Sen. Elizabeth Warren told nearly 500 graduating students at Morgan State University on Friday that their future success wasn’t just dependent on hard work — they would have to fight to “change the rules.”
Speaking at the Baltimore university’s winter graduation ceremony, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts said times have changed since the days when her mother supported her family with a minimum-wage job in Oklahoma.
Today, she said, a person working for minimum wage couldn’t pay for a two-bedroom apartment “in any state in America.”
“So what happened? I’ll tell you what happened: Washington changed the rules,” she said. “Today, the people who set the rules worry more about Walmart’s profits than they do about how any small family will survive.”
Warren, who is considering running for president in 2020, told students, “Under the rules of commencement speakers, I am required to say, ‘Work hard.’ And you should,” she said. “But I’m here with a bolder message: It’s time to change the rules. Let me say that again for those in the back. Change. The. Rules.”
Warren said the power system has been “rigged” by those who set economic and housing policies that discriminated against the poor and families of color.
Warren homed in on redlining, a practice that effectively denied home mortgages to families of color in particular neighborhoods. That meant families of color did not accumulate and pass wealth on to their children like white families, Warren said.
“Sure, life is about grit — hard work matters. But the rules matter too,” she said.
Warren told students at the historically black university, “I haven’t lived your life or experienced anything like the subtle prejudice or more overt harm that you may have experienced just because of the color of your skin. …
“Not just individuals within the government, but the government itself — has systematically discriminated against black people in this country.”
Explaining why he chose Warren to give the commencement speech, Morgan State University President David Wilson said she is “one of the most progressive entities on the political landscape” and that her experiences and leadership are “something that is sure to benefit our students as they leave this institution and begin the journey to become leaders in their own right.”
Warren credited her mother and the rules she grew up on in Oklahoma with helping her get to where she is today.
She said she was a late-in-life “surprise” child for her parents, who already had three boys. Her father was a janitor. Her mother worked at home. When she was in junior high, her father had a heart attack and wasn’t able to work again — it was up to her mother to save their house and family.
“She was crying,” said Warren, recalling seeing her mother one morning before she left the house looking for her first job at age 50.
Warren said she heard her mother repeat that morning: “We will not lose this house. We will not lose this house.”
Her mother got a job at Sears, she said, which “saved” the family with minimum wage.
But that kind of survival under a minimum wage isn’t around anymore, she said.
Warren criticized both Wall Street and President Donald Trump during her speech, accusing the president of undermining voting rights and “basic democratic institutions.”
Warren, who recently won re-election and met Wednesday with Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who challenged Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primaries, to discuss their political ambitions in the upcoming presidential race.
She concluded her remarks at Morgan telling the graduates that the power is shifting to the younger generation, who helped make the most recent midterm electorate younger than others in recent history.
“You are causing a much-needed earthquake in our political system,” she said. “And it’s not just at election time. You are organizing—and you are changing America.”