Brooklyn native and one-time student Bernie Sanders gave a true-to-style address at the commencement for Brooklyn College’s class of 2017 on Tuesday (May 30). In a speech peppered with personal anecdotes and his political goals, the independent US senator from Vermont and former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination repeated many calls from his campaign, and slammed Washington and the Trump administration for introducing policies that only elevate the elites.
Sanders attended Brooklyn College for a year before transferring to the University of Chicago. The New York school awarded him an honorary degree.
Here are his remarks, as prepared:
Brothers and sisters,
Let me begin by congratulating the graduating class of 2017. Today is an important day in your lives, something that you’ve worked hard to attain, and I want to wish all of you the very best of luck in your future endeavors. May you all live healthy and happy lives, doing the work you enjoy and surrounded in love by family and friends.
Let me thank president Michelle Anderson, Nicole Haas, the Brooklyn College Administration, faculty and staff and all of you for inviting my wife, Jane, and me back to Brooklyn, where we were both born and raised. I am greatly appreciative of the honorary degree which you bestow on me today.
I grew up in Flatbush and graduated from James Madison High School. Jane was raised in Flatbush and Bed-Sty, and graduated from St. Savior’s High School a few miles away from here.
In 1959, I attended Brooklyn College for a year—a year which had a major impact in my life. Thank you, Brooklyn College. After that year I left for the University of Chicago, where I eventually graduated. My mom had died the previous year and I felt it was time to leave the neighborhood and see what the rest of the world looked like.
My childhood in Brooklyn was shaped by two profound realities. First, my mom, dad and older brother Larry, who graduated from Brooklyn College, lived in a 3 1/2 room rent-controlled apartment. As with many families who don’t have a lot of money, financial pressures caused friction and tension within our household. From those experiences I have never forgotten that there are millions of people throughout this country who struggle to put food on the table, pay the electric bill, try to save for their kids’ education or for retirement—people who face painful and stress-filled decisions every single day.
The second reality that impacted my life was that my father left Poland at the age of 17 from a community which was not only very poor, but from a country where anti-semitism, pogroms and attacks on Jews were not uncommon. While my father emigrated to the United States, and escaped Hitler and the holocaust, many in his family did not. For them, racism, right-wing extremism and ultra-nationalism were not “political issues.” They were issues of life and death—and they died.
From that experience, what was indelibly stamped on me was the understanding that we must never allow demagogues to divide us up by race, by religion, by national origin, by gender or sexual orientation. Black, white, Latino, Asian American, Native American, Christian, Jew, Muslim and every religion, straight or gay, male or female we must stand together. This country belongs to all of us.
As a United States senator from Vermont let me give you a very brief overview of some of the very serious crises we currently face—crises which do not often get the kind of discussion they deserve.
As a student at James Madison High School, many years ago, I recall my social-studies teacher talking about how there were small developing countries around the world that were oligarchic societies—places where the economic and political life of the nation were controlled by a handful of very wealthy families. It never occurred to me then that the United States of America, our great nation, could move in that direction. But that is precisely what is happening.
Today, the top 1/10 of 1% now owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%, 20 Americans now own as much wealth as the bottom half of America and one family—the Walton family—owns more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of our people. In the last 17 years, while the middle class continues to decline, we have seen a tenfold increase in the number of billionaires–going from 51 to 565. In America today, CEOs of major corporations now earn about 350 times more than the average worker makes. In terms of income, 52 percent of all new income goes to the top 1%. In other words, the very rich are becoming much richer.
At the same time as we have more income and wealth inequality than any other major nation, 43 million Americans live in poverty, we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of almost any major country in earth, half of older workers have nothing in the bank as they approach retirement and in some inner cities and rural communities youth unemployment is sky high. Unbelievably, in many parts of this country today, as a result of hopelessness and despair, life expectancy is actually declining as a frightening number of people experience drug addiction, alcoholism and suicide. And, because of poverty, racism and a broken criminal justice system, we have more people in jail than any other country—disproportionately black, Latino and Native American.
Directly related to the oligarchic economy that we currently have is an oligarchic and corrupt political system which is undermining American democracy. As a result of the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, corporations and billionaires are able to spend unlimited sums of money on elections. The result is that today a handful of billionaire families are spending hundreds of millions a year to make sure that candidates who represent the rich and the powerful get elected.
And we are seeing the results of how oligarchy functions right now in Congress where the Republican leadership wants to throw 23 million people off of health insurance, cut Medicaid by over $800 billion, defund Planned Parenthood, cut food stamps and other nutrition programs by over $200 billion, cut Head Start and after school programs, make drastic cuts in Pell grants and other programs that help make college more affordable.
And, unbelievably, at exactly the same time, they want to provide the top one percent with $3 trillion in tax cuts. The very rich get much richer and they get huge tax cuts. The middle class shrinks and the poor struggle, and they will find it harder to get health care, housing, nutrition, education or clean water.
In response to these very serious problems it seems to me that we have two choices. First we can throw up our hands in despair. We can moan and groan. We can withdraw from the public reality that we face. We can loudly proclaim that we can’t beat the system.
That is one response. It is an understandable response but it is not an acceptable response.
It is not an acceptable response because the reality that we face today impacts not only our lives, but the lives of our children, the lives of our grandchildren and, with regard to climate change, the very future of this planet. The truth is that the only rational choice we have, the only real response we can make, is to stand up and fight back—reclaim American democracy and create a government that works for all of us, and not just the 1 percent.