Commencement Speech by Ray Marshall, EJS Board Member

EJS Board Member Ray Marshall, Partner at Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton LLP, delivered the 2016 commencement address at his undergraduate alma mater, College of Idaho, on May 21. His remarks as prepared for delivery below.

Thanks, Chanse, I appreciate your kind introduction. Before proceeding, let me thank and acknowledge President Borst, the College of Idaho’s first woman president in 125 years, whose leadership, intellect and moral compass, have validated the wisdom and good fortune of her hire, the Board of Trustees, members of the faculty and staff of the College for extending the invitation to speak today.

But most of all, I want to thank and congratulate the graduating Yotes of 2016 – -300 strong – – and your parents, family and friends who are here today to share this special moment in your life. These are the folks who loved, nurtured and supported you in countless and immeasurable ways, and in good times and bad, have always had your back.

They won’t say it, so I will. You would not be sitting here this morning, moments from receiving your diploma, without them. So do me a favor, at some point today, while taking photos after graduation ceremonies, over or after lunch or dinner, take a moment and tell them thanks. And to truly celebrate the occasion, maybe add an “I love you” to that word of thanks.

Today I am going to talk about a concern I have given great thought to – – the continuing divide between Blacks and Whites on the question of race, including the widening gap between the haves and have nots in our country, and the role of race, ethnicity and economic inequality in the upcoming presidential election.

It is a serious topic, but as I am sure you appreciate, we live in serious times. My views on the subject have been shaped, of course, by my own life experiences. I ask, therefore, that you think about my remarks in the context of four lessons I have learned over the years.
First, along with good health, there is nothing more important than family and friends.

Take time and care to enjoy both to their fullest.

Second, as your student speaker, Rena Chanin has eloquently told us, diversity is a good thing, whether it is based on race, color, ethnicity, nationality, gender, gender identity, religion, sexual orientation, age, disability, thought, political leanings or socio-economic status. It makes us stronger and better, individually and collectively.

Third, regardless of our diverse traits, we have far more in common than we do differences. In the U.S. and abroad, people pretty much want the same things: to be treated fairly and equally, with respect and dignity, regardless of the circumstances we are born into; and to make the best life possible for our family, our loved ones and ourselves.

Fourth, every person has within them the capacity to make a difference in someone else’s life. Whether it be a simple courtesy extended to someone having a bad day, tutoring or mentoring a child, providing a helping hand to the sick or elderly, or financial aid to someone in need. And to quote Marian Wright Edelman, along the way, “we must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.”

Now, let me try and connect the dots. To a certain degree, I am speaking to the converted. After all, nearly ten percent (10%) of the Colleges’ 1,070 students are international, representing 46 countries. And more than 20% are Hispanic, African-American, Indian-American or multi-cultural.

I assure you, however, that while you and your generation expect, and are at ease with diversity, and the College has done a wonderful job in educating you about a global environment, there are many living and working outside the College of Idaho not as comfortable – – indeed, who are afraid, frustrated and angry–by the rapidly changing demographics in America, our increased connectivity to a global economy, and our growing dependence on a diverse and multi-ethnic workforce to maintain our leading position among industrialized nations. It is a challenge, but one that can be met by working together, not “separate and unequal.”

Over 50 years ago, in the midst of the Civil Rights movement in America, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., observed that in a pluralistic, multiracial society, no group can make it alone. Dr. King understood the imperative to speak out against injustice when, where and upon whomever imposed. He reminded America, time and again, that to ignore discrimination, is to become an accomplice to it.

Today, we all know the numbers: my home state, California, has a majority minority population, and the rest of the country will soon follow suit. Legalized discrimination has been eliminated and incidents of overt racism are the exception, and generally condemned by both Blacks and Whites alike. Although few in number, and sorely underrepresented, Blacks can be found in the top ranks of America’s businesses, serving as CEO’s and sitting on the boards of directors of some of our most important and prestigious companies, and they occupy positions of trust and leadership in all fields of endeavor, including law, finance, medicine, technology, education, government, the arts, sports and entertainment. For many White Americans, these advancements, coupled with the election of Barack Obama as our nation’s first African-American president, are evidence that a level playing field has finally been achieved, and that race should no longer be considered an impediment to success in America.

However, the takeaway for most Black Americans is different. While they agree on the historical significance of President’s Obama’s election, Black Americans understand that the road to equality is not close to being complete. They understand that it has been more than 60 years since Brown v. Board of Education, and a great many of our public K-12 schools, both urban and rural, remain largely segregated and provide an inferior education. They understand it has been more than 35 years since the Bakke decision, and Blacks are still denied access in any meaningful numbers to our elite public colleges and universities. They understand it has been more than 50 years since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, and the Department of Justice is still compelled to file suits to preserve and protect their voting rights. They understand fewer Black boys are graduating from high school and more Black men are going to jail, on probation or in some way connected or caught up in a criminal justice system which has been found to be institutionally biased against them. And finally, they understand that notwithstanding years and years of study after study showing differential treatment, and different life experiences of Blacks and Whites in America, Black Americans continue to have far less access to adequate housing, health care, social services, insurance, education, technology, money and employment, promotion and pay opportunities.

