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Clinton: All Citizens Must Serve

Sunday, June 15, 1997
The Washington Post

Following are excerpts from President Clinton's commencement address yesterday at the University of California, San Diego.

Today we celebrate your achievements at a truly golden moment for America. The Cold War is over and freedom is now ascendant around the globe. . . . Our economy is the healthiest in a generation and the strongest in the world. Our culture, our science, our technology promise unimagined advances and exciting new careers. Our social problems, from crime to poverty, are finally bending to our efforts.

Of course, there are still challenges for you out there. Beyond our borders we must battle terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, the prospect of new diseases, and environmental disaster. Here at home we must ensure that every child has the chance you have had to develop your God-given capacities. . . .

But I believe the greatest challenge we face . . . is also our greatest opportunity. 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. Can we fulfill the promise of America by embracing all our citizens of all races? . . . In short, can we become one America in the 21st century?

Half century from now . . . there will be no majority race in America. Now we know what we will look like. But what will we be like?

Can we be one America respecting, even celebrating our difference, but embracing even more what we have in common? . . . Our hearts long to answer yes, but our history reminds that it will be hard. The ideals that bind us together are as old as our nation but so are the forces that pull us apart. . . .

To be sure, there is old, unfinished business between black and white Americans, but the classic American dilemma has now become many dilemmas of race and ethnicity. . . .

That is why I have come here today to ask the American people to join me in a great national effort to perfect the promise of America for this new time as we seek to build our more perfect union.

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 America.

Let me say that I know that for many white Americans, this conversation may seem to exclude them or threaten them. That must not be so. I believe white Americans have just as much to gain as anybody else from being a part of this endeavor, much to gain from an America where we finally take responsibility for all our children, so that they at last can be judged as Martin Luther King hoped, not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.

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 and 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. . . .

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 at 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. . . . 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 now 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.

But the best example of successful affirmative action is our military. Our armed forces are diverse from top to bottom, perhaps the most integrated institution in our society, and certainly the most integrated military in the world. . . .

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 education value to you, it has a public interest. . . . 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. . . . If we 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.

. . . I know that 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. Soon the same will likely happen in undergraduate education.

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 use 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. . . .

No responsibility is more fundamental than obeying the law. . . . But respect for the law must run both ways. The shocking differences in perceptions of the fairness of our criminal justice system rose out of the real experiences that too many minorities have had with law enforcement officers. Part of the answer is to have all our citizens respect the law. But the basic rule must be that the law must respect all our citizens.

And that applies, too, to the enforcement of our civil rights laws. For example, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has a huge backlog of cases with discrimination claims. . . . It is imperative that Congress, especially those members who say they're for civil rights but against affirmative action, at least give us the money necessary to enforce the law of the land and do it soon.

Our third imperative is perhaps the most difficult of all. We must build one American community based on respect for one another and our shared values.

We must begin with a candid conversation on the state of race relations today and the implications of Americans of so many different races living and working together as we approach a new century. We must be honest with each other. We have talked at each other and about each other for a long time. It's high time we all began talking with each other.

Over the coming year, I want to lead the American people in a great and unprecedented conversation about race. . . .

I have asked one of America's greatest scholars, Dr. John Hope Franklin, to chair an advisory panel of seven distinguished Americans to help me in this endeavor. . . . I want this panel to help educate Americans about the facts surrounding issues of race, to promote a dialogue in every community in the land to confront and work through these issues, to recruit and encourage leadership at all levels to help breach racial divides, and to find, develop and recommend how to implement concrete solutions to our problems, solutions that will involve all of us in government, business, communities and as individual citizens.

I will make periodic reports to the American people about our findings and what actions we all have to take to move America forward. . . .

But in the cause of building one America, all citizens must serve. . . . Government must play its role but much of the work must be done by the American people as citizen service. The very effort will strengthen us and bring us closer together. . . .

Honest dialogue will not be easy at first. We'll all have to get past defensiveness and fear and political correctness and other barriers to honesty. Emotions may be rubbed raw, but we must begin. What do I really hope we will achieve as a country?

If we do nothing more than talk, it will be interesting, but it won't be enough. If we do nothing more than propose disconnected acts of policy, it will be helpful, but it won't be enough. But if 10 years from now people can look back and see that this year of honest dialogue and concerted action helped to lift the heavy burden of race from our children's future, we will have given a a precious gift to America. . . .

We have torn down the barriers in our laws. Now we must break down the barriers in our lives, our minds, and our hearts. More than 30 years ago at the high tide of the civil rights movement, the Kerner Commission said we were becoming two Americas -- one white, one black, separate and unequal. Today we face a different choice. Will we become not two, but many Americas? Separate, unequal, and isolated. Or will we draw strength from all our people and our ancient faith in equality and human dignity to become the world's first truly multiracial democracy.

That is the unfinished work of our times, to lift the burden of race and redeem the promise of America.

Class of 1997, I grew up in the shadows of a divided America, but I have seen glimpses of one America. You have shown me one today. That is the America you must make. . . .

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