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Remarks by Ambassador Ron Kirk to the 30th Annual Maryland 5th Congressional District Black History Month Celebration

Ambassador Ron Kirk
United States Trade Representative

Remarks to the 30th Annual Maryland 5th Congressional District Black History Month Celebration

February 19, 2011
Waldorf, Maryland

**As Prepared For Delivery**

“Thank you, Congressman Hoyer, Senator Cardin, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen. It’s a pleasure to join you for the 30th Annual 5th Congressional District Black History Month Celebration.

“This breakfast has an important and impressive tradition. Past speakers have ranged from distinguished public servants like Congressman John Lewis and President Barack Obama, to outstanding business, civic, and religious leaders like Vernon Jordan, Valerie Jarrett, and Reverend Jesse Jackson.

“I’m deeply humbled and honored to be here today, recognizing that my privilege to serve is made possible by all of those who have fought, struggled, and persevered over the years in pursuit of greater opportunity for African-Americans.

“Recent events in Egypt and across the Middle East remind us that our peaceful, tolerant, and open form of democracy is special and should not be taken for granted. Indeed, American history is replete with stories about the struggle to fulfill the promise of our ideals in our own country, as we are always striving to perfect our union.

“I am in fact a product of that struggle and my story begins in the south –the segregated south, to be precise. I don’t mind telling you I’m 56 years old, which means I was born in 1954, the year that Brown v. Board of Education was decided. I was born in Austin, Texas – an otherwise progressive city – but still a city that was segregated and governed by rules of Jim Crow like so many others at the time. When I was born, my mother and father could not vote. Even though the U.S. Constitution said they could, like so many other black families throughout the south, they were faced with literacy tests and poll taxes for ‘colored people.’

“Now let’s fast forward a few decades, after years of my mother making sure that my brother and sister and I attended church, recited our Bible verses, studied hard and made good grades, I was able to attend college, to obtain a law degree, to launch and build a successful legal career, and eventually, to have the privilege of serving as Texas Secretary of State, under Governor Ann Richards, in the same state that once forced my mother and father to pay a poll tax.

“I went on to become the first African-American Mayor of the City of Dallas, elected twice with support from communities of every size, shape, and color. And today I stand before you as the first African-American United States Trade Representative, appointed to serve in the Cabinet of the first African-American President of the United States. To say the least, I feel extraordinarily blessed.

“Most of all I’m thankful for my family. I have a wonderful wife and we have two incredible daughters. Being a husband and father has brought me so much joy and pride. And of course I wouldn’t be here without the strong guidance and wisdom I received from my parents, both of whom worked incredibly hard to ensure that I had access to the best education, which gave me the foundation for the opportunities and career that I’ve pursued in my life.

“To be sure, celebrating ‘Firsts’ is important. But as we reflect on how far we have come, it strikes me that the best way to honor the sacrifice of those who brought us here is to redouble our efforts to do more with what we have today.

“As my father put it to me and my brothers and sisters years ago: ‘You have the opportunity in your lifetime to be the first through the door, but you have the responsibility to conduct yourself in a way that ensures you won’t be the last.’

“So in keeping with your theme ‘From the Civil War to the Present: Jobs, Education, and Empowerment’, I’d like to focus on the power of families, and consider what each of us can do as parents, neighbors, teachers, mentors, and friends to support and enrich and uplift our youth.

“In his State of the Union address, President Obama told Americans that the future is ours to win – but only if we rise to the challenge. Countries like China and India have started educating their children earlier and longer, with greater emphasis on math and sciences. And they’re investing in research and new technologies in an effort to get a head start on the next big thing. So if Americans are to compete for and win the jobs and industries of the future, we have to out-smart, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world.

“This international challenge is especially significant for our African-American community, because in education we are not even keeping pace with our peers in the United States. For example, American 8th graders as a whole trail 10 other nations in math and science. But when it comes to black students, African-Americans trail not only most other developed nations, but they also badly trail their white classmates here at home– an achievement gap that is widening the income gap between black and white, and between rich and poor.

“That’s a problem we have today, and it will only get worse in the future unless we commit ourselves to taking immediate action. Consider this – over the next 10 years, nearly half of all new jobs will require an education that goes beyond a high school diploma. And yet, according to 2005 Census data, only one out of every 10 African-American males who graduate high school actually go on to finish college. This is unacceptable and it has devastating effects on our communities from high unemployment to teen pregnancy.

“So the question before us today is whether we – as citizens, as parents, and as African-Americans – are willing to commit to doing what is necessary to give our children a chance to succeed in the 21st century global economy?

