In the early hours of June 6, 1968— 52 years ago today— Robert Kennedy died at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, felled by an assassin’s bullet, which ended an 84-day campaign that took place against the backdrop of a nation torn asunder by race and riots. I was 21 years old in 1968 and the protests sweeping our nation today remind me of how far we have come… and how little progress we have made in terms of social justice and equal opportunity. The social conditions of race and income inequality that Kennedy sought to address, are as acute today as they were a half-century ago—indeed, today’s disparity between rich and poor is far greater.
Our central challenge today is to ensure that the outpouring of anger and compassion sparked by the senseless and unconscionable murder of George Floyd actually achieves what the protests of the 1960s failed to accomplish: building true equity and opportunity into the foundation of our society. This powerful energy must be harnessed if we are to effectively address not just the symptoms, but the root causes of this problem, causes which are embedded in the conditions of injustice that drive the widening disparities in health and income, and in the vanishing economic and educational opportunities that afflict low-income Americans of all races and all colors, and that oppress all those trapped in generational poverty for whatever reason.
To treat this disease festering in the soul of our nation we must go beyond the racial violence perpetrated by individuals against those in our communities of color and also address the violence of institutions which Robert Kennedy referred to in a poignant speech given to the City Club of Cleveland the day after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King:
“For there is another kind of violence,” he said, “slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions: indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger and schools without books and homes without heat in the winter.”
Now, a half a century later, we still have schools without books, and homes without heat in the winter … and hunger and homelessness, and families under economic stress, disintegrating neighborhoods, unemployment, a lack of affordable health care, and the creeping menace of despair and fading hope of a better future. These are cancers in the body of our society, and we cannot heal until they are excised; and they cannot be excised unless we can harness, in a common mission, the energy of the protest movement and the deep anxiety felt by millions of Americans about an uncertain future in order to build the moral courage, the political will and the social solidarity needed to effectively address the causes of this problem rather than its symptoms.
I am not suggesting that this will be easy, because it involves a fundamental change in how we allocate our public budgets at both the state and federal levels, placing a far greater emphasis on investments in children, families, and communities, and on expanding economic and educational opportunity. It involves an honest recognition that the solution will necessarily require some redistribution of wealth within our society, that we can no longer condone public policies that allow some groups to increase their own wealth without the creation of new wealth—that is, taking more of the pie without making the pie bigger.
Finally, as the economy begins to reopen, it involves pushing back against the narrative that “returning to normal” is the goal to which we aspire. Certainly, we all want the pandemic under control and we want to go back to work, but in Oregon, the pre-COVID “normal” was a place where 290,000 people lacked health insurance coverage, and where 1.2 million people—thirty percent of our population—lived with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level and fully sixty percent earned less than 400 percent of that level. It was a place where 553,000 people, including 194,000 children, faced food insecurity every day, and where one out every three Oregonians struggled to pay for their housing.
The only way we can create a different future, a more generous and equitable “normal,” is to imagine it by building agreement on where we want our state to be five years from now, and then to ensure that the difficult political choices we will have to make to balance the budget for the remainder of this biennium, and for the 2021-2023 biennium are interconnected. These choices cannot be separate disconnected budget-balancing exercises but instead, must be part of a well-thought-out strategic plan to lift up all Oregonians, giving them hope and an equal opportunity to live productive and meaningful lives.
June 6th not only marks the 52nd anniversary of Bobby Kennedy’s death, but it also marks the 76th anniversary of D-Day, when Allied forces began their assault on the walls of tyranny to liberate the oppressed peoples of Europe. Let us commit ourselves today to meet the standard set by the Greatest Generation, and make June 6, 2020, the day on which we begin our assault of the walls of injustice that have oppressed far too many Americans for far too long.