Good afternoon, I’m Lew Frederick, State Representative from House District 43, North and Northeast Portland.
I think this holiday is one that many people think they understand very well, after all, it is of relatively recent origin. And Dr. King is a hero of my lifetime, not of the deep past. I grew up with him as the father of my playmates. But the holiday is also poorly understood, because the history of Dr. King’s legacy and that of the Civil Rights movement have been stripped of much of their nuance, sophistication and complication over the years.
Dr. King’s final book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? is not referenced very often when folks are finding meaningful quotes for our annual speeches. In it, we see how his ministry had expanded, how his leadership on civil rights, or let’s say “human” rights, though grounded in the racial struggles of the time, was clear in its purpose of addressing oppression in its many manifestations. He made a compelling argument, in 1967, for a guaranteed income. He wrote:
The contemporary tendency in our society is to base our distribution on scarcity, which has vanished, and to compress our abundance into the overfed mouths of the middle and upper classes until they gag with superfluity. If democracy is to have breadth of meaning, it is necessary to adjust this inequity. It is not only moral, but it is also intelligent. We are wasting and degrading human life by clinging to archaic thinking.
These comments resonate in the era of the 1% and the 99%. But we have to be very savvy listeners to political discourse to understand what is being said to bolster the systems that cultivate despair. I’m going to give you a few examples.
“Level playing field”: There are those who argue that if we are all to be judged, in Dr. King’s words, by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin, then there should be no affirmative action, no enhanced opportunities for groups that have been denied opportunities in the past. The translation: Sure, we’ve been running up the score for 400 years, but we’re leveling the playing field now; don’t touch that scoreboard.
“School choice”: Gee, choice sounds like a good thing, until you realize that school choice has always meant segregation. It meant racial segregation in the South when I was growing up. It is playing out that way here, by way of economic segregation, and in another important way: While we have gained schools with science focus or arts focus, we have lost our capacity to teach science and arts in our neighborhood schools. Good schools mean every child has robust choices close to home, in comprehensive neighborhood schools. We know how to do that, but we can’t do it without financial investment. We have redesigned education multiple times to try to do it for cheap, and the result has been persistent turmoil, not the best environment for learning. I want excellent schools, not just good schools. We know how to do that, and you can’t do that for cheap.
And while I’m on the subject of education, I have another one, sort of a pet peeve of mine: “At-risk children.” This term is often used interchangeably with “poor children and children of color.” I have several problems with this one. The first one is obvious: ALL children are at risk. ALL. The second is sneakier: it makes it sound as though there is something about the kids, some deficiency, that makes them “at-risk.” Barring a medical condition, children are not born “at-risk,” but many of them are born into risky environments. Surround every kid with love and exciting things to learn and they won’t be any more “at-risk” than the rest.
And what about “higher standards”? I say it can’t be “higher” unless JOY in learning is part of the picture. What will we reap, if all of our children, 100%, test well on the part of reading and math that we test, but generally hate reading and math? We need to apply “higher standards” to adults who make these decisions, and stop shaking up our kids educational opportunities based on sloppy or wishful thinking.
Here’s another one: “‘Free speech’ is whatever speech you can buy.” The marketplace of ideas is not free if a corporation can buy access to every living room via television, an individual’s voice can reach only as far as his or her own Facebook network, and between those extremes opinions can reach only as far as money can send them. If democracy is to work for all of us, we have to have a real marketplace of ideas.
“Freedom means removing oppressive government regulations.” Let me make this clear: a corporation’s freedom to pollute cannot be treated as morally equal to a human being’s right to clean air and water. If it is, our race, the human race, will not survive. It is government’s duty to make that right.
“You can’t solve problems by throwing money at them.” Puhleeze. I can’t believe that I actually hear this one, on the floor of the Oregon House, stated as if it were actually a serious argument. I can’t feed my family by throwing money at the grocery store either. How true it is. But I do have to spend money to buy groceries. And we have to spend money to train and hire and keep professionals to educate our children. There is no magic that gets around that.
Now, I generally avoid the annual game of “Dr. King would have supported [fill in the blank].” But we have his later writings to show that he knew that if and when poor people of all races join together in common cause rather than in competition, their force will be unstoppable. He also knew that this view was seen as dangerous to the powerful of his time. Now, as the concentration of wealth he wrote about has decimated the middle class as well, both the urgency and the potential are that much greater.
So I want to leave with some thoughts about the political process. Some of you have heard these from me before. It is vital that we be in the rooms where decisions are made. I do not want to spend my entire career as a State Representative as the lone member of the House Black Caucus. The conversation is different when we are there, and ultimately the decisions that affect our lives will be different if we are there. And elective office is not the only place that matters. Newsrooms, boardrooms, classrooms, and, yes, committee rooms and the offices of your representatives matter as well. We have a short, intense session starting February 1st. Please, I’d like to see everybody here in the Capitol, talking to your representatives about the issues that matter to you.
My friend Roy Jay, who attends this very church, has a saying that really emphasizes what I have been talking about. He says, “If you are not at the table, you are the appetizer.” He’s right. So I need you at the table. And let me be clear, since the election cycle is well underway, I need your support, physical and financial support as well. But mostly I, we, all of us have to be involved to make this world better for all of us. That is what Dr. King talked about. That is what we are talking about here as we celebrate his Dream, our future.
Thank you again.