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Black Lives Matter—And So Does Black Liberty

| July 27, 2016

The following remarks are from a speech former Texas Governor and Right on Crime signatory Rick Perry delivered on July 27th at the American Legislative Exchange Council’s annual meeting.

I want to spend some time with you today talking about the most pressing issue of our time for people like you and me, for people who share our values, for people all across this state and across this country.

No, it’s not the election. Though believe me, I have opinions about that too. But it’s about something that is affecting this election, and will affect much more than this election if we don’t do something about it.

When Ronald Reagan left office in 1989, America knew—and the world knew—the value of individual liberty and limited government. Whether you lived in East Berlin, Germany or East Bernard, Texas—whether you were a multi-generation Texan or an immigrant from Vietnam—you knew that conservative principles would make your life better, and those of the people around you.

But most Americans in their twenties weren’t even alive when Ronald Reagan was President. The reason we’ve had the political year we’ve had is because fewer Americans remember how well liberty can serve them and their families.

As everyone here at ALEC knows, the conservative movement is thriving in dozens of states, including my beloved Texas. But at the national level—at the level of the electoral college—we’re losing. We can blame bad politicians all we want for that fact. We can blame the media for always stacking the deck against us.

But here is a truth that we in this room have to confront: Winners don’t make excuses. We haven’t done enough to show people who don’t share our views, why they should come over to our side.

We conservatives are really good at talking to each other about what’s wrong. We’re really good at preaching to the converted. But we’re not so good at reaching out to those who disagree, and winning them over.

During my 14 years as Governor of Texas, we did a lot of good things. We passed historic tax relief. And I was proud to sign balanced budgets for each of those 14 years. The economic growth that followed helped every Texan, rich or poor. Texas companies created almost one-third of all new American jobs. Texas now leads the nation in exports.

Texas’ high school graduation rate went from 27th in the country in 2003, to 2nd in the country in 2013. Our most recent graduation rate for African-Americans is number one in the nation: 13 points higher than the national average. That matters, because kids who graduate from high school typically make 50 percent more than those who don’t.

The record is clear. Our policies have made life better for all Texans: those at the top, and those at the bottom. So why is it that our movement continues to do so poorly with minorities? In the 2014 Texas governor’s race, my good friend Greg Abbott crushed Wendy Davis. But Wendy Davis won the black vote 93 to 7.

Again, we can blame the left. We can blame political correctness. We can blame those who gin up resentment, who find grievance at every turn.

I have an alternative explanation. But first, I have to tell you a story of something that happened one hundred years and two months ago, at a courthouse in McLennan County, Texas.

On May 15, 1916, in Waco, a mentally disabled 17-year-old boy named Jesse Washington was convicted of raping and murdering the wife of his employer. He pled guilty and was sentenced to death. But Jesse died no ordinary death…because he was black. After the death sentence was issued, Jesse was dragged out of the McLennan County Courthouse and into a crowd of hundreds.

Thanks to the advent of a new technology called the telephone, word quickly spread as to what was about to happen…and soon 15,000 people were watching Jesse Washington be tortured, mutilated, and tied over the branch of a tree. Someone lit a fire under Jesse, and raised him up into the air. Jesse tried to climb up the chains to avoid the fire. Someone started cutting off Jesse’s fingers, so he couldn’t keep climbing. One man castrated him…while another used a pole to prevent Jesse from escaping the fire. A prominent local photographer took pictures of Jesse’s charred remains and sold them…as souvenirs, on postcards.

We’ve made a lot of progress since 1916.

A half-century ago, Republicans and Democrats came together to finally enshrine in law the principle that all of us…regardless of race, color, or national origin…are created equal.

When it comes to race, America is a better and more tolerant and more welcoming place than it has ever been. We are a country with Hispanic CEOs, and Asian billionaires, and a black President.

That’s why the story of Ericka Jean Dockery is so troubling.

