Harold Washington, Chicago’s first African-American mayor, was elected in February 1983 after a bitter fight in which he challenged Chicago to embrace reform and do away with the discriminatory and anti-democratic policies of the entrenched Democratic machine.

By the time of his death in December 1987, Washington had emerged as a national leader in the campaign for peace and social justice.

At that time Ronald Reagan was president. Then, as now, the far-right had launched an attempt to roll back the clock on equality, with affirmative action programs their chief targets. Then, as now, they sought to do this by stacking the federal court system with justices opposed to affirmative action, and Reagan had nominated Robert Bork to fill a Supreme Court vacancy.

On July 7, 1987, Washington made a speech in which he made an eloquent defense of affirmative action and called for the defeat of Bork. Bork was rejected.

The nation is met with a similar challenge today as the Bush administration nominates candidates such as Charles Pickering and Pricilla Owens to the federal courts and joins opponents of affirmative action in an attempt to outlaw the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies.

We have published a condensed version of Washington’s 1987 speech below.

Make no mistake: if Judge Robert Bork is confirmed as a justice of the Supreme Court, affirmative action is doomed and it may take a full generation to recover.

Despite five Supreme Court decisions in the past year endorsing affirmative action, the Justice Department is continuing its challenges – and the only thing preventing them is a thin margin on the Supreme Court. And it is that margin which has been put at risk and which compels us to press our case against the confirmation of Judge Robert Bork.
At this hour of danger it’s important that we are clear with each other and with the public – that affirmative action is a critically important tool in the creation of a truly democratic society.

That clarity and emphasis is especially important in the face of the misinformation that opponents of affirmative action are putting out.

They promote three general fallacies:

The first is the idea that a social conscience is not necessary.

In the imaginary Adam Smith world of neo-conservatives, just as you should let the invisible hand rule the marketplace, you should also renounce any idea of a “social conscience,” and let creative selfishness and greed have free rein. That is if everyone acts in his or her self-interest and has an unrestricted opportunity to take care of number one, then the society as a whole will improve, a rising tide will raise all boats and economic benefits will trickle down to the bottom.

According to this theory, you don’t need a social conscience – that your own “private conscience” will suffice, so long as you are God-fearing, so long as you are a good person and so long as no one gets in your way.

That fallacy could be called the “new selfishness” except that it’s just like the old selfishness and it’s the opposite of everything America stands for.

The second fallacy is the idea that we have reached a kind of plateau, economically and socially, where there is no longer a need for affirmative action, no need for righting the balance. As one writer put it, “the white guilt trip is over” and all social decision should be reduced to issues of “merit,” rather than of fairness or equitable distribution.

That fallacy flies in the face of studies that show, every day, in every way, things are getting a little worse for America’s minorities relative to the progress made by those in the top percentiles of assets and income.

The third fallacy is that affirmative action doesn’t work.

Affirmative action works. Where it is vigorously and enthusiastically applied, it is transforming the way we in the public sector organize, the way we do business and the way we impact the private sector and society at large.

Chicago has been characterized as the most segregated city in the United States, a city they said could never change. And yet Chicago has indeed changed in four years and it’s continuing to change and grow in a new spirit of cooperation and partnership – largely because we had the courage to take the bull by the horns, ignore the conventional wisdom that Americans were tired of social progress and had turned to the right. Instead, we make affirmative action one of our highest priorities.

Throughout American history many of our social gains and much of our progress toward democracy were made possible by the active intervention of the federal government. What is so remarkable about the success of affirmative action is that it has been accomplished despite the Justice Department and the policies of the federal government. Affirmative action works but we’re going to need to muster all our political resources if we are to keep it in place.


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