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A national dialogue on race

The following is an excerpt from President Bill Clinton’s address at
the University of California at San Diego commencement June 14. This is
the second time in a month that President Clinton has appeared in The
Last Word. The last time was in the May 29 edition, an excerpt from his
speech at Morgan State University.

Of all the questions of discrimination and prejudice that still
exist in our society, the most perplexing one is the oldest, and in
some ways today, the newest: the problem of race.

Now, when there is more cause for hope than fear, when we are not
driven to it by some emergency or social cataclysm, now is the time we
should learn together, talk together and act together to build one

What is it that we must do?

First, we must continue to expand opportunity. Full participation in
our strong and growing economy is the best antidote to envy, despair,
and racism. We must press forward to move millions more from poverty
and welfare to work; to bring the spark of enterprise to inner cities;
to redouble our efforts to reach those rural communities prosperity has
passed by. And most important of all, we simply must give our young
people the finest education in the world.

There are no children who, because of their ethnic or racial
background, cannot meet the highest academic standards if we set them
and measure our students against them, if we give them well-trained
teachers and well-equipped classrooms, and if we continue to support
reasoned reforms to achieve excellence, like the charter school

At a time when college education means stability, a good job, a
passport to the middle class, we must open the doors of college to all
Americans and we must make a least two years of college as universal at
the dawn of the next century as a high school diploma is today.

In our efforts to extend economic and educational opportunity to all
our citizens, we must consider the role of affirmative action. I know
affirmative action has not been perfect in America – that’s why two
years ago we began an effort to fix the things that are wrong with it –
but when used in the right way, it has worked.

It has given us a whole generation of professionals in fields that
used to be exclusive clubs – where people like me got the benefit of
100 percent affirmative action. There are more women-owned businesses
than ever before. There are more African American, Latino and Asian
American lawyers and judges, scientists and engineers, accountants and
executives than ever before.

There are those who argue that scores on standardized tests should
be the sole measure of qualification for admissions to colleges and
universities. But many would not apply the same standard to the
children of alumni or those with athletic ability.

I believe a student body that reflects the excellence and the
diversity of the people we will live and work with has independent
educational value. Look around this crowd today. Don’t you think you
have learned a lot more than you would have if everybody sitting around
you looked just like you? I think you have.

And beyond the educational value to you, it has a public interest
because you will learn to live and work in the world you will live in
better. When young people sit side by side with people of many
different backgrounds, they do learn something that they can take out
into the world. And they will be more effective citizens.

Many affirmative action students excel. They work hard, they
achieve, they go out and serve the communities that need them for their
expertise and role model. If you close the door on them, we will weaken
our greatest universities and it will be more difficult to build the
society we need in the 21st century.

Let me say, I know the people of California voted to repeal
affirmative action without any ill motive. 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. We must not resegregate higher education
or leave it to the private universities to do the public’s work.

At the very time when we need to do a better job of living and
learning together, we should not stop trying to equalize economic
opportunity. To those who oppose affirmative action, I ask you to come
up with an alternative. I would embrace it if I could find a better
way. And to those of us who still support it, I say we should continue
to stand for it, we should reach out to those who disagree or are
uncertain and talk about the practical impact of these issues, and we
should never be thought unwilling to work with those who disagree with
us to find new ways to lift people up and bring people together.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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