My fellow Americans, today, at my instruction, the Justice Department is filing a brief with the Supreme Court. That brief tells the Supreme Court that, in the opinion of this administration, it is unconstitutional and illegal for the universities and colleges to discriminate on the basis of skin color or where someone’s ancestors came from in deciding who is admitted.
I want to say a few words about why I decided to file that brief, and what the brief says and what it doesn’t say, because there is likely to be lot of confusion and misinformation about it.
Many colleges today treat applicants differently depending on their race or ethnicity. In other words, they discriminate. That is not right, and that is not what the phrase “affirmative action” originally meant, and it is not the kind of affirmative action that I or the overwhelming majority of all Americans — black and white, Asian and Latino, Arab American and American Indian — want.
The original meaning of the phrase was to require positive steps — affirmative action — to get rid of the unfairness that had come to permeate many businesses, governments, and other institutions, including colleges. It had another early meaning, too: making sure that everyone was reached out to, not just a few.
Those kinds of affirmative action were and are good, and should be continued. They are what I call “affirmative access.” I would add to that financial aid and other help to reach out to students who need it, no matter what their skin color or ancestry.
But somehow another kind of affirmative action began, too — one that twisted and distorted the original ideal of the civil-rights movement into its exact opposite. That kind of affirmative action was not ending discrimination but using it, the only difference being that there became a new set of victims.
There is no place in 21st-century America for discrimination on the basis of skin color. Any political leader must be clear, consistent, and credible in opposing such bias. I took the lead in condemning the recent remarks of a senator of my own political party for that very reason. And, for exactly that reason, my administration is filing a brief today that supports an end to the new system of racial and ethnic preferences that has, unfortunately, come to honeycomb our colleges and universities. It doesn’t matter whose ox is being gored: Racial and ethnic discrimination is wrong.
I think that all Americans would agree that our goal should be to have a society where no one should be favored or penalized because of race or ethnicity. The only question is, Do we follow that principle now, or wait until some unknown, uncertain future day?
I say the time is now. A 17-year-old applying to college today is not a former slave, did not live during the Jim Crow era — he or she has born in 1984, twenty years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
I know that discrimination still exists. But, unfortunately, there will always be some discrimination. And I do not think that the best way to fight bias is with more bias. We have laws on the books that prohibit discrimination, and I pledge to you that I will aggressively enforce them and, where necessary, strengthen them.
Nor do I deny that too many Americans have limited opportunities because of the circumstances into which they are born. Some are members of minority groups and some are not, just as some well-to-do people are members of minority groups and some are not. Some disadvantaged children may be able to trace their circumstances to discrimination, others might not, but, really, what difference does it make whether the unfairness is of one kind or another? No child deserves to be denied an opportunity by any accident of birth, and no child should be left behind.
We will not make race relations better by picking winners and losers based on race. If the government creates double standards, or triple or quadruple standards, by ranking blacks ahead of Hispanics ahead of Asians ahead of whites, it will create only resentment and stigmatization.
And besides, the use of racial and ethnic preferences is just plain unfair. It is unfair to those who are denied a spot in school, and it is insulting to those who are supposedly benefited. African Americans have made enormous contributions to our national life and culture for hundreds of years in the teeth of slavery, Jim Crow — the worst discrimination you can imagine. And now we are telling them: You cannot be expected to succeed unless we lower the bar for you.
I don’t buy it. I reject the soft bigotry of low expectations. No child should be left behind, but every child and every American will be held to the same standards as every other one of his countrymen.
There is another reason why racial and ethnic preferences are wrong. It requires the government to pigeonhole people as if everyone were either pure black or white, Hispanic or non-Hispanic, just one or the other. The truth is, as we learned in the latest census, not only is the American population increasingly multiracial and multiethnic, but so are Americans as individuals.
This is true of my own family, it is true of Tiger Woods, and it is true for millions of Americans. Few of us are just black, or just Hispanic, or just Native American. And so how can it make sense for us to grant preferences as if we were? And how are we supposed to rank who is the most deserving when there are an infinite number of racial and ethnic combinations, and that variety keeps growing as America does?
Most Americans believe as I do that it was always wrong to penalize people for their skin color or ancestry, and most Americans also believe that it is wrong to do so now. We can end the newer discrimination and still remain vigilant that discrimination of the old kind is punished, too. Racial profiling is wrong whether it is police stopping a black teenager or colleges telling an Asian teenager that they have “too many” of them already.
We should continue to have the kind of affirmative action that means taking special steps to root out prejudice and reaching out to everyone. We should have affirmative access. But we should end the affirmative action that gives preferences to some over others because of race or ethnicity.
When Thurgood Marshall was the lead attorney in Brown v. Board of Education, he wrote: “Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and insidious that a state bound to defend the equal protection of the laws must not allow them in any public sphere.” In that landmark case he insisted that “classifications and distinctions based upon race or color have no moral or legal validity in our society.” He was right.
We are all Americans. God loves us all, and wants us to love one another no matter what our outward appearance. There is no room for bigotry in the heart of a patriotic American, and our institutions of higher education should likewise be colorblind. That is what I am telling the Supreme Court today.
Thank you, and God bless America.
— Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Sterling, Virginia.