“President Obama has said ‘that responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done. [And] we need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair [as well].’

“That may sound simple, but we’re not doing it nearly enough. In my travels around the world as U.S. Trade Representative, I’ve seen first-hand families in places like Africa and Asia and India making extraordinary sacrifices so they can invest in their children’s future and give them a better life through education. They are reading, writing, and speaking English at the earliest possible age in addition to one or more of their native languages. They are studying science and math and engineering. And now they have access to all of the world’s information at the click of a mouse.

“As technology accelerates global development these trends are eroding what have historically been American advantages. So we must do a better job of educating our children, not just for the sake of African-Americans, but for American competitiveness. Because to compete against the likes of China, India, Brazil, and Africa it’s going to take every one of us, fighting for the jobs of the future. Look at it this way – over the next twenty years, if China, India, Brazil, and Africa are as indifferent as we are about educating our children, then they will still end up with about a billion and a half people entering the workforce that are willing to work for roughly 10 cents on the dollar of the average American.

“That is just a reality we have to face. But let’s turn to the good news – let me tell you why I have so much confidence that we can rise to meet all of these challenges and win the future as President Obama has challenged us to do. Everywhere I’ve had the privilege of traveling as U.S. Trade Representative – from Africa to Asia, and from Latin America to Europe – people I’ve met still regard the United States as an absolute beacon for the universal aspirations of the human spirit. We are a symbol of freedom and liberty around the world. At the same time, I truly believe ‘Made in America’ is still the most powerful brand in the world, and the United States remains the best place in the world to do business, by far.

“That’s why I agree with Congressman Hoyer that we need to do everything we can to help more people ‘Make it in America’ – because the more we produce here, the more we can sell abroad, and the more we can put people to work in the United States.

“The unlimited potential of America continues to attract hundreds of thousands of international students each year. They come to study at our outstanding colleges and universities, including our historically black colleges and universities. And through a continuous cycle of discovery and development, the most innovative companies and most productive workers in the world thrive on knowledge created at our institutions of higher learning.

“So while there is no doubt that the international competition is stepping up their game, the only question that remains is, are we prepared to accept the challenge? President Obama and I believe America’s best days are ahead of us, and I imagine most of you do as well.

“Some of you here may have heard or read recently about a provocative new best-selling book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, a Chinese-American law professor at Yale. She was on Oprah last month, and her book describes how she raised her two daughters exactly how she was raised by her parents in what she describes as a very traditional Chinese model of strict discipline and study.

“In an interview with Time magazine, the author said: ‘I see my upbringing as a great success story. By disciplining me, my parents inculcated self-discipline. And by restricting my choices as a child, they gave me so many choices in my life as an adult. Because of what they did then, I get to do the work I love now.’

“To be sure, some of these parenting techniques seem extreme – some people even find them quite shocking – and I’m not endorsing anything she says specifically. But I did see a tremendous similarity between the author’s reflections on her parents’ discipline and the kind of things my parents made me do as a child. In fact, Time magazine opined: ‘The tiger-mother approach isn't an ethnicity but a philosophy: expect the best from your children, and don't settle for anything less.’

“I can’t help but think in some ways we must be missing the sense of urgency that previous generations of African-American families embraced. In those days there was an unyielding, unwavering insistence that parents instilled in their children. It said: You are going to go to school, you are going to study hard, you are going to make good grades, you are going to be a good citizen, you are going to compete in the world and you are going to succeed.

“But for whatever reason right now we seem to accept any variety of excuses – and we must face up to the reality that it isn’t working and we cannot continue on this course. Above average rates of teenage pregnancy and incarceration among African-American young people are symptomatic of the fact that predominately we are raising a class of citizens without life skills. And that is directly correlated to raising a generation of people who have dropped out of school. So that’s why, from my humble perspective, empowerment for African-Americans must begin by saving our kids through investing in their education.

“Soon my daughters will graduate from college. The thought of them walking across a stage to receive their diplomas fills me with more pride and satisfaction than I can imagine. And as someone who cares deeply about our African-American community, it also gives me hope.

“It gives me hope that the opportunities I’ve had will continue to be passed on to the next generation, but not just for my daughters, but many more African-American families across the country; it gives me hope that the stories of ‘Firsts’ in my generation will become more familiar stories for the next.; and it gives me hope that our achievements today set the floor – and not the ceiling – for what we can expect from our young people.

“If you’ll permit me for a moment, I want to speak now not as the U.S. Trade Representative or a senior Administration official, but frankly as a father – and as an African-American who is concerned about the future of our young people.

