Speech by Bill Bradley on Race Relations in America


April 20, 1999

Today I want to talk about race in America, and I'm going to start at home, by talking about race and my own family.

Let me tell you a story about my Uncle Cecil and Aunt Bub. My Uncle Cecil worked in a lead factory for 40 years. He worked next to African Americans, made the same wage, took the same risks but when my beloved Aunt Bub spoke, she didn't talk about African Americans with respect. She'd say, "I just come from another time, I guess but . . .," and then she'd go off on some tirade that would appall me. She didn't hate, but her language was abusive. I often wondered how I could love someone who was so flagrantly wrong on the fundamental moral issue our nation confronted. I'd get angry with her. I'd argue with her. She'd be reduced to tears. Then she'd say to me, "but you're still my baby, aren't you." Then, I'd leave the room or I'd plead with her that whatever she did, don't hurt me, don't use the language, change.

After I left the hometown I grew up in for college, I began to see her less and less. I'd talk with her on the phone occasionally. "Don't forget, you're still my baby," she'd say "No matter how big you get." Or she'd pop in at some New York Knick game somewhere on the road in America often ready with a post game comment about my black teammates that would distress me anew. Yet, I knew I couldn't forget that she'd been my second mother while I was growing up. I wouldn't have dreamed of withholding my love. The conflict was never resolved.

One of the last times I saw Aunt Bub was in 1988. She weighed about 100 pounds. We sat in the living room of her two-room apartment in a small town in Missouri and she told me about the chemotherapy and the doctors and how Medicare paid her bills and how she was able to live on Social Security. She showed me a picture of her newborn grandson, recalled the good old days and commented how life was actually pretty good. "Remember, whatever happens, you're still my baby."

Then right out of the blue, Aunt Bub said, "I'm sure glad you didn't run for president."

"Why," I asked.

"Because you would have probably chosen somebody like Jesse Jackson as your vice-president and then the blacks (she used another word) would have killed you."

Silence.

Then my Aunt's funeral took place and a surprising thing occurred. The most moving tribute at the funeral was a song sung by a black friend of hers - the wife of a local doctor whom my Aunt had obviously loved and who it was also obvious, had loved my Aunt.

It was a friendship I never knew about.

After I told the story about Aunt Bub for the first time in a public audience, my press secretary, who was African American, came up to me and said, "You know something Bill?" I said, "What?" He said, "I've got an Aunt Bub too."

Race relations in America are never simple. When confronted with the legacy of fear surrounding the issue of race, what can we do beyond deploring violence, enforcing anti-discrimination laws, toughening hate crime laws? How can we peel back the layers of denial and defense that all races bring to the table of multi-racial dialogue? How can we overcome our divisions to get to a time when in Toni Morrison's words "race exists, but it doesn't matter?"

For starters, you can look deeper into the soul of America.

If we did, we might see 4 young African-American girls in white dresses talking prior to Sunday services in the ladies lounge of the 16th Street Babtist church in Birmingham, Alabama. The year, 1963. Suddenly, the church is ripped apart by a bomb killing the young girls instantly. There had been other bombings in Birmingham aimed at halting blacks' progress toward racial equality, but they had not penetrated the national consciousness. After that Sunday's explosion, people of all races and all political persuasions throughout the country were sickened in spirit.

Coming 18 days - just 18 days - after Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had shared his dream for America from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, the bombing was a stark reminder of how violently some Americans resisted racial healing. Yet the sense of multi-racial outrage and solidarity that came out of this tragedy, combined with the seminal leadership of President Lyndon Johnson, led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to the hope that the search for racial equality would lead to the emergence of a spiritually transformed America.

"I will continue to talk through this campaign about the importance of deciding whether we will be a collection of 265 million individuals, or 265 million individuals living together as one nation. One nation - where all men - and all women - are created equal, and where each advances and prospers, not because of what they are, but because of who they are, as individuals and as part of that one nation."

