2006 Human Rights Day Conference

Dr. Mary Francis Berry, Keynote

December 1, 2006

Mary Francis BerryDr. Mary Frances Berry is the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania. She was appointed by President Carter and confirmed by the Senate as a Commissioner on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. After President Reagan fired her for criticizing his civil rights policies, she sued him and won reinstatement in federal district court. In 1993, President Clinton designated her Chairperson of the Civil Rights Commission. She was reappointed to a six-year term in January, 1999. She resigned from the Commission on December 7, 2004.

Keynote Speech by Dr. Mary Francis Berry

What a warm, Minnesota welcome. Thank you very much for inviting me. I was just telling Angela Davis she should be glad she was not Angela Yvonne Davis at a time in her life and being on the run. I am so happy that you invited me here, but if you had invited me the day before yesterday, it would have been warmer and so I didn't appreciate that but luckily I did have a coat in my suitcase so I wasn't too surprised when I got here.

When I was looking at your program and I was looking at the youngsters and posters and then I was thinking about Eleanor Roosevelt and you're theme and I thought to myself, "Gee, what am I going talk about?" I should have thought about that two weeks ago, or a month ago. It's really true as Eleanor Roosevelt said, that people want to have human rights and human dignity and equal opportunity and feel comfortable and not be discriminated against where they live and where they work and all the rest. And that if they don't then it doesn't mean anything for us to use half-ounce sounding phrases about the international struggle for human rights or something of that kind. If it doesn't have meaning where you live, then it doesn't have meaning anywhere else. She knew, too, that it required extraordinary effort on the part of some people who were truly courageous for change to take place. She was one of those people.

I remember the first story my mother told me about Eleanor Roosevelt was that when it came up it was in a cartoon in a magazine. I guess she really did do things like that all the time. Mama said she came to town and she went to some workplace and the guys looked up from their carpentry and there she was, and they said, "My gosh, it's Eleanor Roosevelt. What is she doing here?" The wife of the president of the U.S., his eyes and ears. And there's a cartoon of her down in a coal mine with a coal miner looking up, and there she is, wherever there was need, wherever there were people who were struggling for justice, she was there. The words really meant something. She didn't just, as we say, talk the talk, she walked the walk.

Since her time and since the time of those folks whose deaths were commemorated in the last year, Rosa Parks and Coretta, and all those who've gone on, we can think about the progress that has been made and if that progress had not occurred, some of us wouldn't be here in this hotel on this day. You have in Minnesota one of the most enlightened human rights piece of legislation in the country, the most inclusive, with language that sounds really truly great so I know that means that you don't have any problems but you and I know that the problem is translating the knowledge into reality. It is true that we've made enormous progress along what I call the great, rugged trail of trying to align reality with the goals of great documents of our national life. By that I mean the Declaration of Independence, in its language and the preamble to the Constitution.

If we look at whether we have achieved more justice and more opportunity for Asian Americans, Latinos, African Americans, gays and lesbians, sexual minorities of every kind, the disabled and poor people, whatever race or color, American Indians, we have in fact made progress, and there are still enormous challenges that are reflected in the workload of organizations like yours, for women and sex discrimination, glass ceilings and sticky floors I call it -- you've got the job, but you're stuck on the floor and you can't get up. For the disabled the number one thing that is cited is the lack of employment or employment without reasonable accommodation for the needs of people who can do the job with just a little bit of understanding about ways to do it.

