South Court Auditorium
Eisenhower Executive Office Building
11:36 A.M. EST THE VICE PRESIDENT: Steny! Oh, it’s so good to be with you. It is so good to be with you. This is the 40th — 40th time that you have celebrated America’s history and America’s black history with this convening.
MAJORITY LEADER HOYER: We started when you were a little girl.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes. Yes. And — and I just want to thank you, Steny, because what all of the folks who are participating today know about you is that you are consistent in your continuing leadership, which has always been about fighting to make sure everybody is in the room, that truth is acknowledged, and everyone is acknowledged in a way that is about fighting for equality, fighting for freedom, and fighting for justice. And so thank you, Steny, for inviting me to join with everyone today.
Steny talked about it, but we were on that flight together to honor our dear John Lewis, and we spent a lot of time talking, and I really got to know Steny in a way that was personal. And I will tell you, spending that time with Steny, he really — he’s got such a big heart. And he’s got such a commitment to the best of who we can be. And Steny is one of those leaders who was also very clear-eyed about what is working and what is not working.
And so, Steny, I consider you to be a friend, and I thank you for your leadership, not only of Maryland but your national leadership.
And to everyone, it’s an honor to be with you: all of the political leaders; the business leaders; the community leaders of Maryland’s 4th and 5th Congressional Districts. Miss Jackie Rhone, Miss Betty Richardson, thank you for bringing us together. My dear friend, Senator Ben Cardin; my classmate when I joined the Senate, Senator Chris Van Hollen; Congressman Brown; Speaker Jones; my dear longstanding friend Executive Angela Alsobrooks: thank you all for your leadership.
And, Leader Hoyer, thank you for your leadership, in the early morning hours of today, in passing our American Rescue Plan. What you did — along with Speaker Pelosi, with Whip Clyburn — is an extraordinary feat and is going to have such a profound impact on the American people.
And I’ll talk about the plan in a minute, but right now I just want to say for all of you Marylanders, just know Leader Hoyer works hard for you and for our nation, and clearly at all hours of the day and night.
So it is wonderful to join, as we celebrate Black History Month — although I know who was part of this morning, and I know that we celebrate Black History Month in January, in March, in April, and all year round. But, yes, every February we take a time, and a more formal time, to remember and honor those who came before us. And they are and were the visionaries. They were the innovators. And why do I say “innovators”? Because they had the ability, in their moment in time, to see what can be unburdened by what had been. They were the innovators and, of course, the barrier breakers and, of course, the history makers.
Those who were clear-eyed about the moment in which they lived. Because at that moment, they weren’t trying to think about how it would be in the future, in terms of how they’d be talked about. They were clear-eyed about the present and what needed to be done at that moment to create that future for which they had a vision. And so they told the truth then about what they saw at the time that they lived. And they worked to build a better future, a future unburdened by what had been.
And I — over my — the course of my life and my career and also growing up, I got to meet many of these thinkers and activists and leaders from childhood on. They shaped who I am today, and they shaped how I lead. And I’m grateful today and every day for all of their work and their sacrifice. And we all know that they are here and they are with us, and they are watching us, and it is on their broad shoulders that we stand.
So today, as we remember their stories, we also recognize that we are a part of a longer story. And we will determine how our chapter gets written. In other words, I think of history in the context of a relay race. Right? A relay race with each generation running their course and then passing the baton to the next. And so, the baton is now in our hands, and what matters is how well we run our portion of the race.
So let’s see this moment in which we live with the utmost clarity. And let’s tell the truth about what we see, knowing that, often, to speak truth may make folks uncomfortable; to speak truth can often be very difficult because it’s things people don’t want to see or hear. But truth must be spoken if we are truly to lead and to progress as a country.
So right now, what are we looking at? We are looking at a country in a situation where more than two in three black Americans personally know someone who has been hospitalized or who has died from COVID-19. Black women workers are being forced out of the workforce in record numbers. And so many black small businesses are being forced to close their doors.