-- Bill Bradley


In the summer of 1994, I was reminded again that slavery was our original sin and race remains our unresolved dilemma and that the bombers were back. From an urban church in Knoxville, Tennessee to countless rural church burnings in South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, North Carolina and Alabama, the flames and the hatreds of racism burned again. Just as they did in 1982, when Vincent Chan, a 27-year old Chinese American, was bludgeoned to death in Detroit by 2 unemployed auto workers who blamed their layoffs on Japan and could not see beyond eye shape to recognize Vincent Chan as an American. Just as they did in 1987, when Nabrose Modhi, an Asian-Indian American, was killed by a hate group called Dot-Busters, which refers to a red dot that many Hindus wear on their foreheads. Just as they did in 1989, when another Chinese American named Minghi Jin Lu was beaten to death in Raleigh, North Carolina by a number of white men who blamed him for the Vietnam War. Just as they did last summer in Jasper, Texas when an African American named James Byrd was "chained to a pick-up truck and dragged along a country road until his body literally was torn apart." Just as they did last year in Buffalo, New York when a group of black teenagers attacked a white man who was gay and stomped him to death. Violence is often right below the surface of race relations in America and fear follows as sure as the night follows the day.

The need for racial healing should be a common sense impulse. If you believe you are your brother's keeper, if that's your morality, you've got to walk your talk. But, if morality doesn't bring you to the table with enthusiasm, how about self interest?

America is increasingly a mixture of races, languages, and religions. Four to five million Latinos and over five million Pacific Asians have arrived in America since 1970.

  • In New Jersey, which I represented for 18 years in the U.S. Senate, school children come from families that speak 120 different languages.

  • Detroit has absorbed over 200,000 people of Islamic Middle Eastern descent in the last decade.

  • In San Jose, California, when you look in the phone book for the Vietnamese surname Nguyen, it outnumbers the Joneses.

  • In Houston, one Korean immigrant restaurant owner oversees Hispanic immigrant employees who prepare Chinese style food for a predominantly black clientele.

By the year 2010 in America less than 60 percent of the people entering the workforce are going to be native-born white Americans. That means that the economic future of the children of white Americans, will depend increasingly on the talents of non-white Americans. That's not ideology, that's demographics.

Even though our American future so evidently depends upon finding common ground, people of different races often do not listen to each other on the subject of race. For example, too often black Americans ask of Asian Americans, what's the problem? You're doing great economically. Many black Americans believe that Latinos don't properly appreciate the historic civil rights struggle. And some Latino Americans question whether the civil rights model of blacks and whites is the best path to progress. Meanwhile, many white Americans continue to harbor absurd stereotypes about all people of color. And many black Americans take white criticism of individual acts as an attempt to stigmatize all black Americans. In other words, we seem to be more interested in defending our racial territory than in recognizing it could be enriched by another person's racial perspective.

Yet the desire to be a part of one national community - even a noble community -persists. I was once in Santa Cruz, California meeting with the leaders of an extraordinary organization called Barrios Unidos which aims to avoid violence among local Latinos, to generate jobs and to bring people together. After touring the area I sat and talked with seven young women from the neighborhood. Most came from families that had worked from dawn to dusk in the lettuce fields of California's central valley. After awhile I asked them what they hoped for. One, a junior in the local college and president of her class said, "What I hope for . . ." (she began to choke up as tears rushed to her eyes) "is that someday I can be treated like everyone else in America."

Unfortunately, in America we have constructed a society in which the deadwood of superstition, fear and fantasy continues to stave off racial understanding. For many Americans race means difference. It means we see humanity divided into kinds - white, black, yellow, brown, red. Worse, race means we see these kinds as absolutely, eternally, essentially different and worst of all, we're also infected by the idea that God or the devil or nature created these kinds of human beings and intended some kinds to be better than others. Too many of us believe that each kind is stuck with its particular characteristics and that if you mix the different kinds you usually get the worst of both. It is this mindset - this lens of perception - that we must overcome.