Ericka was a single mother of three who worked two jobs to support her children: during the days as a home health aide, and at nights making sandwiches at Subway. In April 2003, she was hauled before a grand jury, because her boyfriend, Alfred Dewayne Brown, had been suspected of murdering a police officer during a burglary.

Ericka told the grand jury that Alfred couldn’t have committed the murder, because he was asleep on her couch on the morning of the murder, and had even called her from the landline phone in her home. “If he did it,” she said, “he deserves to get whatever is coming to him. Truly.”

But neither the prosecutor nor the grand jury would accept her explanation. They threatened to separate her from her children if she didn’t turn her boyfriend in. “You know,” said the foreman, “the kids are going to be taken by Child Protective Services, and you’re going to the penitentiary and you won’t see your kids for a long time.”

Eventually, Ericka told a different story—that she had left her house earlier that night, and that she wasn’t sure if Alfred had been on her couch at the time of the murder.

The Harris County prosecutor, Dan Rizzo, decided to charge Ericka with perjury, and locked her up for four months in the county jail, away from her young children. Rizzo told her that they would only release her from jail if she said definitively that her boyfriend hadn’t been in her home. Ericka, distraught over being away from her kids, said that Alfred had admitted to her that he had murdered the police officer.

In exchange for this testimony, the prosecutors released Ericka from jail, on the condition that she wear an ankle monitor, and call a homicide detective once a week. At Alfred’s trial in 2005, she testified that Alfred had told her that he “was there” when the police officer was murdered.

Alfred Dwayne Brown was convicted of murder and sentenced to death.

Seven years after Alfred’s conviction, a reporter for the Houston Chronicle reported that Ericka’s phone records were found in the garage of a homicide detective, indicating that Alfred had indeed called Ericka from her apartment phone at the time of the murder, confirming her initial story. For reasons unknown, the prosecution never made those records available during Alfred’s trial.

After a delay of more than a year, the judge in the case agreed to a new trial. In 2015, Alfred was released from death row.

You could say this story has a happy ending, because Alfred was released. But his life was almost ruined because of an overzealous prosecutor who concealed exonerating evidence. And Ericka’s children were put in harm’s way because of a grand jury that acted as the arm of the prosecution, rather than as an independent check on government power.

Sometimes we forget that the IRS isn’t the only government agency capable of abusing its authority. Anyone wielding the power of the state faces the temptation to abuse it. And when it comes to prosecutors, there are clearly bad apples in the system who care more about indicting someone—anyone—than they care about convicting the right person.

You may know that I was indicted in 2014 on two frivolous felony charges. Eventually, those charges were dismissed, because I was lucky enough to have high-powered lawyers working for me.

Ericka Jean Dockery had no such luxury. When ambitious prosecutors go overboard, the true victims aren’t people like you or me: they’re people like Ericka and Alfred who don’t have the means to fight back.

I hope these stories help explain why even today, so many African-Americans lack confidence in the fairness of our justice system.

And, by the way, African-Americans don’t just struggle in our courts.

After two decades of declining violent crimes in our cities, we’re losing ground. According to a study by the Washington Post, homicides in our fifty largest cities are up 17 percent in the last year: the largest increase in a quarter century.

A quarter of African-Americans live below the poverty line…even after the impact of federal programs like food stamps and housing subsidies. The supplemental poverty rate for African-Americans is nearly double the rate for other Americans.

Democrats have long had the opportunity to govern in African-American communities.

It is time to help black families hold them accountable for the results.

I am here to tell you that it is Republicans—not Democrats—who are truly offering black Americans the hope of a better life for themselves and their children.

I am proud to live in a country with an African-American President.

But President Obama cannot be proud of his record on expanding opportunities for black Americans.

Earlier this month, the President spoke at a memorial service for the five police officers gunned down in Dallas. As families and friends mourned, the President said that we shouldn’t be surprised that, quote, “tensions boil over,” because we don’t spend enough on government programs. The President blamed you—and all other Americans—for “allow[ing] poverty to fester” in urban communities. The President couldn’t resist injecting a political lecture into a moment that should have been apart from politics.

