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Public Papers - 1990 - May

Remarks at a Meeting With the Commission on Civil Rights


Welcome to the Rose Garden and to the White House. Thank you all very much for coming. To the Attorney General and Secretary Cavazos and Secretary Sullivan, thank you for joining us; Director Newman, the same. And to Senators Dole, Hatch, and Garn, Congressman Ham Fish, thank you very much for being with us today. To Chairman Fletcher, an old friend and a man I'm very proud of, welcome, sir. To Commissioners Buckley, Ramirez, Redenbaugh, Wilfredo Gonzalez and the State Advisory Committee Chairpersons and to the distinguished leaders -- I see Ben Hooks here and others of the civil rights community across this great country -- it is -- and I mean it -- an honor to have you here today.

I think we've made it a moment that's very hopeful worldwide. In a minute from now, I'll be meeting in this marvelous Oval Office with Chancellor Kohl, talking about the dramatic changes that have taken place in the world. There is a time when the thundering cry for freedom is being heard and answered from Panama, hopefully in Johannesburg, to Warsaw. And around the world, peoples are warring against tyranny, citizens struggling against State control, economies weary of bureaucratic central planners -- all are looking to America as reason for hope, the bright star by which to chart their course to freedom. And so, it's all the more crucial now that we look carefully to the kind of country we are, to the state of democracy here in the Land of Liberty. And we're called upon to ensure that this democracy means opportunity for all who call it home.

Few have worked harder to deliver the promise of democracy, to make an enduring dream a living reality, than the men and women assembled here today in this Rose Garden. And particularly, I want to give credit again to these men and women standing behind me.

From its earliest origins, the Commission on Civil Rights has been an independent, bipartisan voice for justice. And the Commissioners, the Directors, the Advisory Committees all share a cultural diversity and an intellectual and moral conviction that are truly America's best. And these men and women have earned our admiration, and today they deserve our thanks.

Joining a new Chairman -- and as I said, my friend of many years, Art Fletcher -- are two outstanding additions: Carl Anderson and Russell Redenbaugh. I know Bob Dole shares my admiration for Russell, a man of impressive credentials, who knows, as all Americans should know, that physical disability will not be a barrier to service in this administration. That's why I remain firmly committed to the landmark Americans for Disabilities Act to help ensure equal rights and opportunities for these Americans. And today I'd like to announce a new member of the Civil Rights Commission, Mr. Charles Pei Wang, President of the China Institute in America, an outstanding new addition.

Over the last few days, I've met to discuss pending civil rights legislation with leaders representing America's rich tapestry of cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity. And I got, as I knew I would, a lot of sound advice. Much of which I can accept. [Laughter] But these leaders, this Commission, the Congress, and this administration, believe me, all share a common conviction for equal opportunity. It's a responsibility that I've tried to take very seriously, especially now, when our most vital export to the world is democracy. And we must make sure that we as a nation continue to lead by example. We must see that true affirmative action is not reduced to some empty slogan and that this principle of striking down all barriers to advancement has real, living meaning to all Americans. We will leave nothing to chance and no stone unturned as we work to advance America's civil rights agenda.

This nation's progress against prejudice -- from the '64 act to the Voting Rights Act to the Fair Housing and Age Discrimination in Employment Acts -- it's all hinged on the principle that no one in this country should be excluded from opportunity. And so, we're committed to enacting new measures like the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, the HOPE [Homeownership and Opportunity for People Everywhere] initiative of housing, a revitalized enforcement of restrictions against employment bias. This administration seeks equal opportunity and equal protection under the law for all Americans, goals that I know are shared by Senator Kennedy and Representative Hawkins, and certainly by the four distinguished Members of Congress with us here today.

And so, we've supported efforts to ensure an individual's ability to challenge discriminatory seniority systems. We've also moved to stiffen the penalties for racial discrimination in setting or applying the terms and conditions of employment. And today, as we work to ensure that America represents democracy's highest expression, I want to begin by offering three principles that must guide any amendments to our civil rights laws. These principles are firmly rooted in the spirit of our current laws. After the extensive discussions that we've had this week, I think they're principles on which all of us, including the leadership on the Hill, can agree. And so, I will enthusiastically support legislation that meets these principles.