Over the last 35 years there has been much progress on race relations in America. The walls of legal segregation have been dismantled. I sometimes imagine what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would observe if he were to return today. He had always predicted that if America removed the shackles of overt discrimination African Americans would ascend to positions of excellence in practically every field of endeavor in America. That has come to pass.

The task, for those of us who want better racial understanding, is not the same task as those who led the great civil rights revolution of the 1960's. It is not the same task as those of us who fought the affirmative action battles of the 1980's. It is not the task of those of us who tried to push up the glass ceilings in the 1990's. Our task is more difficult and more subtle and - if we're successful - more long lasting. It is to vanquish racial discord from our hearts and spirit.

While legal barriers are down divisions still remain but they are divisions of the heart more than of the law. The law is only a framework. It cannot control the most important things in life. It can't improve and enrich all the ways that we relate to human beings of a different race: the spirit with which we interact with them, the love we can muster for them simply because they are human beings, the openness we have to them including the acceptance of good and evil, strengths and weaknesses in the same person. The law can tell people what's right for them and then force them to do it but it can't change the way they feel. It can't generate forgiveness or lessen hatred. It can't bury the old stereotypes and prevent new ones from taking root. It can't force people to see beyond the material events of a day to the deeper meaning of spiritual renewal through brotherhood.

I care about vanquishing racial discord from our hearts and spirit. I care about getting beyond the stupidity of racial division to a time when we can accept each other for who we are. Whenever I speak to a classroom of multiracial faces, whenever I watch a naturalization ceremony that includes new citizens from all the continents of the world, whenever I sit in a black church and feel the power of shared sorrow and shared enthusiasm, whenever I sense the optimism of young Latino political organizers or see the pain on the faces of Asian Americans stigmatized by false suspicions in the 1996 presidential fundraising scandals - I'm reminded by how much I care. For something so palpably right to be so demonstrably hard to accomplish only strengthens my determination. In running for President, I'm betting that far more than a majority of people in America want to achieve a deeper racial unity. I'm betting that the goodness that's in each of us can win out over our more base impulses and that together we can unleash our national potential and live the promise of our Declaration that "All men are created equal."

It is with all of these thoughts in my mind that I reflect on the crisis that engulfed black and white relations in New York recently and what this reveals about some truths and some needs in our life.

Amadou Diallo, a 22 year old immigrant from Guinea was shot on the night of February 4, 1999. Four police officers fired 41 bullets, nineteen hitting him. He lay dead in the entryway of his apartment building. He was unarmed. Protests and marches ensued. Approximately 7 weeks later four police officers were indicted for 2nd degree murder. The trial will dominate the news media in New York during the coming months.

This tragic event was in most ways different from the church burnings of 1994 or the James Byrd murder of last summer. It was not an act of senseless hatred. It cannot be dismissed as an act of aberrant individuals. Rather it was a grievous error by those charged with protecting the very person that they shot and in that sense its tells a story about all of us.

Issues about race in the criminal justice system are among the hardest of all to resolve. Communities need the police to protect them from crime and give them a feeling of security in their neighborhoods. There are thousands of excellent police officers of all races who serve their communities with sensitivity and effectiveness. Many have built up strong ties to community institutions and even more exercise great restraint in performing their difficult duties to pursue those who break the law.

All neighborhoods have the same desire for a life without fear of violence and violation. All neighborhoods benefit when the police and the community join together to reduce crime. The question is how do we get equal security for all communities? How can we make sure that the pursuit of criminals who are terrorizing citizens in one neighborhood doesn't lead to wholesale violations of citizens rights in another neighborhood?

The reason the Diallo event ignited outrage in the black community is that it was only an extreme example of the targeting that most Americans have experienced with the police at sometime in their lives. Even Mayor Guliani's highest appointed African American recalled a time when his car was stopped and he was given a rough time by the police in Queens simply because he was black. Or, as Harvard Law Professor Charles Ogletree has said, "If I'm dressed in a knit cap and a hooded jacket I'm a probable cause."