I was telling someone here about how I recall yesterday because one of my students did a paper on the disability rights movement and the student didn't know that I knew anything about the origins of the disability rights movement. I was thinking about that first big protest in 1977 when the people in wheelchairs took over the federal building in San Francisco and stayed and they came to Iverson, assistant secretary in the Carter administration running education programs, and Joe Califano who's the secretary called, "alert, alert on the red line," we called it. All assistant secretaries to the secretary's office, and we all ran up there to see what the heck was going on. He said, "What am I going to do? There's all these people, these disabled people, and people in wheelchairs that are rolled into the lobby downtown, taking over the building; what am I going to do?" He was in a panic. I've never seen anybody in such a panic. "Should I have them arrested?" The press person said, "You can't do that; that's ridiculous." Why are they here? "Well, it's, you know," and it was the regulations to 504 that hadn't been issued, and they'd been laying around and it was time to issue them, and Joe didn't want to; he was dragging his feet... and they stayed and he didn't have them arrested, we all counseled against it, and then he signed the regulations, which I think is wonderful.

Anyway, so we made progress for people with disabilities, but there's still the issue of reasonable accommodations for people who are gay and lesbian and sexual minorities of all kinds. We have more discussion and more opportunity and protections to come out of the closet and be who people are and not worry about the sexuality then before, but gosh knows, we still have enormous problems.

I think after the race question and African Americans, there are probably, or about the same level, the most sensitive civil rights issues. We have for Asian Americans, always being told they're the model minority, and therefore, they're suppose to be goody two-shoes and be smarter than everybody and do better without any help or anything else without any distinctions between which groups you're talking about and who the people are since there are many groups of Asian Americans who have many different needs. For Latinos the big question this last year has been about immigration reform. There have been many struggles and an early struggle against for bilingual education, a battle of rise and fall, and lost and language, and now about immigration reform. There are issues, and Native American Indians who do not all own casinos, by the way -- in case you didn't know this -- and still suffer discrimination. We have the great progress that we can talk about.

Today is World AIDS Day and we can talk about the challenges that we're faced with around the world where in many countries, whereas we talk about terrorism all the time, and it's on our minds daily, especially if you live in a place like Philadelphia, Washington, New York, and all this country. AIDS and the scourge AIDS intergenerationally and the people who are being wiped out on the minds of people in many countries in Asian and Africa, and increasingly in places in Europe and here in the United States among African Americans the AIDS crisis has increased exponentially. Between the ages of 18 and 40, AIDS is the number one cause of death of African Americans--number one. Among white Americans, it's the fifth leading cause of death; among Latinos, the fourth; among African Americans, it is the first--number one. Even if people try to practice safe sex, we have all these people who don't get tested; we have all of these problems. People worried about sexuality, and whose sexuality; people are being judgmental, I call it judgmentalness about what people are, which interferes with it.

We also have the lack for poor people on the AIDS question, the lack of resources to pay for treatment. Magic Johnson can get the pills he needs; he takes the cocktail every single day and he gets exercise, and he's robust, and he looks like there's nothing wrong with him. But if you're a poor person and you have no health care, no health insurance, no way to get treatment, and somebody says, "why don't you get tested...I'll test you for free." To tell you what? We don't even deal with that problem.

The judgmentalness is perpetuated by churches and people who are religious and who ought to have compassion, who if you turn on the gospel radio station as I do every morning and when I'm out running I listen to the gospel, and there's always some preacher coming on talking about people being homosexuals and blah blah blah, and how they should do this, and why AIDS is some of their sin or some dog gone stupid thing. And all I can think about is that there are two kinds of people that if they didn't go to church on Sunday morning, the black church would close. I've been going to a black church all my life; I'm a primitive Baptist and we're kind of primitive, but if you don't know what that means, I'll tell you later. The two kinds of people, if they didn't go to church, church would close. One kind of people -- black women. If black women didn't go to church on Sunday, if we all just decided not to go, church would close. The other is that if gay men didn't go to church, it would close. There would be nobody singing in the choir, wouldn't be no music director, and in some cases, wouldn't be a preacher.

I fixed one of them when I was out on the campaign trail four years ago and I was in this place in Indiana to speak at this church and the preacher got up there, and he said, "... we got to talk about that same-sex thing." I pulled his coat and took him back in his office. I said, "Now pastor, I'll tell you something. I happen to have some information. Now, if you want to start on that road, I'm going to go up there and out you. Do you want to do that?" He said, "oh no, no." He went back up and now, we should just go on and talk about what concerns us, crime and the criminal justice system and whatever.

