Remarks as prepared for delivery
Thank you, Neera [Tanden], for that kind introduction. It’s a pleasure to be here with you today, and a privilege to join so many passionate citizens, committed public servants and dedicated advocates as we mark the one-year anniversary of the president’s groundbreaking My Brother’s Keeper initiative. There is no place I would rather be in my closing days as Attorney General than with all of you. Or, at least, these should be my closing days. Given the Senate’s delays in scheduling Loretta Lynch’s nomination for a vote, it’s almost as if the Republicans in Congress have discovered a new fondness for me. Where was all this affection the last six years?
But seriously, it’s fitting that one of my final events as Attorney General will be about My Brother’s Keeper because it speaks to issues that have been at the forefront of my work and at the center of my thoughts throughout my professional career.
During my time as a judge on the Superior Court in Washington, D.C., I saw how people who were convicted of crimes too often had been previously trapped in a cycle of poverty, familial instability, juvenile criminality and adult incarceration. I observed how this cycle could weaken communities, tear already weak family structures apart and ultimately destroy individual lives. And day after day, I watched lines of young people—most often young men of color—stream through my courtroom. I began to recognize their faces, and to recall their too-common and recurring stories, because too many of the people I sentenced served their time, were released from prison, and sooner or later returned to the same behavior that had led them to my courtroom in the first place.
Many of these individuals were not fundamentally different from me, or from the people I grew up with in East Elmhurst, in Queens, New York City—friends, classmates, neighbors and peers—some of whom didn’t catch the same breaks, made mistakes or poor choices, and got involved in the criminal justice system with no real ability to reclaim their lives or recast their futures. So when I returned to the Department of Justice, I insisted on doing my part to make our criminal justice system more efficient, more effective and more fair—as U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, as Deputy Attorney General and, for the last six years, as Attorney General of the United States.
During my tenure in the Obama Administration, particularly through the Smart on Crime initiative, we have worked to reform our criminal justice system at every level. Our primary responsibility—which we have never lost sight of—is public safety and individual accountability. But we have reduced our reliance on draconian mandatory minimum sentencing, increased our use of rehabilitation programs like drug courts and veterans courts, and expanded assistance for formerly incarcerated individuals as they re-enter society.
These are important improvements, and all available results demonstrate that our approach has been extremely effective. But in addition to modifying the way we charge, sentence and release men and women who are involved in crimes, we also have a vital role to play in preventing people from coming into contact with the criminal justice system in the first place. That means ending the school-to-prison pipeline that sends too many children on a well-worn path from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse. It means employing a developmentally-informed approach to prevent violence against children and to alleviate the devastating harm that comes from abuse. And it means addressing persistent opportunity gaps faced by boys and young men of color through initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper and ensuring that all our young people can reach their full potential.
The fundamental idea behind this initiative is that every child in America should have the opportunity to grow, to succeed, and to contribute to their community and their country. Because it is clear that, despite our best efforts, some children still face significant opportunity gaps that put them at a disadvantage—that make them less likely to graduate from high school; less likely to get a well-paying job; and less likely to join the middle class. It makes them more likely to slip below the poverty line, or to stay there; more likely to suffer violence and abuse; and more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system.
The My Brother’s Keeper initiative is designed to support the progress of these individuals—with mentorships, with support networks and with public-private partnerships that help our young people develop the skills they need to find a good job, to go to college, to raise a family and to succeed. Most importantly, on a fundamental level, My Brother’s Keeper sends a message that these young people matter to us. They matter to their country. They matter to their president. And they matter to me—an Attorney General who is so much like them. We as a nation will never give up on them—and we must refuse to let them give up on themselves.
Over the last year, we have made significant progress. We have joined with cities and towns, businesses, and foundations that are taking steps to connect young people to the resources they need to get a good education, to improve their lives and to work their way into the middle class. We have launched the My Brother’s Keeper Community Challenge—an important call for communities to implement long-term strategies for improving the life outcomes of all young people. And we have established the National Initiative for Building Community Trust and Justice—a nationwide program designed to enhance procedural justice, reduce implicit bias and support racial reconciliation.