If you're black you know that being within the radar of white fear and suspicion can be dangerous. You also know that getting outside that radar is a relentless task because you have to keep doing it everyday. A noted African American male once told me that whenever he got into an elevator with a white woman that he would whistle Beethoven's Fifth so that she could be sure that he was no threat. Ask any middle class black family about the talk they have with their children before they give them the family car to drive. The conversation is called: DWB - Driving While Black. The chance is great that at sometime a young African-American who is driving a car will be stopped by the police, usually on the road at night. Mothers want to make sure that their children know how to act - don't be too nervous or too calm, say yes sir, offer no complaint, indulge in no talkbacks; if asked to get out for a body search cooperate fully and don't make any quick movements; if the police want to look in the trunk forget the Constitution, and don't protest, just open it. That way the police will hopefully see your innocence and let you go unscathed both in body and record. Every black mother dreads the call from the police department in the middle of the night.

Is a Diallo-like event a potential catalyst, not just toward police reform, but toward deeper understanding? If you're the mother of a white 22 year old, imagine your son unarmed and riddled with bullets. Why can't this stark tragedy come across in a compelling enough way to open the eyes of all of us today -- just like the church explosion in Birmingham did 36 years ago?

The answer lies in white indifference and black suspicion. Our perceptions of what's possible have been shaped by years of life experience in a tough world full of stereotypes, shocking behavior, and more than a few people of both races with an inability to forgive. This predicament makes it hard for whites to talk calmly about the fear of young black men and equally hard for blacks to grant any validity to the white concerns.

White indifferences comes in many forms. It can be indifference to the suffering of others or what Martin Luther King, Jr., called "the silence of good people." It can be indifference to the need for racial healing. It can be the inability to see that most black parents are just like most white parents -- struggling against circumstances that would test the very best of us to provide their children with a good home, an education, healthcare, and the chance to avoid the traps of teenage pregnancy and drug abuse. It can also be found in the inability of whites to understand what they possess for no reason other than the color of their skin.

White skin privilege is the flip side of discrimination. While discrimination is negative and overt, white skin privilege is negative but passive. It's a great blind spot more than a painful boil, but in a subtle way, the result is often similar. Most whites are unaware of it. What I call privilege seems normal to them. It seems normal because it is not seen in contrast with the experience of someone who doesn't possess it.

For example, a few years ago ABC's Diane Sawyer devoted a segment on the program "Prime Time Live" to the experience of a white couple and a black couple who were looking for apartments in St. Louis. Each couple was dressed the same, had the same type of job and income, and maintained relatively the same demeanor through all of the apartment visits. The black couple was turned down at virtually every stop. The white couple was accepted at nearly all the stops. When a white goes to look for an apartment, it doesn't occur to him/her that it will be lost because of race. That's white skin privilege.

Another example: When I was a rookie in the NBA, I got a lot of offers to do advertisements, even though I wasn't the best player on the team. My black teammates, some of whom were better, got none. I felt the offers were coming to me not only because of my biography, but because I was white. Thus, white skin privilege.

Finally, white skin privilege means that if your kids are stopped by police at night you don't fear they will be mistreated by the police because of the color of their skin. There is no need for classes in DWW -- Driving While White.

Black suspicion comes from multiple sources. Many African Americans are frustrated with years of having to answer for the violent actions of a few African Americans while white Americans never have to answer for the violent actions of a few whites. African Americans seem to think, "When can we ever be accepted for who we are individually?" Sharing the agony of violence committed by their own brothers and sisters in their own neighborhoods, they yearn for police action that stabilizes but doesn't stigmatize. Other African Americans try to engage in racial education conversations only to find whites basically uninterested. The fatigue from these attempts and these experiences has often led to a reduced effort to get whites to understand, even an anger toward whites for not understanding, and finally a resentment for having to be the party who shoulders the bulk of the effort. The result is sometimes an unwillingness on the part of African Americans to give white Americans the benefit of the doubt. And white Americans know it. Sometimes these feelings produce a bitterness that hardens as if it were cement, making candid talk about race with whites impossible. When black suspicions are so high, a Diallo event can never bring us all together.

