Congressman Elijah Cummings

America is at an historic crossroads.  Either we will move forward in 2016 with public policies that support greater opportunity for everyone or we will continue to sink deeper into economic inequality, injustice and violence.

These are the stakes in our current political struggles – and this is why Black lives should matter for everyone.

As revealed by the investigations that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and I have undertaken in our Middle Class Prosperity Project, the deepening income inequality and suppression of wages that limit our economic opportunity are the result of decades of conscious decisions made in Washington for the benefit of our nation’s largest corporations and most wealthy citizens.

I applaud Senator Warren for poignantly articulating how this same unjust system has been rigged to suppress the aspirations of Black Americans.

In her Sept. 27 remarks at the Edward Kennedy Institute for the Senate, Senator Warren candidly summarized how violence, voter suppression, and the deliberate denial of economic opportunities in education, housing and credit have conspired to deny Americans of Color our American legacy of “justice for all.”

Her analysis is politically significant in at least two related ways.

First, Elizabeth Warren is a leading progressive within the Democratic Party whose views will have a major impact upon Democratic candidates and priorities in 2016 and beyond.

Equally important, her Sept. 27 analysis helps all progressives to more clearly integrate our priorities as a movement for constructive change.

Senator Warren’s speech echoed what “Black Lives Matter” activists have been saying: that the needs of Black Americans deserve special attention within our national, progressive coalition-especially the issue of criminal justice reform.

And as our Middle Class Prosperity Project has shown, criminal justice reform can be most effectively realized within the context of a broader progressive agenda and political victory in which the aspirations of all Americans are advanced.

I agree with Senator Warren that “economic justice is not – and has never been – sufficient to ensure racial justice,” because criminal justice reform and greater economic justice are both central to the vision of “Black Lives Matter.”

Criminal Justice Reform

Armed with the truth, Americans can no longer deny that the criminal justice system yields different results for different populations.

The Sentencing Project has found that people of color are charged more harshly than whites; that, once charged, they are more likely to be convicted; and that, once convicted, they are more likely to face stiffer sentences.

Tackling these disparities will require fundamental policy changes, ranging from how our police interact with our community to how sentencing disparities for different drug crimes affect different populations.

In order to achieve these goals, we must reform our criminal justice system through sweeping legislation at the federal level that I am proud to co-sponsor – legislation like the proposed SAFE Justice Act, Fair Chance Act, Police CAMERA Act, End Racial Profiling Act, and Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act.

Economic Justice for Everyone

Our vision for constructive change also must address the challenges that are at the center of all Americans’ lives – our need for living wage jobs, education, housing, health care and retirement security.

It is true that Americans of Color confront disparate treatment in all of these real-life challenges.  Yet, it also is true that the largest number of Americans who are struggling to make ends meet, educate their children, remain healthy, own their own homes and build a secure retirement are not black or brown – they are white.

Both of these realities are central to forging a successful, multiracial political coalition like that which elected President Barack Obama and a Democratic congressional majority in 2008.

Black lives must matter more in the priorities of our nation, as must the lives of all Americans, and our lives must matter more in every important facet of American society.

This is why Senator Warren, other progressives and I are fighting for middle class prosperity for everyone – for living wage jobs, affordable health care, strengthened Social Security and expanded federal education funding.

It also is why Senator Barbara Mikulski and I are fighting to enact the REBUILD Act, which would appropriate more than $1.2 billion in emergency funding to address critical challenges facing our nation’s inner-city neighborhoods.

A Multi-Racial Coalition is the Key to Success

Candidly, the current Republican majority in the Congress is unlikely to agree with REBUILD or other progressive initiatives.  If we are to enshrine these reform proposals into law, we must first elect progressive leaders in 2016 and beyond.

Whether our reform coalition will succeed will depend upon the clarity and breadth of our progressive vision, our understanding of the essential importance of coalitions, and the energy with which we pursue progressive change.

The stakes in this challenge are clear: expanded opportunity and greater justice for everyone or further national conflict and decline.

This is our watch, our challenge and our multiracial coalition to build.  We cannot afford to fail.

Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District  in the United States House of Representatives.