Clinton’s Affirmative De-activation

Lucas Morel

June 1, 1997

In a commencement address at the University of California, San Diego, President Clinton announced, “I want to lead the American people in a great and unprecedented conversation about race.” Someone should tell the president that, through the initiative of Californians as well as other American citizens, the conversation had already begun.

By asking Americans to join him in “a great national effort to perfect the promise of America,” Clinton disregarded what the American people have already proposed as a solution to the problem of racial discrimination: the dismantling of affirmative action programs at both state and federal levels. California’s Prop. 209, passed by 54% of Californians last year, prohibited the government from using racial or sex preferences in hiring, contracting, or college admissions. Observe the president’s fallacious reasoning about citizen passage of Prop. 209 and its perceived effects: “The vast majority of them simply did it with a conviction that discrimination and isolation are no longer barriers to achievement. But consider the results. Minority enrollments in law school and other graduate programs are plummeting for the first time in decades.” Did the president really mean to imply that this decline was due to racism?

In Adarand Constructors v. Pena (1995), the Supreme Court began applying more “strict scrutiny” to federal contract bidding involving race, and in Hopwood v. Texas (1996), a federal circuit court ruled that a state law school could not give applicants separate consideration based on race. The Clinton administration found itself on the losing side of each of these conversations, and thus he simply ignored them for the sake of starting his own. His commencement speech ignored the simple solution the American people have chosen by rejecting decades of well-intentioned but pernicious affirmative action programs.

Clinton did address his opponents: “To those who oppose affirmative action, I ask you to come up with an alternative.” But what the president does not understand is if the problem is made worse by government involvement, the obvious step should be for government to get out of the way. If this creates other problems, then the American people will then have a clear picture of what remains to be done before it asks government to intervene.

Americans are uniting behind the only principle that can possibly save us from ourselves: equality before the law for all Americans regardless of race. They have concluded that becoming “one America” requires one principle that all Americans can lay claim to, the principle that stands as the hallmark of our nation’s Founding: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” How come the President did not mention this principle, nor explain how it should apply to cases of racial discrimination? Clinton did ask, “Can we be one America respecting, even celebrating our differences, but embracing even more what we have in common?” And yet, he does not identify what we have in common, abandoning the dialogue right where it most needs guidance.

When asked, “What shall we do with the Negro?” the escaped slave-turned-abolitionist speaker Frederick Douglass replied, “Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us.” He understood that the problem of racial bigotry in America had more to do with government intervention than with government neglect. Douglass summed up in one word what the Negro asks of government, “justice,” which translates into “equality before the law” for all who deserve and claim its protection. If government protected the equal rights of citizenship for each and every American, there would be little left for government to do except to prosecute bonafide cases of racial discrimination by convicting proven perpetrators and awarding compensation for actual victims of discrimination.

We should reclaim the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.” Instead of government-mandated policies that presume injuries, victims, and offenders without requiring proof of injury, i.e., affirmative action as practiced today, actual victims of racial discrimination should take their case to court. If successful, they should be compensated for their loss and awarded heavy punitive damages to deter other businesses (or schools) from engaging in bigoted decision-making. Instead of government set-asides, employer “goals and timetables,” and university quotas disguised as “diversity,” individual citizens should assume the responsibility to secure their rights under a government of equal laws and impartial courts.

With a debate over the direction of race-based policies already in progress, the president’s claim to start a national conversation about race served only as a rude interruption. When a majority of California citizens declared an end to racial discrimination by the state, affirming a nationwide trend towards color-blind policies, it’s a shame the President of the United States turned a blind eye to their pursuit of liberty and justice for all.

Lucas Morel is an Adjunct Fellow at the John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University.