By Jack Kemp; J. C. Watts Jr.
July 8, 1997 for the Washington Post
In San Diego, the president spoke to the serious need for racial reconciliation and for embracing our commonalities across racial lines. But when he turned to “affirmative action,” he offered no improvement over the current system of race-based quotas, set-asides and preferences. He issued the following challenge: “I ask you to come up with an alternative. I would embrace it if I could find a better way.”
Well, Mr. President, there is a better way, and we — on behalf of the party of Lincoln — take up your challenge. We do not have to accept the false dilemma between tinkering with the status quo and eliminating it, as some in our party have recommended. Neither option would remedy the undeniable inequity or allay the scarcity of opportunity that persists for far too many people of color today.
Our “better way” replaces discrimination with opportunity, poverty with jobs and despair with education. We offer more than the simplistic and absolutist version of “affirmative action.” And we offer far more than the untenable option of simply closing our eyes to the still-present barriers to African Americans and other minorities and calling America “colorblind.”
A new approach must focus not only on equality and strong enforcement of our existing civil rights laws but also on the expansion of opportunity. Instead of deliberating over fair ways to mete out educational acceptances, job openings, contract agreements and program slots, we should be looking for ways to multiply and extend them.
In America, the primary engine that drives this kind of expansion is access to capital. By capital, we mean more than cash or credit — we mean education, ownership, and employment: assets that men and women of every ethnic background, race and socioeconomic condition can employ to fulfill their God-given potential.
The “better way” that we offer can be summed up in five policy prescriptions to broaden access to capital in every home and neighborhood in America, particularly those that need it most desperately:
(1) Establish renewal communities and enterprise zones to draw business and jobs into distressed urban areas;
(2) Open up the educational system to the influence of parental and community choice;
(3) Reverse federal and state welfare provisions to reward rather than punish recipients for working, saving and investing toward an independent future;
(4) Implement privatization of public housing and other efforts to bring home ownership and property ownership into low-income neighborhoods; and
(5) Embrace strategies that will get our national economy growing at a pace that can accommodate the talent of all Americans.
Noted sociologist William Julius Wilson has said that the lack of employment in our inner cities is the single greatest crisis facing America today. The “better way” of expanding opportunity means opening more entryways into the job market. Excessive government regulation and stifling layers of taxation, among other factors, have driven businesses, and jobs with them, out of most of our inner cities.
No individual subsidy, quota or set-aside is sufficient to reverse the predicament of these whole communities. Nor would such preferential measures be right, since they would necessarily discriminate against someone else. Even traditional types of “affirmative action” — such as recruitment, outreach and training — seem irrelevant when there are no jobs.
The legislation that could help achieve all five of our desired goals is already before Congress in the Community Renewal Project. This bill, which we have been promoting for 18 months, would expand opportunity in our cities by removing tax and regulatory barriers to job creation and entrepreneurship and by expanding access to capital and credit.
The principal way to achieve expansion of educational opportunity is to turn the decision-making process back over to those who are best equipped to evaluate their community’s schools and who possess the highest motivation to see the schools improve: parents of the children who attend them. We must pave the way to a voucher and magnet school system of public and private school choice.
Expansion of opportunity also means establishing the ability and incentive to own property. A perverse logic pervades a number of our federal welfare and assistance programs, which penalize the poor for managing to save and accumulate their own assets.
Expansion of opportunity requires expanding the overall economy so that it has plenty of room for the effort and enterprise of all Americans, including minorities and women. On principle, we should not accept the idea that a job gained by one American equals unemployment for another, or that a contract won by one qualified bidder spells disaster for an equally qualified contractor.
Growth means more people will have a chance to own their own business. As Earl Graves, publisher of Black Enterprise magazine, has said, “If African Americans are ever to secure a full measure of freedom and independence in this country . . . they must not only be employees; they must become employers.”
Finally, we must move to a place of real racial reconciliation — person to person, one heart at a time. We must begin the dialogue that President Clinton and others have called for. As our nation begins the work of reviving our inner cities, improving educational opportunity and reforming our assistance programs, we as American individuals must meet each other face to face, seek forgiveness and raise the public consciousness. As a great African American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, said, “When we are noted for enterprise, industry and success, we shall no longer have any trouble in the matter of civil and political rights.”
Jack Kemp is a co-director of Empower America. J. C. Watts Jr. is a Republican congressman from Oklahoma.
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