First, civil rights legislation must operate to obliterate consideration of factors such as race, color, religion, sex, or national origin from employment decisions. So, in essence, we seek civil rights legislation that is more effective, not less. The focus of employers in this country must be on providing equal opportunity for all workers, not on developing strategies to avoid litigation.

No one here today would want me to sign a bill whose unintended consequences are quotas because quotas are wrong and they violate the most basic principles of our civil rights tradition and the most basic principles of the promise of democracy. America's minority communities deserve more than symptomatic relief. And we want to eradicate the disease, and that will require systematic solutions, strategies that transcend statistics.

We should empower and ennoble our minority communities. We should seek systematic change that allows every American to excel. During these meetings this week, I invited the civil rights leadership to work with me to craft a bill that moves us towards this goal. After these consultations, I am confident that this can be done. I want to sign a civil rights bill, but I will not sign a quota bill. I think we can work it out.

The second, civil rights legislation must reflect fundamental principles of fairness that apply throughout our legal system. Individuals who believe their rights have been violated are entitled to their day in court, and an accused is innocent until proved guilty. In every case involving a civil rights dispute, constitutional protections of due process must be preserved.

And third, Federal law should provide an adequate deterrent against harassment in the workplace based on race, sex, religion, or disability and should ensure a speedy end to such discriminatory practices. Our civil rights laws, however, should not be turned into some lawyer's bonanza, encouraging litigation at the expense of conciliation, mediation, or settlement.

Let me add that Congress, with respect, should live by the same requirements it prescribes for others. In '72, the Civil Rights Act of '64 was justly applied to executive agencies and State, local governments; and Congress, however, is not yet covered. This is not an assault on Congress. I'm just trying to -- I've got about -- [laughter] -- but seriously, this inconsistency should be remedied to give congressional employees and applicants the full protection of the law to send a strong signal that it's both the executive branch and Congress that are in this together. And the Congress should join the executive branch in setting an example for these private employers.

Now, we seek strategies that work, putting power where it belongs: in the hands of the people. That means new ideas, like giving poor parents the power of an alternative choice in where to send the kids to school so that all can have access to the best. It means more tenant control and ownership of public housing, tax credits for child care to give parents more flexibility and choice, policies that underwrite prosperity by encouraging capital flow to businesses in poor neighborhoods. The door is open wider now than it ever has been. Together, I believe we can open it still wider.

Today an expanding economy is working in the service of civil rights. And so, let's not set the clock back. Let's look past the differences that divide us to the shared principles and the better natures that we have within us. To the civil rights leadership assembled here today -- Dorothy, excuse me, I didn't see you earlier -- and so many -- I'm in real trouble if I single them out here. Look, I have offered you my hand and my word that together we can and will make America open and equal to all. Now, this administration is committed to action that is truly affirmative, positive action in every sense, to strike down all barriers to advancement of every kind for all people. We will tolerate no barriers, no bias, no inside tracks, no two-tiered system, and no rungless ladders. And I'm willing to take the time to make sure that this is done right, simply because it's worth doing right. Now is the time, really, to extend a hand to all that are struggling and to devote our energies to a broader agenda of empowerment, that all might join in this new age of freedom.

I am delighted that you all came here. Thank you for bringing honor to this prestigious Rose Garden and to paying tribute to our Commission here, in which I have great confidence and in which I take great pride. Thank you all very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 10:02 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Constance B. Newman, Director of the Office of Personnel Management; Arthur A. Fletcher, Esther G. Buckley, Blandina C. Ramirez, Russell G. Redenbaugh, Wilfredo J. Gonzalez, and Carl A. Anderson, Chairman and Commissioners of the Commission on Civil Rights, respectively; Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People; Chancellor Helmut Kohl of the Federal Republic of Germany; and civil rights leader Dorothy Haight.

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