Affirmative Waffling
John Kerry's various positions on preferences.


Peter Kirsanow

Shortly after effectively clinching the Democratic nomination on Super Tuesday, Senator John Kerry declared, “President Clinton was often known as the first black president. I wouldn’t be upset if I could earn the right to be the second.”

Kerry’s primary obstacle to achieving this goal, aside from a lack of melanin, will be his conflicting statements regarding the third rail of the contemporary civil-rights movement–affirmative action.

According to the Boston Globe, John Kerry stunned many liberals during a 1992 speech before the Yale Political Union by contending that, “today the civil rights arena is controlled by lawyers and the winners and losers [are] determined by…rules most Americans neither understand or are sympathetic with. The shift in the civil rights agenda has directed most of our attention and much of our hope into one inherently limited and divisive program: affirmative action.”

Kerry went on to note that, “[t]he truth is affirmative action has kept America thinking in racial terms.” The Globe reported Kerry maintained that affirmative action wasn’t supposed to result in quotas, yet: “Not only by legislation, but by administrative decree and court order, a vast and bewildering apparatus of affirmative action rules and guidelines has been constructed. And somewhere within that vast apparatus conjured up to fight racism there exists a reality of reverse discrimination, that actual engenders racism.”

The comments created an uproar. The Globe noted that anger at Senator Kerry raged “across Boston’s African-American community and the rest of the nation.” Many black constituents felt betrayed and some of Kerry’s strongest supporters and fundraisers in the black community became staunch critics.

Kerry immediately attempted to quell the outrage by accurately pointing out that in other parts of the speech he had stated that he was committed to the positive aspects of affirmative action. He insisted that affirmative action was necessary and that he supported it.

But the damage had been done. Supporters of affirmative action remained in high dudgeon and although the Yale speech was to be the first in a series Kerry planned to give on race relations, it appears the rest were scrapped. In fact, Kerry has been criticized by some black leaders for his lack of involvement in civil-rights issues in the years following the speech.

But keeping one’s head down until the storm passes is a well-worn political strategy. Over the years the furor over Kerry’s Yale speech gradually subsided. Until last year.

The issue arose again in March 2003 when Kerry defended the 1992 speech to the Associated Press: “I was embracing the same kind of ‘mend it, don’t end it’ approach to affirmative action that Bill Clinton later advocated as President.” (In subsequent remarks on the matter, the word “later” in the foregoing quote would be dropped.)

Invoking Clinton’s name failed to insulate Kerry from criticism. His rivals for the Democratic nomination smelled blood and repeatedly referred to the speech when courting the party’s most important voting bloc.

When Dick Gephardt criticized Kerry’s position on affirmative action in November 2003, Kerry issued a press release stating that, “[I]n a 1992 speech, John Kerry had the courage to stand up for affirmative action and support President Clinton’s ‘mend it, don’t end it’ programs.” Kerry repeated this interpretation of the 1992 speech during the January 29, 2004, Democratic debate in Greenville, S.C.

Kerry’s latest defense of the 1992 speech, however, had a slight problem with chronology. As Mary Frances Berry, chair of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, noted, “Last night, at the debate, I was surprised when (Kerry) invoked the name of Bill Clinton in discussing the ‘mend it, don’t end it’ approach to affirmative action. President Clinton was not yet in office when Senator Kerry made that 1992 speech.” (Emphasis added.) Indeed, “mend it, don’t end it” didn’t originate until three years after the 1992 speech, during the buildup to Clinton’s 1997 Race Initiative.

Moreover, Chairwoman Berry noted, “Once Clinton was in office, and we were engaged in a difficult debate about the future of affirmative action, Senator Kerry was no where in sight. While we were struggling to do all we could to make progress on these issues, he was simply missing in action.”

Mary Frances Berry’s assessment is supported by the facts. While Kerry claims he seeks to “mend, not end” affirmative action and that he rejects quotas, he’s done neither. In the 12 years since the Yale speech, Kerry’s had numerous opportunities to vote against quotas and “mend” affirmative action, yet in every case he’s stuck with the status quo, i.e., in favor of quotas and set asides. For example, he could’ve supported the 1995 Dole-Canady bill that would’ve eliminated federal preferences, or the Gramm-Franks amendment that would’ve discontinued minority set-asides in government contracting, or he could’ve signed onto an amicus brief opposing the University of Michigan admissions system found unlawful by the Supreme Court. But in the end his actions didn’t match his rhetoric.

So, if he’s always voted for quotas and set asides, why do preference supporters view Kerry with suspicion? Because affirmative action orthodoxy is inviolate. Expressing reservations about affirmative action’s merits (even if you don’t really mean it) is apostasy.

In the end, preference supporters will probably line up behind Kerry–but not with the level of enthusiasm displayed toward the first black president.

Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.