But that day in Dallas, the President showed us something else, something worse: that if he and Hillary Clinton get their way, African-Americans will be worse off than they are today.

Overwhelmingly, the cities where the left-wing solutions have been tried over and over again…places like Detroit and Chicago and Baltimore…African-Americans are falling further behind.

In 2010, President Obama enacted the largest expansion of the welfare state in 50 years. And yet, the prevalence of black poverty has actually increased under his leadership.

We cannot dismiss the historical legacy of slavery…nor its role in causing the problem of black poverty.

And because slavery and segregation were sanctioned by government…there is a role for government policy in addressing their lasting effects.

But the specific policies enacted by President Obama and advanced by Hillary Clinton amount to little more than throwing money at the problem and walking away.

We spend 450 billion dollars a year on Medicaid…and yet health outcomes for those on Medicaid are no better than for those with no insurance at all. Instead of reforming Medicaid, the President expanded it under Obamacare.

Mr. President, I say with the greatest respect: It is you who has allowed poverty to fester in the African-American community. It is you who has trapped black children in failing schools. And it is you who has made African-Americans less safe.

The President—and the Black Lives Matter movement he supports—never acknowledge the incredible gains achieved by the police on behalf of African-Americans. Thanks to leaders like Rudy Giuliani and Ray Kelly in New York, thousands of blacks are not killed by criminals each year. Those black lives matter too.

But we cannot dismiss the experience of men like my good friend Senator Tim Scott, who said the other day that he “did not know many African American men who do not have a…story to tell, no matter the profession, no matter their income, no matter their disposition in life,” of being stopped by a police officer while doing nothing wrong.

Those of us who aren’t black are sometimes too quick to dismiss these complaints. And given America’s dark history of inequality before the law, it is understandable that African-Americans care passionately about having confidence in our system of laws, and the fairness by which they’re enforced.

Shedrick Willis was a slave who, before the Civil War, had been bought and sold on the steps of the McLennan County Courthouse, the very place where 17-year-old Jesse Washington was dragged to his death.

When I was governor of Texas, I had the honor of appointing Willis’ great-great-great-grandson…Wallace Jefferson…to be the first African-American on the Supreme Court of Texas.

In 2004, I appointed Wallace to be the Supreme Court’s first black Chief Justice.

In Texas, we’ve made a real difference in the lives of African-American families. We haven’t eliminated black poverty in Texas. But neither have we allowed it to fester. In New York, the supplemental poverty rate for blacks is 26 percent. In California, it’s 30 percent. In Washington, D.C., it’s 33 percent. In Texas, it’s just 20 percent.

In 2014, Texas had its lowest crime rate since 1968. And the improvements keep coming. Last year, while crime rates rose in other states, we saw them decrease by 5 percent in Houston, 5 percent in San Antonio, 5 percent in Dallas, 8 percent in Fort Worth, and 10 percent in Austin.

The record is clear. So why is it that our movement fails to gain black support?

We can blame political correctness. We can blame those who gin up resentment, who find grievance at every turn. But Republicans have much to do to earn the trust of African-Americans. Blacks know that Republican Barry Goldwater, in 1964, ran against Lyndon Johnson, a champion of civil rights. They know that Barry Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because he felt parts of it were unconstitutional.

States supporting segregation in the South cited “states’ rights” as a justification for keeping blacks from the voting booth and the dinner table. As you know, I am an ardent believer in the Tenth Amendment, which was ratified in 1791 as part of the Bill of Rights. The Tenth Amendment says that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” I know that state governments are more accountable to you than the federal government is.

But I am also an ardent believer in the Fourteenth Amendment…which says that no state shall “deny to any jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

There has been…and will continue to be…an important and legitimate role for the federal government in enforcing civil rights.

Too often, we Republicans…myself included…have emphasized our message on the Tenth Amendment but not our message on the Fourteenth…an Amendment, it bears reminding, that was one of the first great contributions of the Republican Party to American life, second only to the abolition of slavery.