Arizona rejected the marriage amendment, other states didn't. The amendment is not so much about marriage, but respecting people's sexuality and the way they lead their lives and much they respect your right to lead your interior life. In these days it's very confused when you start talking human rights enforcement or civil rights and what people think about it because the images we get and the messages we get are media messages and now, with Barack Obama was the new star and he's a colored man and so everything must be alright, and then there's that cute Harold Ford who came so close and he's a colored man and things must be okay, and then there's Condelessa now not having to compete with Runsfeld to be the head of Bush's inapt crew, but it's still hard out there being a pimp, but anyway.

Then when you start trying to convey images and talk about the least of these and people who are locked out and who need help, and who were discriminated against, you know, then that's hard too because you turn the TV on everyday and there's Oprah who is the most important person in the publishing industry, I mean she can make and break your book, and she's definitely colored, and she has all that money and controls everything so everything must be fine. Then there's Keith Ellison who got elected to Congress from Minneapolis, and his election is representative of several kinds of things. One of the things that complicates our enforcement and our concerns about civil rights and all that in this country is that demographically the country is changing so much and in so many ways. Muslims are the fastest growing religion in the country; I don't know if you knew that, but it's the fastest growing religion in the whole country.

We've a Latino mayor of Los Angeles and we get confused because it was the Latino mayor of Los Angeles who just recently vetoed a settlement in an employment discrimination case that a black firefighter brought a claim that he was harassed and hazed out of the fire department, and they gave him stuff like secretly cooking dog food and giving it to him and telling him it was chili... and all kinds of hazing, and the city settled and the word got out and the mayor vetoed it on the grounds that they'd probably win in court, I guess he figures in these days in court. Ten years ago or 25 years ago, there would have been no thought of doing that because people knew that if you had something as egregious as what happened, if you went to court and you were the city you would end up paying even more money, but the mayor says no, in this day and time, I will take my chances.

We have all kinds of positive or developments that we have to analyze. We have celebrities adopting not just Chinese babies, but African babies like Madonna and that child from Malawi. She wanted the colored baby, and we even have celebrities and actresses and movie stars appearing in ads saying, "I am an African," even if they're a blonde, white woman. I am an African. I often thought that I would say, and I told somebody in the media once and that was on a TV show recently, that I was going to start being a Negro, an African American. From now on don't ask me what African Americans think because I have decided not to be one, and Bill Maher looked at me, like, "How can you do that? How are you going to accomplish that, Mary Frances?"

Our laws are intended to provide justice, the laws you enforce, human dignity and opportunity and to do it as Eleanor said where people are, where they live. So for that reason we have all these provisions about housing and education and health care and criminal justice and the nice piece that we saw in the video about criminal justice. We want everybody to have opportunity; we want it where people live. Then we have the strains and stresses, what I call the headwinds against opportunity -- greed, and human frailty and back lashing and backsliding, which is much too easy. The whole purpose of the civil rights movement as the Supreme Court said in the Brown case, was to bring us together to create community, a community of shared values focused on the common good so that each individual sees how "x" of theirs can contribute to a common good, to a community so everybody can sort of see that and that this whole concept would be the moral compass by which we live, and that's what the thing was about.

But as Jeremiah and Derek Bell said, "still we are not saved." We have the laws, but we're not saved. In Michigan you have the governor and Senator Stavenaugh getting elected while they oppose the anti-affirmative action referendum and the anti-affirmative action referendum went down in the dust, even those endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. I am told that they are on there way to Wisconsin and Minnesota with the same anti-affirmative action amendment, and I think that unless something else happens, it's going to win. The (exit) polling data, which I discussed on a call with some people in the civil rights coalition right at the beginning of this lunch that I had to take, showed that even though they spent $2 million directing a campaign toward white women in Michigan to explain to them how affirmative action helped them too, they lost white women by a large majority. That's why Gov. Granholm, a woman governor, and Debbie Stavenaugh, even though they were out there with that message too and all the power centers in the state were out there with that message, it's still lost; the people in the exit polling didn't think it had anything to do with them.

