As President Bill Clinton was defending the use of affirmative
action in college admissions, members of Congress rolled out a plan to
abolish such preferences in the awarding of government funds.
Two Republicans on June 17 introduced legislation to end all race
and gender preferences used by the federal government for contracting,
employment and other programs. The bill, the Civil Rights Act of 1997,
was proposed by Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rep. Charles Canady
“It recognizes that the way to mend affirmative action is by
eliminating the divisive system of preferences on race and gender,”
Canady said. Instead, the congressman would rely on “vigorous and
systematic” outreach, recruitment and marketing efforts.
The bill is “based on the belief that we will never overcome
discrimination by practicing discrimination,” he said. “This
legislation is based on the conviction that the system of race and
gender preferences is an insult to the dignity of all Americans.”
The bill also would prohibit the federal government from requiring
or encouraging contractors, subcontractors and other recipients of
federal funds from using race and gender preferences. However, the
legislation exempts historically Black colleges and universities and
Democratic leaders criticized the plan and vowed to fight it.
“Unlike the president who has chosen to lead us down a path toward
racial reconciliation, once again Republicans in Congress have chosen
to take the hackneyed and politically expedient path of exploiting
racial division,” said House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).
“I believe a student body that reflects the excellence and the
diversity of the people we live and work with has independent
educational value,” Clinton said in a graduation address at the
University of California at San Diego. He went on to say that
affirmative action students “work hard, they achieve, they go out and
serve the communities that need them for their expertise and role
Conceding that affirmative action “has not been perfect,” Clinton said, “But when used in the right way, it has worked.”
The president’s remarks came as he announced a new initiative on
race headed by Dr. John Hope Franklin, a Fisk University graduate and
noted scholar on the Civil War, slavery and Reconstruction. Franklin
and six others on a new advisory board will conduct a national dialogue
on controversial race issues and propose new policies in education,
housing, health care and other areas.
The president said he envisioned “a great and unprecedented
conversation about race,” with the Franklin-led advisory board
conducting education efforts and seeking solutions to problems in
government, business and communities. Other members of the panel
include former Govs. Thomas Kean (R) of New Jersey and William Winter
(D) of Mississippi. Serving as consultant to the advisory board is
Christopher Edley of Harvard University, who led the administration’s
review of affirmative action during the president’s first term. Edley
is co-director of The Civil Rights Project, a new Harvard-based think
The president’s speech has triggered a variety of responses, including a call for a national apology for slavery.
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