I recognize that the color of one’s skin gives certain privileges that others do not enjoy. My understanding of all this is rooted in part in the experience of growing up right outside Philadelphia, but it especially comes from my 31-years of experience in the United States Navy, an institution which in many ways is a microcosm of America: it is a melting pot, full of beautiful diversity, and with many rules in place to prevent discrimination, but in which it was — when I joined up to serve — easier to succeed and advance for those of my color. As President, I will work to fight against injustice in all forms so each and every one of us can share equally in the promise of America — much as we advanced greatly toward equality of opportunity in the Naval Service during my time in it.
The Declaration of Independence, the document upon which our country was founded, declared that “all men are created equal.” Yet from that day in July 1776 to today, we have always been in search of the more perfect union and rights it espoused. For example, when the U.S. Constitution was drafted 13 years later, it upheld the crime of slavery and neglected to confer any of the rights and privileges of American citizenship to women. Americans who believed in the charter that “all men are created equal” throughout our history fought hard to extend those rights beyond white land-owning men, and today we live in a country that is so much closer than ever before to fulfilling Jefferson’s self-evident words. But we still have a long way to go.
As the list of priorities above indicates — and, let me be clear, it is an extensive but still not complete list — we have a lot of work to do. In particular, we need to focus on communities and groups of Americans who are still excluded from the full rights and privileges that should be the birthright of all of us.
African Americans still suffer from our legacy of both slavery and discriminatory policies that followed emancipation: from “Jim Crow” laws and lynchings, to enforced segregation and red-lining (government-enforced housing discrimination), to reactive incarceration that unfairly imprisoned far too many, and the school-to-prison pipeline. Still today, inequitable government policies or lack of oversight continue to result in the continued marginalization and ghettoization of Black communities, and the systemic closure of opportunities for Black people as individuals. As a result, these often unseen policies continue discrimination and racism that negatively impact the lives and livelihoods of African Americans in this country.
People from Latin America, or whose families trace their roots to Spanish or Portuguese-speaking places, are also frequently discriminated against or victimized due to their ethnicity. Like African Americans, they are far more likely than others to be targeted by police in random “stop-and-frisk” searches, to be followed around by security guards in stores, and to be prosecuted and sent to prison. Though they may be a 3rd or 4th generation American, they can be treated as if a foreigner by some, as if the United States is not their country. Whether bullied as children or told to “go back to your country,” this is wrong and not American. As adults, they may find it harder to access government services, especially if they speak with an accent or do not speak English. Immigrants and descendants of immigrants from other parts of the world, including Asians and Pacific Islanders, North Africans and Middle Easterners, and Sub-Saharan Africans, deal with many of the same issues, along with issues particular to people with their ethnic background.
The challenges faced by people of color — from casual assumptions made about them to outright violence directed toward them — are often not well-understood by some Americans, but they are very real. And race and ethnicity are not the only characteristics that lead to discrimination and bigotry in this country today. People face discrimination due to their sexual orientation and gender identity, their religion, their socio-economic class or status, their indigenousness, their age, their disability or disabilities, their body size, their immigration status, or their job. In many cases — such as LGBTQ+ people — the law itself still allows discrimination. Again, in every case, it is just plain wrong.
I firmly believe it is the duty of government to fight discrimination and work toward true equality for all people. I also believe that if our elected officials, from the President on down, would focus their energies on making social and racial justice a reality, we could make great strides in a short amount of time and come so much closer to the “more perfect union” envisioned by the founders. As President, I will fight every day to achieve liberty and justice for all.
As a member of Congress, I built a strong record fighting for social and racial justice, including working hard to support poor people — who it must be noted often lack opportunity due to no fault of their own. I co-sponsored and passed the Improving Head Start Act to expand and improve the Head Start early childhood education program. I also authored a bill to create a “paperless” school meal program in low-income communities, so no disadvantaged student would go hungry because their parents failed to fill out a piece of paper — and within a few years more than half of the nation’s high-poverty schools were offering free meals to all of their students through this program.
