Our Time Press: Looking at David Yassky’s Web site, I didn’t see the words, African-American, Black or Caribbean-American attached to any of the issues he speaks about. What initiatives will you be taking in office that will address African- American/Caribbean concerns in Brooklyn?
Chris Owens: We are now up to one billion dollars for the war in Iraq. Think about the impact on education, housing and health care amongst other things if those resources had been in our community. So fighting the war is all-important. Secondly, my commitment is to education. I believe when you talk about power of the people, you have to deal with education. I believe 1.1 million public schoolchildren deserve representation… We have a battle going on over high-stakes testing. Tests are defining our life. Some folks do well on tests and some folks do not. But the real issue is if we’re not providing the preparation, if we don’t have the guidance counselors, the libraries in the schools, the computer labs, the musical instruments, the materials for art so that our young children who express and learn differently are coming out with a disadvantage, despite the testing. So we have to address education as one of our primary issues.
I believe we have to get involved at the federal level with parent involvement in education. My father started this. He actually got an amendment passed to the Title 1 formula which set aside 1% of Title 1 funds for parent involvement. We have to take that step and take it a lot further. So many of our parents are young, so many of our parents really need help with parenting. And as part of that, with becoming better parents to their kids while they’re in school. Children respond to love. Children respond to attention. They develop when they get that. Young parents are struggling every day to survive in the community and tend to overlook their kids. I was at the Albany Houses and there was a stroller with two babies about 25 feet from a booming speaker. I said to the mother, “I don’t mean to get in your business, but these children will never be able to learn properly if you let them be this close to loud music.” We are so out of touch, because we are so wrapped up in our day, that we don’t know what we’re doing to these young kids because we are not thinking about the implications of what we do. So at the federal level, I want to deal directly with parent involvement and parent education.
More community programs for young people . Small businesses need help.
Government doesn’t have a responsibility for everyone’s life but government does have a responsibility to make sure that people who have been denied equal treatment, economically, socially, politically and legally, get that equal treatment. And when we look at our communities we see totally unequal treatment.
OTP: Talking about government responsibility, you’ve said that “Racism in employment must be confronted directly and sincerely and the federal government has an obligation and a role in this struggle.” What is that obligation and what kind of confrontation do you envision?
Owens: This goes to the heart of the distinction between equal opportunity and equality. We’ve been talking about equal opportunity for years. Laws have been put in place to supposedly create equal opportunities. Well, now that we’ve had this time, what are the real outcomes. We need to look at outcomes if we’re going to evaluate the success of our equal opportunity approach. The outcomes we know about, that there is racism in hiring, that there’s racism in the workplace itself. That has to be addressed. We need to look at the patterns, look at the data and we have to take action to correct it immediately. The Princeton Study documents what the need is. (A study by Princeton University researchers used admissions data from elite colleges to analyze what the colleges would look like without affirmative action. What they found was that Black and Latino enrollments would plummet.)
It is clear that the type of racism in hiring that we have to address is significant, pervasive and enduring. Therefore there must be some new laws put in place at the federal level to protect our people from being discriminated against in hiring.
OTP: There’s an over 50% high school dropout rate among African-Americans and yet there are recent reports about the “amazing” increase in graduate degree holders in Brooklyn. What are these statistics telling us?
Owens: Well, first of all, the graduation rate for Black men from our high schools now is only 30%. That is so outrageous. If whites were graduating at that rate, we’d have a revolution. It is absolutely outrageous. And the statistic about an increase in graduate degrees is reflecting demographic change.Citing the report in the Brooklyn Papers that “we had a loss of about 22,000 African -Americans in a one-year period from the Borough of Brooklyn, but an increase in whites of 66,000.” The reality is, it’s not just race, it’s the class issue. It’s the whole issue of gentrification and displacement, coming to a head now and moving forward with projects like the Atlantic Yards serving as catalysts for change and perpetuaters of inequality. When we look at those statistics about the degrees, we’re basically saying, “Yes, we have a smarter, more sophisticated population that is now in Brooklyn”. Why? Because the people who live here should be able to stay here; can’t afford to live here and they’re being pushed out. That’s the problem.
Those two numbers are not contradictory. They are an expression of a pattern, and expression of the future and our community has to wake up, we have to look at people like David Yassky who’s using the power of money to try and take over a congressional district. And then look at the power of the developers and who’s coming in after the developers do their work and we have to say, “enough is enough”. We have to say, “This is our city, we have a right to live here”, and there must be policies in place to equalize this. That’s partially the federal government’s responsibility…
OTP: What is the importance of turnout?
Owens: We have to emphasize the fact that every African-American in the 11th Congressional District should find it their absolute duty to vote in this election. I don’t know if they’re going to vote for David Yassky or me or some of the other candidates but we don’t want to look at ourselves on September 13th and say, “If I’d only done this, if I’d only done that.” We cannot look ourselves in the eye if we did not vote. Only 33,000 people voted in 2004 in the congressional primary. Only 50,000 people voted in the congressional primary. We have 239,000 Democrats in this district, the overwhelming majority of whom are African-American. So the future is in our hands. If we don’t turn out, we only have ourselves to blame, because we can beat the big-money guy if we don’t think he belongs here. But if we don’t vote, we have beaten ourselves.