Op-Ed: 'It’s a Civil Rights Election'

"We have a choice between two different versions of America."

When my wife, Anne and I first met, we discovered we had a lot in common.  The most important thing we shared was a deep sense of faith. 

We moved to Richmond and had to decide where to get married and worship. And we remembered that Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. used to say that the most segregated hour in America was “11 o’clock on Sunday morning.” 

So we made our spiritual home at St. Elizabeth’s Catholic Church, a largely African-American parish that welcomed us with open arms. Thirty-two years of baptisms, church picnics and choir practices later, we still wake up early on Sunday mornings and head to St. E’s.

Over many years of Sundays, I’ve learned how being white in America means you can go your entire life without ever understanding the challenges African-Americans face every day. It’s on all of us to come to grips with these issues.

In many ways, that’s the deeper question we’re facing in this election: who we are, how we treat each other and what kind of nation we want to leave our children. 

It’s a civil rights election. 

We have a choice between two very different visions of America. We’ll either break down the barriers of racial bias or put up walls between our communities. We’ll either celebrate how our differences make us stronger or disrespect people because of how they look, where they’re from or who they love.

Our nation has never been perfect, but our history is a chronicle of our relentless search for the North Star of equality and justice. We eliminated the sin of slavery, passed a constitutional amendment to finally grant African-Americans the right to vote and marched, sat and bled to make it clear that “separate but equal” wasn’t equal at all. 

But there’s no doubt we still have so much to do.

Today, African-American families only have eight cents of wealth for every dollar a white family has.  African-Americans are more likely to be convicted and sentenced to longer prison sentences than white Americans for the same crimes. Far too many Black families are losing loved ones to gun violence and through deadly encounters with the police at an alarming rate.

Just in the last week, Terence Crutcher and Keith Lamont Scott were shot and killed by police – two more names on a list that has grown unbearably long.

These inequities are real and we need to confront them head-on – not cynically exploit them like Donald Trump. Having been told by his new campaign manager to try reaching out to African-American voters, Trump has stood up in front of largely white audiences and described Black communities in insulting and ignorant terms.

This is a man who simply doesn’t see the heroes and heroines of a vibrant civil rights movement, the success of Black leaders in every field, the strength of the Black church or the pride that so many Black parents feel watching their children thrive. He even perpetrated the painful and bigoted lie that President Obama is not an American citizen.

So it’s pretty rich for Trump to ask people he has disregarded for decades, “What do you have to lose?” 

I’d say quite a bit.

Hillary Clinton and I understand these problems because we’ve seen them up close. I spent 17 years representing people who had been discriminated against by banks, landlords and companies because of their race. As mayor of Richmond, I fought to break down barriers for our communities of color – something Hillary has done her entire life for communities across our country.

She and I are committed to promoting equity and opportunity for communities too often left out and left behind and we have a comprehensive plan to make it happen.

We’ll target resources where they’re needed most by investing in jobs and infrastructure in communities that have been left out and left behind.

We’ll make sure that environmental injustices like what occurred in Flint, Michigan, never happen again by eliminating lead and investing in water infrastructure, especially in areas where decades of neglect have created dangerous living conditions.

We’ll put forward national use-of-force guidelines for the nation’s police forces and rebuild trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve. We’ll end the era of mass incarceration and replace the school-to-prison pipeline with a cradle-to-college pipeline. And while we’re making college debt-free for everyone, we’ll invest $25 billion in Historically Black Colleges and Universities to make sure they’ll keep producing some of our countries greatest leaders for generations to come.

And finally, we’ll reinstate the Voting Rights Act. Don’t let anyone tell you your vote isn’t important. If it wasn’t, the other side wouldn’t be trying so hard to stop you.

We cannot afford to go backwards when there’s so much on the line. We know we’re stronger together – and when Hillary and I are in the White House, we won’t stop fighting until we break down every barrier holding African-Americans back from fully participating in our society. Only then will we finally live up to the promise of equality that our nation has been chasing for so long.

Tim Kaine has spent more than two decades in public service. He’s actually one of only 30 people in history to have served as a mayor, governor and a U.S. Senator. But what friends and colleagues remark on the most is Tim’s relentless passion for fighting for others — and for getting the job done. Tim’s optimism is rooted in his faith and informed by his experiences as a missionary, civil rights lawyer, teacher and public servant. He’s lived his life according to the simple creed he learned as a boy, always striving to be a “man for others.”

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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