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Affirmative Action: a Winner That Still Has a Job to Do

President Clinton Speaks Out

Following are excerpts from President Clinton's July 19 speech on affirmative action, given at the National Archives.

I AM absolutely convinced we cannot restore economic opportunity or solve our social problems unless we find a way to bring the American people together. To bring our people together we must openly and honestly deal with the issues that divide us.

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So let us today trace the roots of affirmative action in our never-ending search for equal opportunity. Let us determine what it is and what it isn't.

On the 200th anniversary of our great Constitution, Justice Thurgood Marshall, the grandson of a slave, said, "The government our founders devised was defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government and its respect for the individuals, freedoms and human rights we hold as fundamental today."

Emancipation, women's suffrage, civil rights, voting rights, equal rights, the struggle for the rights of the disabled, all these and other struggles are milestones on America's often rocky but fundamentally righteous journey to close the gap between the ideals enshrined in these treasures here in the National Archives and the reality of our daily lives.

In 1960, Atlanta, Ga., in reaction to all the things that were going on all across the South, adopted the motto: "The City Too Busy To Hate."

And however imperfectly over the years, they tried to live by it. I am convinced that Atlanta's success - it now is home to more foreign corporations than any other American city, and one year from today it will begin to host the Olympics - began when people got too busy to hate.

Thirty years ago in this city [Washington], you didn't see many people of color or women making their way to work in the morning in business clothes, or serving in substantial numbers in powerful positions in Congress or at the White House, or making executive decisions every day in businesses.

A lot has changed, and it did not happen as some sort of random, evolutionary drift. It took hard work and sacrifices and countless acts of courage and conscience.

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Women have become a major force in business and political life, and far more able to contribute to their families' incomes. A true and growing black middle class has emerged. Higher education has literally been revolutionized with women and racial and ethnic minorities attending once overwhelmingly white and sometimes all-male schools.

Police departments now better reflect the makeup of those whom they protect. A generation of professionals now serve as role models for young women and minority youth.

Hispanics and newer immigrant populations are succeeding in making America stronger.

Our search to find ways to move more quickly to equal opportunity led to the development of what we now call affirmative action. The purpose of affirmative action is to give our nation a way to finally address the systemic exclusion of individuals of talent, on the basis of their gender or race, from opportunities to develop, perform, achieve, and contribute. Affirmative action is an effort to develop a systematic approach to open the doors of education, employment, and business development opportunities to qualified individuals who happen to be members of groups that have experienced longstanding and persistent discrimination.

WHEN affirmative action is done right, it is flexible, it is fair, and it works. I know some people are honestly concerned about the times affirmative action doesn't work, when it's done in the wrong way. And I know there are times when some employers don't use it in the right way. They may allow a different kind of discrimination. When this happens it is also wrong, but it isn't affirmative action, and it is not legal.

So when our administration finds cases of that sort, we will enforce the law aggressively. The Justice Department files hundreds of cases every year attacking discrimination in employment, including suits on behalf of white males.

Most of these suits, however, affect women and minorities for a simple reason: because the vast majority of discrimination in America is still discrimination against them.

Most economists who've studied it agree that affirmative action has also been an important part of closing gaps in economic opportunity in our society, thereby strengthening the entire economy.

A group of distinguished business leaders told me just a couple of days ago that their companies are stronger and their profits are larger because of the diversity and the excellence of their work forces, achieved through intelligent and fair affirmative-action programs.

Today I am directing all our agencies to apply four standards of fairness to all our affirmative action programs: no quotas in theory or practice; no illegal discrimination of any kind, including reverse discrimination; no preference for people who are not qualified for any job or opportunity; and as soon as a program has succeeded, it must be retired.

But let me be clear, affirmative action has been good for America.

The job of ending discrimination in this country is not over.

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