“I humbly submit to you that we as a community should set a date in the not too distant future by which we will do whatever it takes to make sure that 9 out of 10 black girls and boys who enter the 9th grade graduate from high school, and if they choose to do so, they have the skills to either go to college or directly into the workforce. This is a challenge, as African-Americans, and frankly, as Americans, that we must accept: to do as we did after Reconstruction, to fight as we did after Civil Rights, and to reach beyond what seems possible today.

“Notice I said ‘we’ because I’m talking about all of us as a community – not only the Obama Administration, and not just your leaders in Congress – but the entire African-American community needs to rally around this cause with a heightened sense of purpose. After all, the president’s clarion call for change was not ‘Yes, I Can’. It was ‘Yes, WE Can.’

“To be sure, the Obama Administration is doing its part. With Race to the Top we’ve already enacted the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation. For less than 1 percent of what we spend on education each year, it has led over 40 states to raise their standards for teaching and learning. And because science and engineering and math are the kinds of subjects and skills that our children need to achieve success in the 21st century, the President has challenged us to prepare more than 10,000 new math and science teachers over the next five years, and train 100,000 more current teachers in those fields.

“This is also a challenge the African-American community should embrace if we are to honor brave and brilliant black leaders and educators like Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver. At the turn of the 20th century, these visionaries broke racial barriers with innovations that advanced American education, science, and industry as a whole. They are part of a proud tradition and rich legacy of African-American achievement in the sciences that we don’t speak of nearly enough. And now that we are facing the 21st century full of challenges, it is incumbent upon each of us to inspire and nurture the next generation of African-American educators, engineers, and scientists.

“So to make sure our kids and grandkids, nieces, nephews, and cousins are spending more time in libraries and laboratories, first we have to bring the focus on education into our homes. We have to turn off the TV and talk to our children, because even the best teachers and the most innovative and efficient programs won’t make up for an absent parent or lack of discipline at home. We as a community must collectively decide that these are our children, and we know from history that when we are focused, when we are driven, when we work together, we have the ability to transform ourselves and to transform our nation.

“Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.’ This simple lesson inspired leaders like Dr. King, John Lewis, and Fanny Lou Hamer to persevere in the struggle for Civil Rights. It motivated Marian Wright Edelman to spend her life working to improve the lives of poor children and empower them through more equal opportunities. It inspired Barack Obama to launch an improbable candidacy for the Presidency of the United States. And it must be the motto we follow in raising our children to compete in an age where education is still the key to success.

“Your efforts – here in Waldorf, and throughout the 5th District, and across the state of Maryland – can make a difference. But we must spread the word to more friends and neighbors that educational empowerment begins at home. And we have to put a priority on responsible parenting.

“I’ll leave you today with a story from my own childhood back in Texas. I grew up in a very simple family church. If you’ve been to the south, the thing I love about all of these churches – they’re all the same – little shotgun church – you go in and all of them in some version have a bunch of wooden blocks with scripture posted on the wall – and you can pretty much go into any little rural community in the south and you’ll find one of these churches – where all of them have some version of John 3:16 on the wall. And in my little church we began every service reciting: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son.’

“Now mind you, I went to a family church and my mother was the youngest of 14 children – she had a brother who became a minister, she had 10 sisters and brothers who all lived within 5 square miles of us – so when I say this was family church, this was a family church.

“…After years of recitation…one day my cousin jokingly punched me in the arm, and said ‘Ronald, you know we’re going to have to recite John 3:16, right?’ And I said, yeah, I know. And then he said, ‘No, but do you know what it means?’ And again I said, yeah. But he went on to say, it really means, ‘God so loved the world…that he didn’t send a committee.’ And my point, what we learn from that, is God never has brought about the change we want in life by committees. He sends people.

“Whether we are talking about Martin Luther King, Jr., John Lewis, Fanny Lou Hamer, Marian Wright Edelman, Barack Obama, Steny Hoyer, or any other leader who has fought for the African-American community, God sends each of us to be that voice for social justice to stand up and say simply: This is wrong, there is a better way, and here’s what we need to do to get there.

“And along the way we should encourage each other to be bold. I carry around a daily meditation – it includes words I try to live by, from the author Marianne Williamson. “In her book called A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of a Course in Miracles, she writes: ‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, and not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that others won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give others permission to do the same. As we're liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.’

“So today, let each of us go forth from here focused on education, and confident in the power of each of us to bring about extraordinary change, one child at a time. Thank you.”