So, as President Obama asked in his speech on race during the 2008 campaign for the Democratic nomination, faced with these two different realities, how do we reconcile and narrow the gap between the promise of our ideals and the reality of our time? For me, it is to try and adhere to the most basic of values — do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I learned this golden rule from my parents, had it reinforced throughout my childhood, and it is at the core of what I expect of myself and all I ask of others.

I have been fortunate to enjoy a wonderful life. I was raised in a military family. My father spent 28 years in the Air Force as a non-commissioned officer. I was born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico; attended elementary school in Madrid, Spain and Mountain Home, Idaho; junior high and high school in Rhein-Main and Wiesbaden, Germany; graduated from high school in Great Falls, Montana; college here in Caldwell, Idaho; law school in Cambridge, Massachusetts; and currently live in Piedmont, California and work in San Francisco where I have practiced law for 38 years.

Through school, work and play, I have been lucky enough to meet a wide and diverse group of individuals that I consider to be close friends, mentors, colleagues and importantly, “good people” — people whose company I enjoy, opinions I respect and life choices I support. These relationships have developed over time, and have been nourished out of mutual consideration, respect, and true regard for one another, regardless of any personal differences which might separate us, such as race, religion or politics.

This is why the state of race relations, and the “scapegoating” of immigrants and ethnic and religious minorities in the name of national security is wholly unacceptable to me.
Equally unacceptable is the willingness to explain away, excuse, accept or even condone verbal and physical attacks by those Americans feeling threatened and disempowered by the degree and pace of change in our country, against other Americans that may not look, talk, pray or think like them.

I worry, therefore, whether the politics of today will allow for a real and honest debate between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, the presumptive Democratic and Republican nominees, over their respective policies, visions and abilities to lead America forward, at home and abroad. I worry that the election campaign will be historically caustic, and much more about personal attacks than a civil, intelligent, substantive debate over the issues of most importance to the American people, such as finding a job, or holding onto the one they have; making a livable wage sufficient to support themselves and their families; the security provided by their savings and retirement accounts, if they are lucky to have either; the burden of student loans, the rate of our economic recovery and its impact on the unemployed and working poor; the ability to obtain and maintain adequate housing, health care and insurance; crime, safety, immigration and national security, including a resurgent Imperial Russia, an expansionist state-controlled China, a nuclear-armed North Korea, and terrorist activity, domestic and foreign.

It would be difficult to have reasoned discussion about these and other important issues in a normal election year, but the times we live in, and the tenor of this year’s campaign, have been anything but normal, particularly as many in the electorate proclaim that this election presents the opportunity for “true Americans” to “take back our country.”
Let me be clear, when I hear these words, I interpret them, in part, as subtext for race. As such, I believe the statements to be dangerous, incendiary and biased. And while looking for reasons to think otherwise, I have yet to hear a good answer from those advocating to take this country back, to the most basic of questions, like: what do they mean by “a true American;” when and how did these Americans lose the country, and to whom did they lose it? All fair questions I believe.

On a daily basis the Black experience in America remains vastly different than it is for Whites. Indeed, according to a Newsweek poll conducted after President Obama was elected, 74% of Blacks have personally felt they were being discriminated against because of their race. Only 31% of Whites polled felt the same way. 45% of Blacks, meanwhile, sense that other people fear them some or all the time. Only 10% of Whites were able to empathize. The poll also revealed that Blacks were four times more likely than Whites to say that they have been unfairly stopped by police, and twice as likely to say they have been insulted, threatened or attacked because of their skin color. It is these findings, along with the highly publicized police killings of Black boys and men in Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles, Ferguson, Baltimore and yes, even liberal San Francisco, which help put into context the activist Black Lives Matter protest movement.

Six months away from the presidential election, it is vital that we insist that the Presidential candidates and the media focus on issues of real importance to the well-being and safety of the American people. Other issues, such as whether Hillary Clinton should be faulted for standing by Bill Clinton during the ups and downs of their marriage, or whether Donald Trump did or did not impersonate his spokesperson 15 years ago, are not just a distraction, but guaranteed to divide, rather than unite us. We can and must do better.
As President Obama has noted: “we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together, unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes; that we may not look the same and we may not come from the same place, but we all want to move in the same direction–toward a better future for our children and our grandchildren.”

So let me end my remarks where they began, by sharing with you again the words of Dr. King, who, speaking to the American Jewish Committee’s support for the civil rights movement, stated : “the struggle for equal rights is not ours alone, but is . . . part of the fulfillment of this country’s highest and most cherished ideals. By recognizing this, you are honoring the truth that all life is interrelated and all men are interdependent, and recognizing in the true spirit of our Judeo-Christian heritage that the agony of the poor diminishes the rich, and that the salvation of the weak enriches the strong and that we are inevitably our brother’s keeper.”

Thank you, have a wonderful rest of your day, and remember what I said, take a moment and give thanks and share a little love with your family and friends.

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