that we had in the '50s and the '60s, discrimination with a fist. It is still there.

We had a Portuguese woman who moved into a home in Missouri. She was in the home a matter of weeks. They planted a seven foot cross on her lawn and burned it, because she was Portuguese. They thought she was African American, and they didn't want her there.

We have an apartment complex in New Orleans. If you walked in and you were black, they sent you to one side of the complex. If you walked in and you were white, they sent you to the other side of the complex. There are two swimming pools; one for blacks, one for whites. Neither would allow entrance of the other.

1998, discrimination with a fist; a case in Buffalo, New York, my home town, a woman showed an African American an apartment. They said, if you rent to an African American, we'll blow up the apartment, and we'll kill you and your family. That's today, 1998.

Then if you need another reminder, a clearer more salient reminder we couldn't have, Jasper, Texas, as ugly, as sick, as mean, as ignorant an act as any in this nation … performed for no other reason, no other rationale, but the color of a person's skin.

It is very much alive and well, and it's not going to be over by just giving speeches. It's not going to be gone because we wish it's gone. It is only going to be gone when we affirmatively act for it to be over. We do need affirmative action. Chairman Bond is right. We do need government to be part of this. We need an opportunity agenda to close the opportunity gap. We have disinvested from places and people and the time is over.

Do you want to move people from welfare to work? Fine, but then where is the job and where is the day care and where is the transportation? Because nobody wanted to be on welfare in the first place. Nobody ever asked for a welfare check. They said, give me a chance, give me an opportunity like you gave everybody else in this nation.

We have to invest in our young people. You can say "no" all day long. You also need something to say "yes" to. You can't just say no to drugs, say no to crime, say no to the corner, say no to premarital sex, say no to have babies; but have nothing to say yes to.

Where is the positive? Where is the role model? Where is the education? You're a young kid on the block right now. The only way to get out of that neighborhood is to be a superstar ball player or drug dealer or in a pine box.

Where is the positive role model who went to college, who has the job, who has a profession? Show the positive. Invest in education, education, education. The great equalizer in this society was always education. You could go to a public school from the South Bronx and become General Colin Powell. You could do that from public education.

Not today, not today. Today, we have two education systems. You have one for the rich and one for the poor; one for the suburban communities and one for the urban communities. If you don't get the skills in an education system, you can be left behind in the first grade and never catch up again. It can be an American apartheid system, by where you happen to live and where you happen to go to school. There is no magic formula.

We need to enforce the laws that we have. Martin Luther King gave his life so we could have the civil rights laws. Let us at least have the courage to enforce the laws that he died for.

This is not a challenge just for African Americans or just for Italian Americans. This must be a challenge for every American, regardless of their color or their ethnicity, because it goes beyond just us. It is an assault on the premise of this nation.

The founding premise of this nation was opportunity for all. That's what the great lady in New York Harbor, the Statue of Liberty, stands up there with the torch and says, "Opportunity for All," not opportunity for the rich, opportunity for the whites, opportunity for the lucky, "Opportunity for All".

When that promise is no longer true, this nation loses its ideology and its premise. It has to work for all Americans. That's the message that we have to get out. This nation is now going to be, in 20 years, majority/minority. It's going to be black and brown and Asian and red. If we can't come together, we will certainly come apart. That is our challenge.

President Clinton says, "One America." Martin Luther King said, "We are brothers. We either go up together or we go down together". Bobby Kennedy said, "Heal the divisions". Thomas Jefferson spoke of community. Our founding father said, "E Pluribus Unum", one out of many. That's our goal. Together we will make it.

Thank you very much.

SPEAKER: What an American. Let's give the Secretary another great hand.

Let me say, before Mrs. King leaves the stage, let us recognize Coretta Scott King, symbol of the Civil Rights Movement.

A simple announcement, the Time and Place Committee will meet at 1:00 p.m. In room 312E of this hall. Reverend Sharon, Ms. Brock, Mr. Turner, Mr. Springs and Mr. Gee, you need to meet at 1:00 p.m. In room 312E.

Now, let me move to take the privilege of the Chair and ask the Chairman and the President to come forward, please. It will be worth your while, don't worry.

(Whereupon, the PROCEEDINGS were adjourned.)


Content Archived: January 20, 2009

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