In so many ways, this pandemic has been an accelerator. And for those for whom things were bad before, they’re even worse now — for the fissures and the failures, the defects, the flaws in our system during the course of this pandemic have been blown up for all to see. And — and — our response, our collective response, and the response of the leaders who are participating in this celebration, also has shown the determination and the aspiration of the heroes among us.
Take, for example, someone who Maryland is very proud of and we all are: UMBC graduate and black scientist Dr. Kizzy Corbett, who helped develop the Moderna vaccine — the one I got, and many of us did — that is saving countless lives.
You know, I met Dr. Corbett when I went out to visit NIH in, of course, Bethesda, Maryland, during just our second week in office and before I received my shot. And I was so honored to thank her on behalf of our nation. And I was so honored to share a moment with her to also highlight the excellence — the excellence in terms of who is serving in so many positions, including in science, in medical discovery. And she is but one example — a beautiful example of the work that has been done historically and continues to be done by black scientists in America.
Take, for example, another hero of this moment: Sandra Lindsay, a black nurse who was the first person in the United States to get vaccinated. And you all may remember when she got vaccinated, she talked about her dedication to saving lives and uplifting human condition as a nurse.
You know, Joe Biden often talks about the fact that the nurses of our country and the calling — their calling, their skill, their gift — is some of the most important work that can be done in the spirit of love thy neighbor.
Let’s think about the heroes who are the black workers who are on the frontlines risking their lives every day to save perfect strangers, people they’ve never met before, people they may not know.
Let’s think about our black churches that have always been part of the safety net of community and are feeding entire communities while they too are struggling.
And just early this morning, as I said earlier, with the leadership of Speaker Pelosi, our Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, and Whip Jim Clyburn, members of the House of Representatives passed the American Rescue Plan and passed it on to the United States Senate for action.
So, you know, before President Biden and I — Joe — before we took office, we put forward this plan. And it was designed and written and intended to do what we knew then and we know now must be done, which is rescue our nation from the devastation of COVID-19.
And so it has — the American Rescue Plan — three major components:
First, it puts $20 billion toward a national vaccination program. That includes community vaccination centers and mobile vaccination units. It includes supporting pharmacies. In fact, just this week, I — I visited a pharmacy in Southeast D.C., where — which is in the black community, serving that community, and where an extraordinary public — national public health official, Dr. Nesbitt, is doing the work of ensuring that, through pharmacies, through community health centers, and other areas and places and locations, that folks get the vaccine — that they know it is safe, that they know it will save lives.
We know from the data, and from talking with friends and family, that access to the vaccine is a big concern for black and brown communities. And we know why. We know the history. Because remember, when we talk about history, it’s about being honest. And we know how folks were treated historically, in terms of medical science and research.
So we know it is an issue that we must acknowledge, we must speak truth about it. And we must continue to also educate folks about what is happening now that is different.
We need to talk with them about Dr. Kizzy Corbett. We have to talk with folks about how this vaccine will save lives. And that’s why, through this bill, and through the work that the President and I and Steny and so many others are doing, it is about expanding access every day.
We also launched the Health Equity Task Force to make sure tests and vaccines and other resources are being distributed equitably. You know, when we look at black history, we know that so much of the fight — especially during the Civil Rights Movement and, of course, before — has been about equality.
You know, we often talk about the place that housed one of the people who, for me, was a hero and really was a beacon of what can be — Thurgood Marshall — and the house that Thurgood Marshall lived in, called the United States Supreme Court. And on those marble walls is etched “Equal justice under law.” We have always fought for equality.
But now we are also talking much more rightly about equity, understanding that we must be clear-eyed about the fact that, yes, we want everyone to get an equal amount — that sounds right — but not everyone starts out from the same place. Some people start out on first base; some people start out on third base. And if the goal is truly about equality, it has to be about a goal of saying everybody should end up in the same place. And since we didn’t start in the same place. Some folks might need more: equitable distribution.
Second, our plan gives $1,400 to those who need it most and at least $3,000 in tax credits for almost every child. And why is that important? Because by doing that, we will lift half of those children living in poverty, out of poverty. And a disproportionate number of children in America who are living in poverty are black children. So think about that: Half of the children who are living in poverty now won’t be if we get this thing passed.