For too long, we Republicans have been content to lose the black vote…because we found that we could win elections without it.

But when we gave up on trying to win the support of African-Americans, we lost our moral legitimacy as the party of Lincoln…as the party of equal opportunity for all.

It is time for us to once again reclaim our heritage as the only party in our country founded on the principle of freedom for African-Americans.

One of the most important things we did in Texas while I was governor was reform our sentencing laws, so that non-violent offenders could stay out of prison.

We can do more. And we can do it while keeping our low-income communities safe from crime.

Last year, we abolished the “pick a pal” system, which effectively allowed prosecutors to put their friends and neighbors on grand juries for the purpose of predetermining their outcome. I signed into law the Michael Morton Act, which allowed the defense to review the prosecution’s evidence before trial.

New York and Colorado recently enacted laws that allow defense attorneys some access to the grand jury room, the production of witness transcripts, and advance notice for witnesses, so they have time to retain counsel.

We should strengthen the capacity of bar associations to discipline prosecutors who intentionally mislead grand juries and hide exculpatory evidence. And victims of prosecutorial abuse should be able to receive compensation for their suffering.

As Texans got smarter about policing and crime prevention, we came to appreciate the importance of keeping promising young people out of jail. We are working to stop the inter-generational cycle of incarceration, where grandchildren meet their grandparents behind prison bars. In 2006, around 5,000 Texan kids were locked up. Today, it’s closer to 1,000.

In 1990, a teenager named Tyrone Brown failed a marijuana test while he was on probation. For that single violation, he was sentenced to life in prison.

In 2007, I granted Tyrone a conditional pardon. But half of all prison admissions come from people whose parole or probation has been revoked. So we shifted money away from building more prisons, toward specialized drug courts and programs that could help those in prison succeed on parole.

President Obama and Secretary Clinton say that the best way to reduce crime is through more welfare. But here is what I have seen in my time in public service: the best welfare program in America is a job.

It’s hard to get a job if you have a criminal conviction on your record. And that’s why criminal justice reform is so important.

But there’s an even bigger reason why Democratic policies have failed to cure poverty: It’s because the only true cure for poverty is a job…and Democratic policies have made it too hard for the poor to find work. Many poor Americans want to leave welfare and rejoin the workforce.

But because of taxes and regulations, it often makes more economic sense to stay on welfare than to get a full-time job. Furthermore, federal programs impose a one-size-fits-all approach to fighting poverty. In California, someone might need more money to deal with the cost of housing. In Massachusetts, it might be the cost of vocational school.

Instead, we force the poor to enroll in separate programs for housing assistance or Pell grants.

Congress should pass a welfare reform bill that will take the money we already spend on non-health care-related, anti-poverty programs and split it into two parts.

The first part should be an expanded and reformed version of the Earned Income Tax Credit…so that anyone with a job can live above the poverty line.

The second part should consist of a block grant…so that states can care for their safety net populations in the manner that best serves their residents.

We all know we have to improve our schools. This is an area where President Obama had potential…but he caved into the demands of labor unions. It’s a fallacy to assume that the vastly different student populations across the country can be adequately educated with one-size-fits-all policies. We need to empower state lawmakers, school boards and parents to implement policies that address the specific needs of their students…and keep schools accountable and efficient.

Enterprising charter school teachers…like Eva Moskowitz (Moss-kuh-vitz) in New York…should be able to replicate their astounding success all over the country, without the interference of the federal government.

And we have to tackle the exorbitant price of a college education.

One of the biggest barriers today to entering the middle class…black or otherwise…is the high cost of a college degree. A four-year degree at the typical private college now costs more than 170,000 dollars. Compare that to the median home price in America, of $205,000.

We are literally asking poor students to mortgage their future in order to gain a college degree. This must end. In Texas, I challenged our state universities to offer a four-year college degree for less than $10,000. Many thought it would be impossible to drive tuition and fees that low. But today, 13 Texas universities have reached that target.