That's not surprising because many African Americans don't know what it has anything to do with. They go around talking about preferential treatment, how they don't want it because they heard it on a rally on Fox, and that's new news. That's why when I was at the national meeting of the people who run government transportation programs, public works programs and do the civil rights, I found out that African Americans receive contracts than they did in the Carter Administration when the set-aside provision was first put in to try to give some contracts to African Americans. Everybody else's numbers have gone up slightly; white woman have gone up; Latinos have gone up some, even native American Indians, but the blacks' share has gone down in the last ten years from what it was way back in 1977. In 1977 it was miniscule, which was why the Congress found that it should be there because of the interpretations of the law, there's a case here in Minnesota and other states, and because of the national cases on this subject, anti-affirmative action cases, this is happening.

We have, of course, discrimination against people based on national origin. Since 9/11 it's getting worse. People who people think are Arabs or Muslims or they think they are, they're not sure, some of them are Mexicans, people think they're Arabs, say your hair is dark you must be an Arab, I don't know, anyway I'm scared. Besides, you were standing there in the airport saying you didn't like our policy in Iraq so that means you're a bad person. A lot of people in the United States don't like our policy in Iraq. I think we should all be put in jail. We have a hard time translating our feelings into a democratic result. In the current elections voters in Denver waited past closing time in huge numbers to vote, there were glitches everywhere, not only in Ohio in 2004, in the just recent election, in exit polls, and there are the disappearing votes like the 17,000 in Katherine Harris' district in Florida. I wonder if we're going to be plagued with Katherine Harris for the rest of our lives. She's just like something that just won't go away no matter what you do.

We see the evidence of slippage in our understanding of the meaning of segregation and whether we accept it and whether we think it's okay. Three-fourths of black and Latino children go to racially-isolated schools which we call racially-isolated. That's just a name for it. We use to call it segregated; now we call it racially-isolated -- that sounds better. I'm not segregated; I'm racially-isolated. Does that sound better? Yes, it sounds better.

Now we have the Supreme Court with a case this term where people in Louisville and Seattle wanted to voluntarily desegregate their schools and the court is being asked to tell them they can't. As Jack Greenberg, the old civil rights lawyer who was with the team that handled Brown, put it, the court is asked to say that segregation and desegregation by a school board are both obnoxious and illegal, over 50 years after Brown.

But that's not just it. People who live in Seattle and Louisville want it to focus on creating and maintaining a diverse community education --that's what they wanted to do for children, and now they're being told that they shouldn't do that because it interferes with the rights of people who like to see the schools continue to be segregated or don't care whether they're segregated so long as they get what they want. We see the headwinds in the slurs and language used by public figures --there's been much of that.

I saw a cartoon in the paper this morning where the people who were apologizing for the things they said we're sitting on a couch with Pope Benedict sitting next to them, and it said, "We need a bigger couch for all these people who got to apologize." We see it in Trent Lott being welcomed back by the Republicans as a leader in the Senate after being put out for wishing he could go back to the legal segregation of Strom Thurmund's Dixie days. Now he's back. We see it in contracts. I told you about that. We see it in backlash against Latino immigration and racial profiling. We see it in all of these.

