Thank you, Charles [Cephas]. I appreciate your kind words, and I’m grateful to you and your colleagues in the Department’s Justice Management Division for your work in organizing today’s celebration. It’s good to be among so many friends and colleagues. And it’s an honor to join you in welcoming Dr. [Freeman] Hrabowski, one of our nation’s most distinguished academic leaders, to the Justice Department.
This morning, I’m especially delighted to welcome so many students here. I want to thank the Spingarn Senior High School JROTC Color Guard for their presentation. You did a great job. Let me also say how wonderful it is to have the Howard University Choir with us, filling our Great Hall with such glorious music. Thank you all for sharing your gifts with us and making this celebration so special.
Today, as we commemorate Black History Month, we strengthen an important American tradition. For more than half a century, Americans have been coming together each February – or, when “snowmageddon” strikes, in early March – to reflect on how far our nation and, especially, our African-American communities have traveled on the long road toward equality and freedom.
For well over two centuries now, we, as a people, have been striving to build a more perfect union – an America where the words of our Constitution can, finally, reach the full measure of their intent. The work of the Justice Department is, and always has been, critical to this pursuit. As a law student and as a young prosecutor in our Public Integrity Section, I dreamed of contributing to this Department. Today, as Attorney General, I have the honor and responsibility of leading it. I also have the privilege of serving with colleagues who share my commitment to this work. Like you, I have great faith in our justice system. In fact, I’d argue that it’s among the most praiseworthy aspects of our national character. But I also realize this hasn’t always been the case.
Despite the great progress we’ve seen in my lifetime, it wasn’t so long ago that African Americans were prevented from owning property, attaining home or business loans, and joining unions. The legal framework we celebrate today – the same system that abolished slavery, encouraged women’s suffrage and ended segregation – once served as a barrier for black families struggling to build wealth and for black children who sought an adequate education.
There was a time when this very Department undermined the rights and privileges it was established to preserve. There was a time when it was accepted, almost universally across our country, that the American principles of justice, liberty and equality did not have to be applied equally to blacks and whites, or to women and men. For much of the last century, our justice system did not do enough to help our nation fulfill its promise of equal opportunity. And, as a result, the doors of economic prosperity remained closed to too many Americans on the basis of their race.
This year’s Black History Month theme, “The History of Black Economic Empowerment,” calls us to examine this past. It also challenges us to acknowledge that racial divisions and disparities continue to persist. This unfortunate truth is, perhaps, most evident when looking at the current state of our economy.
Today, we have faced the most serious financial crisis in generations. America’s manufacturing output has slumped. Our financial markets have lost tremendous value. Consumer spending and confidence have declined. Home values have decreased. Though we have made significant progress in combating the ills associated with the Great Recession, much work remains to be done. And it will be done.
In many ways, this recession has been an equal-opportunity offender, affecting Americans of all racial and ethnic groups, classes and ages -- and closing off both blue- and white-collar job prospects.
But we know that some communities and demographic groups have been hit harder than others. Today, joblessness for young black men, those between the ages of 16 and 24, is higher than national averages and has reached proportions not seen since the Great Depression. And young black women of the same age now have an unemployment rate of more that 26 percent. This is particularly troubling when you consider that the unemployment rate for all 16-to-24-year-old women is about 15 percent.
These economic disparities will have long-term consequences for us all. And they should concern every one of us. We must not allow this generation of our young people, especially young African Americans, to become the first generation in decades to not keep up with or exceed their parents’ standard of living. That’s why this Justice Department, as part of our reinvigorated commitment to strengthening civil rights, is working to safeguard our markets, to combat financial crimes and to restore the opportunities necessary to rebuild our economy. This work is essential. And we all have a role to play in advancing it.
Today’s economic challenges have signaled that, despite the progress we’ve made in creating a more equal nation, we have much work ahead of us. It may be tempting – when you look at the diversity of people working in this building and walking the halls of Congress or at the man sitting in the Oval Office – to think that equality has been achieved for all Americans. We have made tremendous progress as a nation. But it will take more than the election of the first African-American President to conform our present reality with our founding idealism. And it will certainly take more than the appointment of the first African-American Attorney General to build a nation that always embodies our highest principles and contains our best selves.
That said, I have great hope for our future. Time after time, the American people have proven that we will not become victims of, chained to, a sometimes painful history. We cannot allow our past to haunt us. Instead, we must use it to hasten our work and press us further toward justice and through new doorways of economic opportunity.
We now stand at the beginning of a new decade. And we all have the chance to help write a new chapter in the history of this country. We’ve arrived at this moment together, and we will overcome our shared challenges as one people. But how? Some have asked. How can we achieve a future consistent with our dreams and worthy of our founding documents?
By summoning the lessons of the past. By standing together in days of struggle and uncertainty. And by inspiring each other to dream of and work for a more inclusive, more just, and more perfect union.
I am confident that the Justice Department we serve will strengthen and sustain this effort – indeed, will lead it. And I’m honored to count you as partners in this work and proud to call you my colleagues in the struggle to build the most perfect Union.