The media conveyed the Diallo tragedy as an Al Sharpton-Rudy Giuliani problem -- another episode in the long-standing conflict between two bitter political foes. But why, when such horrific acts take place, do not all of us spontaneously and instinctively rise up together regardless of race and express our sadness, our sympathy, and our determination that it won't happen again? Why do we not take what is hidden from view -- the underlying tension, fear, and anger -- and bring them into the sunlight where the wounds can heal? Why in the aftermath of such a shooting does not someone of stature focus on the pain and not on the politics? Why doesn't some public official ask our school children to observe the tragedy with a moment of silence in memory of another life lost to senseless violence and tell all of us that if we want to, we can change our lives, our relationships, and our communities for the better? Why can't we see that by framing it as just a conflict between two interest groups, the police and the blacks, we diminish our chances for healing and in so doing are losing the idealistic part of ourselves that is most genuine, most soulful, and most hopeful?

The best way to get beyond the divisions and tensions is to unite for a deeply felt common goal. Police accountability, yes -- but I'm thinking of something larger. One in five children in America live in poverty. Among black children 40% are destitute. There is no reason why a multiracial coalition cannot be built to lift up our poorest children -- to make sure they have a healthy start, a nurturing childhood, and a chance for a good education. If that became our shared purpose, millions of Americans from all races could join the effort. Working side by side -- as we did in fighting for civil rights in the 1960s and rebuilding burned out black churches in the 1990s -- we could reaffirm our common humanity. It would necessarily involve the parents of the children. They offer the leverage for whatever the rest of us will do. The coalition effort would challenge the national government to do more, utilize the rich untapped human resources of the community, mobilize the money of those moved to give, and attract the goodwill of the nation.

To say that such an objective is right or left misses the point. Ideas about how to save children can come from both sides of the political spectrum and all should be invited to participate. Improving the life chances of children who are poor can become the North Star of our society -- a reference point by which we measure our actions, our progress, and our self-respect.

And now I'd like to address the next generation -- those in the hall today and those across the country who are working and attending school -- for it is your generation that can harvest the fruits of our rich diversity.

The poet Rachel Lindsey once wrote, "The tragedy is not death. The tragedy is to die with commitments undefined, with convictions undeclared and with service unfulfilled."

There is no issue in which commitment, conviction, and service is as desperately needed as race in America. Today I've described how it has divided us in stupid and often lethal ways since the beginning of our country. Skin color, eye shape and even ethnic origin have too often in America history resulted in humiliation, and even sometimes death, for the ones that looked different. We have to accept those painful chapters about who we are as a people, just as we have to accept some painful facts about who each of us is as an individual. But then we must move on and build a better world. The question is, how can the people with the best intentions from all races find a way to move forward together?

For me the quest for racial unity remains the defining moral issue of our time. It's the reason I first ran for the public office. I can still remember sitting in the Senate galley as a college intern one hot August night in 1964 and watching the Civil Rights act pass -- the one that desegregated public accommodations -- and thinking something happened here that made America a better place tonight for all Americans and maybe someday I can be here to help make America a better place. This "commitment" and this "conviction" filled my Senate years with purpose. I can still remember walking into the Senate chamber the day of the Rodney King verdict and in a silent chamber taking pencils and hitting my lectern 56 times in two minutes to symbolize the blows King received at the hands of the Los Angeles Police Department. Afterwards the hate mail flowed but so did a letter that lifted my spirit from a man in Philadelphia who in honor of my speech wrote a symphony called "56 Blows."

That's my story. What's yours?

Do you care about race? If you do, then do something about it.