I co-sponsored a bill to increase the maximum size of Pell grants, which help people pay for college. I voted to cut student loan interest rates in half, from 6.8% to 3.4%. And I supported a landmark investment of $510 million over five years to help fund historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), as well as Hispanic-Serving Institutions (schools with 25% or more students of Latin American descent). After retiring from Congress, I proudly served as a lecturer for two courses at Cheyney University, the oldest HBCU in the country.
I voted to fund repairs to public housing units, and vouchers for affordable housing to low-income families, and elderly and disabled people, along with grants to local communities for housing and services for the homeless. I voted for legislation to reauthorize critical nutrition programs, such as WIC and SNAP, which keep so many people from going hungry — and today I call for increasing funds for these important programs.
I helped lead the fight against President George W. Bush’s vetoes of bills to expand SCHIP (State Children’s Health Insurance Program), which would have provided health insurance to an addition 3.9 million uninsured children from lower-income families. I supported legislation to ensure that quality dental coverage be provided to children in SCHIP, and that states offer mental health services on par with medical and surgical benefits covered under SCHIP. I also was a strong supporter of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), arguing for the importance of Medicaid expansion and pre-existing condition protections, from the House floor to HealthCare town halls with the Tea Party.
In response to the needs of at-risk youth, I co-sponsored the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act Reauthorization to amend and fund child welfare programs that ensure support to thousands of youth each year through community-based non-profit and public organizations that provide emergency shelter and counseling services to young people in need. I also voted to support and fund the Emergency Shelter Grants program, the Supportive Housing Program, and the Shelter Plus Care program, along with legislation to expand housing assistance for homeless veterans.
When I first entered Congress in 2007, the second vote I took was to raise the minimum wage, and I support raising it again. I was a co-sponsor of the Paycheck Fairness Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act to deal with the wage gap between genders. As Vice Chair of the Small Business Committee, I introduced and passed in the House the Small Business Entrepreneurial Development Programs Act, which strengthened the SBA (Small Business Administration) grant program for small business development centers. I also introduced legislation to establish an Office of Minority Entrepreneurship and Small Business Development, and supported the SBA’s Historically Underutilized Business Zone Program, which specifically helps small businesses in urban areas.
I was for marriage equality early on as I entered Congress, and was an original co-sponsor of the Respect for Marriage Act to repeal the discriminatory Defense of Marriage Act, years before the Supreme Court finally legalized same-sex marriage. I co-sponsored legislation to provide federal civilian LGBT employees with the same partnership benefits offered to all spouses of federal employees, including retirement, life insurance, and healthcare. I co-sponsored legislation to end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and prohibit the military from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Today, I am a strong and vocal opponent of President Trump’s shameful ban on transgender servicemembers in the Armed Forces, which I will overturn on Day 1 in the White House — because anyone who wants to serve their country should be welcomed with open arms and a customary salute, not given a cold shoulder.
I was proud to vote every year to fund the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Commission, which was established as an independent fact-finding federal agency that studies alleged deprivations of voting rights and alleged discrimination, as well as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency that administers and enforces our nation’s civil rights laws against workplace discrimination. Additionally, I voted for the bill that created the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which monitors companies for fraud, scams, and predatory lending, and in particular protects seniors, workers, and poor Americans from exploitation.
I believe my Congressional career provides ample evidence that when I talk about social and racial justice, voters can be confident that I don’t just talk the talk, I walk the walk. And after Congress, I continued this effort, spurning lobbying job offers. I worked in a non-profit focused on lower-income areas of Philadelphia for education and training, from early education to those who have departed high school, often before graduation, for needed skill training; and at a center of excellence for refugee response. If I am given the high honor of serving my country once again, I will take the fight for justice to the Oval Office — and I will not rest until every American, regardless of who they are, who they love, or where they come from, can believe in the American Dream.
For more detailed information related to a number of the issues mentioned above, please see the other policy papers in my platform (https://www.joesestak.com/plan-for-america/).