For people who are supposed to be enforcing the laws, then the laws are supposed to represent the commitment of the people who said they should be passed, even if they did it under duress, like the civil rights movement. I mean, it didn't happen just because somebody got up one day and said, "Hey, let's have equal rights in America." That happened because a lot of people struggled and a lot people died and went to jail and a lot of unpleasant things happened, and a lot of good, wonderful, warm things of the kind Eleanor Roosevelt loved happened, too. There was Wednesdays in Mississippi, which I fondly remember happened, that Dorothy Height of the National Council of Negro Women, and Marian Wright Edelman put together where they got Northern, white women who were liberals to go with them to Mississippi on Wednesdays and they would go into people's homes, just quietly, not saying anything, to black people's homes, and give support, morale and otherwise to the women there who were suffering and formed ties and bonds with them and they also took resources with them to give for the Freedom schools, books and all kinds of things that people need, and warm, lasting friendships grew out of that.

I think sometimes how wonderful that would have been if, not just in Mississippi, they could have come to Nashville where I lived, where one of the white families there decided to come out for desegregation after Brown was announced. The father of that family came out and said he and his family thought it was time for us to move on and change, and nobody came to sit with them, and people came and tore up their house and ran them out of town. There were good things and there were bad things that happened, and sometimes what we need is for the laws and to make more progress on these issues is to regenerate a commitment which will make enforcement possible and even easy so that there will be moral authority and a devotion to public good and common interests so that everyone individually will have justice and dignity.

And how do we do that? You can complain about people. One tack to take is to say, "Well, if all those people who benefited from civil rights would just get up and do something, then everything would be fine but they've forgotten it." As my students tell me sometimes, "We're the post-civil rights generation." I say, "What does that mean?" "You know, there was civil rights and then there's us and we're doing okay, and whatever happens, you know, that was then." Then something happens to them and they hit their head against the wall and then they come back and say we don't know what happened. Like one of my law students who came and said that he went to Washington to be an intern for the summer at a firm and his law school chums, all white guys, were all going to stay in this apartment building for the summer. They went and checked and found out that the apartment building had space, they all signed up, and he couldn't go that day, so they told him to go the next day. He went the next day and the woman told him that she didn't have any place to rent, that she was all booked up. He said he went back to talk to his chum, Jim, and said, "why when I went over there, the woman told me she didn't have anymore apartments, no more efficiencies, nothing to rent?" Jim said, "That's ridiculous; let me call her on the phone." Jim called her up and she said, "Oh, sure; oh, yes; fine." Jim looked at him and he looked at Jim and Jim said, "Well I don't know what happened."

He comes back to me and he says, "Why didn't that woman want to rent that place to me?" I said, "Fool, go in the bathroom and look in the mirror." Then he starts crying, "Well, I don't see why she would do that to me; you know, I'm in law school and ...." Well, if you had any sense, you would have let Jim rent the place for you and gone back. Now you have to be suing the people and carrying on; a whole lot of energy taking up time at the human rights office; the people are busy and they got to worry, too, you fool, when Jim could have done it for you.

There's all of this concern about what the post-civil rights generation that really doesn't understand, like the post-civil rights generation they tell me that they don't see why people don't want to call people the "N" word. We've taken that word and embraced it for our own and it's our word now and we can take words and make them into anything we want to make them into. I've said, have you got the power to determine how they will be used and what currency they will have? And the answer to that is, no they don't, but they don't think about that.

They do think about it when something happens to them and then I think about Katrina and the Gulf, and the messes that have been created that aren't being fixed, where people are still living in trailers or outside, and where there is an increase in domestic violence, and where people can't get the insurance payments they are suppose to have and the government appeals from the court order and asks for a stay and does everything possible to make life miserable for people, and you wonder how long it's going to go on before we do anything about it. These are clear indicators of the lack of moral authority that we have. How do we get the moral authority back? How do we get people to focus on some of these issues?

How do we get it back? I don't know... In the short term we may just have to think up some language of our own through some focus groups and all that and put it out there and have an initiative before the initiative comes, get approved so that if they come with that initiative it will conflict and it won't make any difference. That's just blue smoke and mirrors because that doesn't solve the problem because it doesn't solve the underlying problem of how do you get people to understand that there's still a need. What we are talking about is people who have been locked out and not those who have been able to make it through the fire.

