By Charles Hallman
In light of the recent George Zimmerman not-guilty verdict, both U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius last week stressed the importance of civil rights during their scheduled appearances at the NAACP national convention in Orlando, Fla. The attorney general called for “a respectful, responsible dialogue about issues of justice and equality.”
“The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy for his family, but also for our country,” Sebelius pointed out. “So are the tragedies of all the children we have lost because of gun violence before and since Trayvon was killed.” She and Holder spoke separately to the NAACP July 16, three days after the Zimmerman trial ended on July 13.
“Across America, diverse groups of citizens, from all races, backgrounds and walks of life are instead overwhelmingly making their voices heard” in disagreeing with the verdict, said Holder. “I hope that we will continue to approach this necessarily difficult dialogue with the same dignity that those who have lost the most — Trayvon’s parents — have demonstrated throughout the last year, and especially over the past few days.”
“The president hasn’t given up on pushing forward on commonsense gun violence prevention efforts,” reaffirmed the HHS secretary. “[There’s] no justice if we do nothing to stop the violence that plagues our communities. That is a job for all of us.”
Holder added that laws “that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods” must be questioned. “These laws try to fix something that was never broken. We must also seek a dialogue on attitudes about violence and disparities that are too commonly swept under the rug.”
He also discussed the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, calling it “a deeply disappointing and flawed decision.” He pledged that the Justice Department will continue monitoring any voting rights violations. “We will not hesitate to take aggressive action, using every tool that remains available to us, against any jurisdiction that attempts to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ free exercise of the franchise,” he said.
Every U.S. citizen has a right to vote: “Congress must take steps to ensure that every eligible American has equal access to the polls,” suggested Holder.
The Obama administration remains committed to an “opportunity agenda to strengthen the middle class and help more people join the middle class,” said Sebelius. She also admits that her office still has “unfinished work” including expanding quality early-childhood education and affordable preschool, “especially for low-income families,” said Sebelius.
“We’re expanding home-visiting programs to support new parents and caregivers. We’re strengthening Early Head Start and Head Start,” she continued.
On the president’s signature legislation, “The Affordable Care Act is the most powerful law for reducing health disparities since Medicare and Medicaid were created in 1965,” believes Sebelius, “the same year the Voting Rights Act was also enacted. I’ve been traveling the country along with other senior health officials, visiting churches and holding town halls with African American community leaders to reach as many people as we can.”
Also, the ACA is a huge step for communities of color in terms of expanding access to affordable health coverage and improving health outcomes, she pointed out. The secretary, however, expressed frustration that although the ACA is on track for full implementation in January, opponents to the healthcare law still use “the same arguments against change… The same fear and misinformation that opponents used [before] are the same ones opponents are spreading now.”
Communities of color will see the ACA’s benefits, Sebelius promised. “We’re investing in community health centers and workforce programs to bring thousands more doctors and nurses to the neighborhoods where they are most needed. The president’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy [now in its third year] has given a new sense of direction to our fight against the epidemic, focusing more resources on the communities that are hardest hit, many of which are communities of color.”
Both high-ranking officials praised the NAACP’s legacy in civil rights. “For all the progress we’ve seen, recent events demonstrate that we still have much more work to do, and much further to go,” said Holder.
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