Just last week, I was proud to announce six cities selected to serve as pilot sites under this initiative—to develop programs that will work to dispel the mistrust that plagues too many neighborhoods, and to create innovative new efforts that will help build and maintain the bonds between law enforcement officers and the communities they serve, wherever those bonds have been broken. Those six cities—Birmingham, Alabama; Stockton, California; Gary, Indiana; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Fort Worth, Texas—will stand on the front lines of this effort. And by helping to develop programs that serve their own diverse experiences, these cities will provide trailblazing insight and essential information for our ongoing efforts to confront pressing, similar issues in other communities across the country.
As you know, these are not abstract concepts—they are vital steps that we must take to improve our communities, to strengthen our public safety programs and to save lives. Recently, we’ve received painful reminders about the importance of initiatives like this one. We’ve endured sudden, rancorous challenges to the idea that we are one united people. And we’ve seen how quickly and how easily a split-second local incident can give way to enduring national strife and tragedy—to parents who are left without their children; to young people forever deprived of a role model; to brave officers killed while serving their communities; and to citizens across the country who fear walking their neighborhoods and cops who fear patrolling their beats.
That is a reality that is incompatible with the spirit of this country—a country founded on the notion of brotherhood; of shared vision and common effort. A country that views “we the people” as a declaration of the inextricable links that connect us to one another. As then-State Senator Obama said in a convention hall in Boston just over a decade ago, “it is that fundamental belief—I am my brother’s keeper, I am my sister’s keeper—that makes this country work.”
Now, our society has not always lived up to that promise. America has been sorely tested—by long-ago injustices that nearly split our Union, and by systemic biases that still fester in too many institutions today. But over nearly 250 years of debate, of argument and of slow and deliberate progress, there can be no doubt that we have moved closer to our highest ideals; that we have advanced toward a brighter horizon; and that we have bent the arc of the moral universe—haltingly, but with great determination and clarity of purpose—toward justice.
From revolution to emancipation; from the suffragists to the Freedom Riders; from Selma to Stonewall, countless men, women and children of strong character and enduring faith have pulled this country forward, toward a new day when all Americans can succeed no matter who they are, no matter what they look like, no matter where they’re from, and no matter whom they love—whether they are rich or poor, young or old, gay or straight, famous or unknown. Whether they are an individual born with all the advantages this country has to offer, or a young man of color faced with difficult choices and an uncertain future. We’re not there yet. But today—right now—it is up to all of us to take up that challenge, to continue that effort and to resume the march that so many have sacrificed so much to advance.
I know that this work will not always be simple. Longstanding inequities will not be easily corrected, historic divides will not be healed overnight, and leaders in government, no matter how committed, cannot do this work alone. That is why the private partnerships being forged in response to My Brother’s Keeper are so crucial, and why I have been proud to work with—and in some cases, to help establish—extraordinary nonprofit organizations that extend a hand to at-risk youth across the country—organizations like the See Forever Foundation, Safe Shores, and The Alliance for Concerned Men.
In conversations with public safety officers, community and business leaders, activists, and young people across the country—in Atlanta, Cleveland, Memphis, Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland, and San Francisco—I have found broad agreement that we can work together to create safer, more prosperous communities. I have encountered an overriding desire to collaborate toward that end. And I have been struck not by our divisions, but by our common interest in creating the more just society that all Americans deserve.
As I look around this room today—at the dedicated citizens who have a hand in this country’s direction and the young people who will guide it for years to come—I cannot help being optimistic. I cannot help anticipating that brighter day. And I cannot help feeling confident about all that we will achieve together.
In the coming days, my tenure as Attorney General of the United States will come to an end. But whenever I do depart the Obama Administration, I will never leave this work. I will never abandon this mission. And I will never relinquish this effort to help build the more equal country—and the more just society—that all Americans deserve. I look forward to continuing to work with all of you as we seek to make our Union more perfect.