Keith Ellison Interview series: Part 3: Justice system stunted and stopped African American ambition

Attorney General, Keith Ellison

The political landscape:

Al McFarlane: What's the landscape? There are five Attorney Generals who are African-American.

Keith Ellison: True.

Al McFarlane: That's a big deal.

Keith Ellison: It's huge.

Al McFarlane: Why is it a big deal?

Keith Ellison: It's a big deal because so often, the legal system and the system of justice is stunted and stopped African-American ambition. It's what kept us segregated, poor, in fear, and without. It was a law that said you and I were articles of merchandise. It was the law that said we weren't.

There's the law that said we were articles of merchandise, but we couldn't sit where other folks sat, ride in the bus where other folks could ride, drink in the fountain where the folks could drink, and it was the law that changed that as well.

So now, to be the Attorney General is something else. When the state government in Mississippi said we're not going to follow Brown v. Board, it might've been “the government” on TV, but it was Mississippi’s Attorney General arguing the doctrine of interposition, which says that the federal government can't tell the state government what to do. It's important for people to understand states have a lot of power relative to the federal government. The federal government is a government of limited powers.

The Constitution is written like this: The federal government can regulate interstate commerce. They can regulate on all kinds of things like that, but they cannot just regulate just anywhere they want to. All other powers are left to the state, so that's why even though we passed a great prison reform bill, well over 90% of the prisoners in the United States are state prisoners.

If you want to do criminal justice reform, you've got to do it at the state level, or it's not really getting done. Voting, state. Healthcare, often state.

In fact, Medicaid is administered through the state. Medicare is administered through the federal government. But so many things are at the state level. In fact, a state Attorney General sues the federal government all the time.

There’re attorney generals suing the federal government regarding the census, regarding the Affordable Care Act, regarding consumer protection, environmental protection, all kinds of things.

Affording your life with dignity and respect:

Al McFarlane: What do you see as your priorities as Minnesota's Attorney General?

Keith Ellison: Two main priorities. One is I'm going to help people afford their lives. Second, I'm going to make sure everybody can live with dignity and respect in Minnesota and around the country. What does the first one mean? Help people afford their lives. Well, if some big company that manufactures insulin is jacking up the prices beyond what you can afford, I'm going to step up and confront them about that. If Comcast is trying to make sure your cable bill is sky high and you can't afford that, we're going to make sure that they're held accountable abiding by the law.

Al McFarlane: Before you go further, what legal challenges are you being handed by your predecessor? Comcast was in the news.

Keith Ellison: Lori has filed some good lawsuits, and we're going to maintain that tradition. One of them is the Comcast one. One of them is the lawsuit regarding opioid manufacturing. Purdue Pharmaceuticals is subject to a lawsuit.

She's part of the lawsuit on the Affordable Care Act protection because the federal government refuses to defend the law in court. She is part of the challenge regarding the FCC and the internet neutrality.

And, there's some things she's defending that I have got to really think about.

Keith Ellison: There's the Cruz-Guzman case, which is an educational desegregation case that's been filed, and the Attorney General was on the other side of that. That's something I have got to put a lot of thought into because I'll just tell the people I could never stand with discrimination in education or anywhere. Yet, we have these horrible disparities, so we've got to do something. I'm not the Attorney General, so I'm not making the calls at this point.

Al McFarlane: One of my goals, Keith Ellison, is to talk to you about what your being Attorney General can and should mean to African-Americans and people of color.

In history, there has not been an apparent and articulated ongoing discussion or narration about equity and the sense of ownership. So, part of my job as a communicator is to always talk about access, equity, the ability of our people in our community to hold and direct the levers of power with intentionality and acting with agency to developing policy and practice in the state, in the marketplace that is fair to us.

It means being at the table of decision, not excluding anybody, but ensuring that our voice, our history, and our vision, our expectations are part of the consideration of developing public policy. I think you represent an opportunity for that to be more real than it has ever been. I think it's been real. It's been moving along an arc that bends toward justice, as Dr. King would say.

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