We are on the cusp of an online revolution in higher education…but only if the federal government rolls back the rules that make it almost impossible for students to gain accredited bachelor’s degrees achieved with online instruction. Furthermore, just as with college tuition…we have to reduce the cost of living for those who need every dollar to be stretched as far is it can go. Regulations like minimum wage hikes and Obamacare’s employer mandate drive up the cost of hiring new workers. That means that companies hire fewer people.

But it also means that the price of basic consumer goods goes up. Earlier this year, the Competitive Enterprise Institute estimated that federal regulations cost American businesses as much as $1.9 trillion a year.

That’s nearly $15,000 per U.S. household. If you add in state regulations, the problem gets even worse.

If we do these five things:

  • keep non-violent offenders out of prison…
  • if we create jobs…
  • incentivize work…
  • reform our schools…
  • and reduce the cost of living…

We will have done more for African-Americans than the last three Democrat Administrations combined.

At the American Cemetery in Normandy, nine thousand three hundred and eighty-seven American soldiers are buried in orderly row upon orderly row. “If ever proof were needed that we fought for a cause and not for conquest,” a general once said…“it could be found in these cemeteries. Here was our only conquest: all we asked…was enough…soil in which to bury our gallant dead.” Some of our gallant dead were the sons of Presidents, like Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. Most were ordinary Americans, simply doing what their country asked of them. Some of the graves don’t even have names—they’re simply marked: “Here rests in honored glory a comrade in arms known but to God.” Some of the most compelling graves at Normandy are for African-Americans who served in segregated regiments, like Willie Collins of the 490th Port Battalion.

Willie Collins made the ultimate sacrifice for America, despite the fact that America didn’t always treat him in the way he deserved. Brigadier General Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. and Sergeant Willie Collins grew up in different circumstances. Ted’s ancestors had a coat of arms. Willie’s ancestors were brought here in chains.

But Ted and Willie joined themselves together with a commitment that every generation of Americans has embraced: the promise of leaving America…and the world…a better place than they found it…of ensuring a better future for the children and grandchildren of those to come.

I am a beneficiary of the sacrifices of Sergeant Collins and General Roosevelt, and of so many others known but to God. I grew up in a place called Paint Creek. When I was young, we had an outhouse and mom bathed us on the back porch in a number two washtub. We attended the Paint Creek Rural School, where some of the teachers lived on campus. Their profession was literally their life, and they inspired me. I can assure you none of my teachers knew they were instructing a future Air Force pilot, let alone a future governor. But they also have a motto at the Paint Creek School that summarizes the endless possibilities for its students: “No dream too tall for a school so small.”

Many people don’t feel that their lives are filled with endless possibilities anymore.

Americans entering adulthood today have good reason to fear that it will be harder for them to earn a living…to buy a home…to pay off their debts…than it was for their parents.

But if there is one thing we can learn from Willie Collins and the millions like him…from the tragedy of Jesse Washington and the triumph of Wallace Jefferson…it’s that America has overcome far greater obstacles than the ones we face today.

Willie Collins died in the belief that America could become a better country than the one he left home to serve. And he was right. It’s up to us to be worthy of the country that Willie Collins’ generation gave us. It’s up to us to leave our country better off than we found it. America has never been perfect…no country composed of imperfect beings ever could be. But there is no country that has achieved more than the United States of America. With new leadership and durable reforms, America can be freer and stronger than it has ever been.

America can be that exceptional place…where nothing in life is guaranteed…but where we have restored the faith of all Americans of all colors and creeds in the power of liberty and the equality of justice. Where we all have the opportunity to build a better life for ourselves and our children and their children.

Thank you—and may God bless America.

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RIGHT ON CRIME is a national campaign to promote successful, conservative solutions on American criminal justice policy—reforming the system to ensure public safety, shrink government, and save taxpayers money. By sharing research and policy ideas and mobilizing strong conservative voices, we work to raise awareness of the growing support for effective reforms within the conservative movement. We are transforming the debate on criminal justice in America.

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