I don't know how it can be done, but we can remember that the struggle is never a straight line, that we move forward, the history of the struggle for social justice, and then backwards, but never all the way back. We don't always go all the way back and somebody has to take some initiative. Historians argue a lot of times about whether people make a difference in human history or whether it's only movements that make a difference. It's been my own experience that movements make a difference, but somebody has to lead a movement... somebody has to lead a struggle, and there also has to be a movement in order for justice, for change, to occur.

That's our history, too, something has to happen. So maybe things just have to get bad enough and maybe they just aren't bad enough and maybe they're okay, enough okay that people don't want to do that. But when it's time, somebody will have to make a move because every generation including the post-civil rights generation (I tell them) has to make its own dent in the wall of injustice -- somebody has to -- that's the only way if we want quality education and to focus on real education problems instead of pretending like we're doing it.

I had a student doing a paper on the history of education reform in this country and she found out that about every 20 years we come up with -- this is what is going to solve the crisis in K-12 education. Then about 10 years after that we say, "Hey, that didn't solve the crisis in K-12 education. Let's do this and that's going to be the end all and the things that we never do are the things that the scholars who do the work on education tell us you have to do to solve the crisis. We do all those other things because those other things are easier and they don't cost as much.

Scholars who do it say you have to have small classes, you have to have really good teachers who get paid a lot so that they prefer to be a teacher then to go work in some other field where you can make a heck of a lot more money, and you have to respect them and stop blaming them, and you have to have enough that they can give attention to children, and the children must have attention. You need attention -- everybody needs attention. Children will respond to attention, and if they don't get it, it's like my nephew who didn't want to go to school. The first person in my whole extended family who didn't want to go to school, and his Mama said, "What is wrong with you boy? Every morning we've got to fight you to get you out of here to have you go to school." Finally she went to the school to see what was going on. He's sitting there and the teacher has so many children that she didn't even have time to say anything; if he did something right, nobody said anything. If he said something wrong, nobody said anything. He was just there so she said, "Well, I understand why he didn't want to go to school." It was like he wasn't there, and he wasn't the only one, and it wasn't her fault. She took him out but that doesn't solve the problem of the school.

Parents who have money send their children to good, private schools, why? Because at the good, private schools, what happens to the children? They pay attention to them; they know what the child did; they can tell you chapter and verse, what they did, how they did it, what they need to do, whatever, and they always have time. I don't mean jack-leg on the corner storefront private schools where we will give you an education for $2,000 and you'll be all right the rest of your life. No, I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about good, private schools. People who say, "Well just give them a voucher and have them go to a private school." The voucher is not enough to have a good, private school. It isn't enough money and anybody who sends the kid to a private school, you know how much a good one costs so it's just ridiculous. We don't do what's necessary and then we test children in order to find out what? That they don't know what we didn't teach them. I test the students in my class, but it's after I taught them something. I don't test them on what I didn't; they already know they don't know that. Why waste time?

All of these things, developing human capital, feeling committed to doing what is necessary to be done, the things about the crime and recidivenism that was in the video. When Janet Reno was attorney general she and I had all these projects and programs, and going around talking to people about programs for people coming out of prison because we were worried about the huge numbers that were coming out all over the place and nothing was happening with them with jobs and they were just going back.

Also, if you work on these issues you shouldn't give up because things are more better than they are more worse, if that's a word. If working on these issues sometimes makes you a little despondent, don't be that way because, as I say, we don't go all the way back, and it's going to change, and if we think that people are too conservative and there's no consensus, don't worry about it because if Rosa Parks, bless her heart, had taken a poll before she sat down on the bus, she'd still be standing up in her casket because when she did that she knew that there wasn't any consensus about doing anything. If you ask where do we go from here and what do we do, the task is for all of us to help to make that dent in the wall of injustice that I talk about and that's the only way that we will ever in this society have liberty and justice for all. Thank you very much.