Third, it provides support for the hardest-hit businesses and communities with a particular eye and an acknowledgement
about who are our black-owned small businesses, which we all know are part of the heartbeat of the black community. It is the beauty salon, it is the barber shop, it is — it is that grocery store, it is that restaurant that are part of the fabric of community, that are part of the culture of the community, that hire locally, that mentor the local children, that support the local children in terms of sponsoring them for their softball games.
So those businesses need a fighting chance. And we know that in helping them, the motive has to be not only to help those businesses survive, but to help them thrive.
So the good news is the American Rescue Plan has brought in bipartisan support. And all you have to do to figure that out is just ask the American people.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve met with chambers of commerce from around the country — including, of course, Maryland’s — and they talked about how they need this plan to keep businesses open.
I’ve met with mayors from around the country, including Mayor Scott of Baltimore, and they talked about how they need this plan to keep frontline workers on the job.
I’ve met with women leaders, and they’ve talked about how women, and in particular women of color, need this plan to get back to work — because, again, just look at the numbers. The most recent numbers I saw: Two and a half million women have left the workforce during this pandemic. And again, when we look at disproportionate act- — outcomes, we know that when we are talking about folks of color, they are disproportionately hit.
So I’m here with you to say the President and I, along with Senators Cardin and Van Hollen and Leader Hoyer and Congressman Brown, we are going to keep working to get this plan across the finish line.
And with that, I’m going to end where I began, which is about the relay race of history and the baton that’s in our hands at this moment. As Steny mentioned in the introduction, my mother taught me many things. She — she was — she met my father when she was active in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s. She gave birth to me in Oakland, California, and had just a goal in her life of raising her two daughters that we would never hear “no, it can’t be done” and that we would understand we must live a life of service.
And so, Steny, as you said, it was from my mother that I got that expression. My mother said to me often, “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you’re not the last.” And that has everything to do with this relay race, which of course has been running for dozens, if not hundreds of years.
And, you know, my mother taught me what so many of our mothers and grandmothers and fathers and grandfathers have told us all, and that is that what matters is how well you run your portion of the race. What matters is that you moved it forward from the time you received that baton to the time that you handed it off.
And like so many of us, I grew up surrounded by people who are running the race for justice, for civil rights, for equality. And they faced, of course, big challenges, and they had even bigger dreams. But they remained focus on the work right in front of them — the work that would move us closer, day by day, toward justice, toward equality, and toward that finish line.
So as my mother and so many of our leaders and our heroes and the ancestors have said, in the way that they did their work: Focus on what’s right in front of you, and the rest will follow. And that’s, of course, what we must do now — whether that’s wearing a mask or getting vaccinated or working to pass the American Rescue Plan.
And if we’re clear-eyed, if we’re truth tellers, and if we’re courageous, I do believe we can meet this moment. And I do believe that this Black History Month, this year, and at this moment, we must be clear-eyed about the challenges in front of us. We cannot be overwhelmed. We cannot despair. We must remember those words of the great Coretta Scott King — and I’ll paraphrase, but she said: The fight for civil rights — which is the fight for justice, the fight for equality, the fight for fairness — she said, the fight for civil rights must be fought and won with each generation.
And I think she had two points in mind when she said that, and one is that it is the very nature of this fight that, whatever gains we make, they will not be permanent. It’s just the nature of it. And so the second point then in is understanding it is the nature of it. Do not despair. Do not ever be overwhelmed. And certainly do not ever give up, especially when the challenges are fierce.
It is our responsibility in this ongoing — in this ongoing race, in this ongoing relay race — to see this moment, to see the challenges, and to see the opportunities, and to do everything in our power knowing that history will smile upon us when we work in the spirit of those who prepare this path — prepare this path for us.
So thank you all. Let us honor our history makers who inspire us every day. And let’s make our own history too. And thank you. Thank you, Steny. And to everyone, may God bless you and may God bless the United States of America. Thank you. END 11:55 A.M. EST