Don't just listen to the old folks who tell you about the glory of the civil rights movement -- even though it was glorious. Don't conceive of race as just affirmative action -- even though narrow-minded politicians and ambitious journalists will seek to reduce it to that. Don't tolerate business people who claim they can't find minorities of talent -- even though they make little attempt to try. Don't coddle excuse makers of any race -- even though there are plenty reasons to grab an excuse. Don't believe that making money is a sufficient contribution to solving our national problems -- even though money with an open heart can make great progress and launch a thousand ships of hope.

I say to you who are young, take this issue and find a way of making it yours -- of blowing away the acrid odor of racism as well as the stultifying pessimism that nothing will change. We are on the eve of the 21st century. Let us affirm that when we get to its third decade the racial divisions of America will be mended. Pledge that it will be your generation that will put these stupid attitudes behind us. Then, it won't matter whether the doctor is black, white, yellow, or brown, but only whether he's a good doctor. Then, it won't matter whether you are black, white, yellow, or brown, the taxicab will stop for you in the dead of night. Then, it won't matter whether two people are black, white, yellow, or brown, love will conquer all.

Start with your life and the life of a friend. Go from there to your parents, your dorm, your club, your team, and more friends. Make racial unity a part of your being. See that difference which enriches is good, but difference that divides becomes self-defeating. If you believe that you are your brother's keeper -- that's your morality -- then walk your talk. If you like the idea of America leading the world by the power of our example as a multiracial society that works -- then help bring it about. If you want a bright economic future for your children -- then remember that it will increasingly be dependent on non-white Americans. We are truly at a time when we will all advance together or each will be diminished.

I believe that integration and racial unity are central to our American future. They are not merely programmatic issues. They are not political trends. They are more than identity conundrums. They are fundamental questions of attitude and action, questions of individual moral courage and the moral leadership of our nation.

James Baldwin, counseling his nephew in a letter not to be afraid during the civil rights demonstrations of the early 1960s, concludes with this:

I said that it was intended that you should perish in the ghetto, perish by never being allowed to go behind the white man's definitions, by never being allowed to spell your proper name. You have, and many of us have, defeated this intention; and, by a terrible law, a terrible paradox, those innocents who believed that your imprisonment made them safe are losing their grasp of reality. But these men are your brothers - your lost, younger brothers. And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be driven from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become.

Our path ahead cannot be clear if we believe the journey has been completed. Denial of the distance we must travel will never allow us to vanquish racial discord from our hearts. The question is, can we see ourselves and the promise of our future clearly enough so that we can see how good it could be and then want to move ahead? By honestly accepting one another, we can get to a new place where fear and hostility give way to the acceptance of goodness in each of us no matter what race.

Only leadership will get us there -- from the President, and from hundreds of thousands of leaders across the country who are waiting for the call. They are the Americans who even now lead racial unity forums. They are the ones who take a moment to look beyond people's skin color, eye shape, or ethnicity, to get to know them as human beings. From the President, it starts with making sure that everyone knows just how important this issue is to him, and how fundamental it is to our nation's future.

When Ronald Reagan was President, everyone knew that if you wanted to please the boss, you cut taxes, increased military spending and fought communism. If I'm President, I want one thing to be known: if you want to please the boss, one of the things you'd better show is how in your department or agency you've furthered tolerance and racial understanding.

When I was in Iowa earlier this year, I spoke at a diversity forum at the University of Iowa -- mostly white students. Later that evening, in the home of two professors, a woman asked me, "Why are you speaking about the need for racial progress to a group of white Iowans?" And I answered, "Why not to you? I talk about it everywhere I go."

I will continue to talk through this campaign about the importance of deciding whether we will be a collection of 265 million individuals, or 265 million individuals living together as one nation. One nation -- not immigrants and natives, not women and men, not heterosexual and homosexual, not urban and suburban and rural. One nation. Indivisible -- not pitted group against group, English-speaking versus Spanish-speaking, black versus white, but indivisible. One nation -- where all men -- and all women -- are created equal, and where each advances and prospers, not because of what they are, but because of who they are, as individuals and as part of that one nation