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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clinton Renews Backing For Affirmative Action

WASHINGTON -- In words likely to resound through next year's election campaign, President Bill Clinton defended affirmative-action policies to combat racial and gender discrimination, saying equal opportunity is "a moral imperative."

"When affirmative action is done right, it is flexible, it is fair and it works," Clinton said Wednesday in a speech that laid out his position on the long-standing U.S. policy of workplace preferences for women and minorities.

In a speech at the National Archives near cases displaying the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution -- filled with replicas to protect the hallowed documents from the television lights -- Clinton took a strong stand in support of a policy that is under heavy fire from those who say it has engendered "reverse discrimination" against white men.

His stand put him up against most of the Republicans vying to challenge him in the 1996 election on yet another issue. It followed a slew of recent Supreme Court rulings that have sought a major rollback of affirmative-action programs.

"Finding common ground as we move toward the 21st century depends fundamentally on our shared commitment to equal opportunity for all Americans," Clinton said. "It is a moral imperative, a constitutional mandate and a legal necessity."

The policy statement was long awaited and culminated a five-month White House-ordered review of U.S. government hiring and contracting policies designed to counteract the effects of past racial and gender discrimination. Affirmative action has been a staple of U.S. life since the late 1960s.

That federal study, which resulted in a 97-page report released by the White House just before Clinton's speech, concluded that "the pragmatic use of affirmative action ... has been and continues to be valuable, effective and fair."

Clinton conceded affirmative action has been misused in some cases and he ordered federal agencies to avoid quotas, preferences for unqualified people and reverse discrimination.

But the president spoke of his boyhood experiences in segregated Ar-kansas, recalling that he "never went to a movie when I could sit next to a black American," and noted the strides America has since made to end discrimination.

"Let me be clear -- affirmative action has been good for America," the president said. "Mend it, but don't end it."

Republicans were quick to criticize his speech.

"I think he's done a real disservice," California Governor Pete Wilson, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said in a CNN interview. "He's trying to keep in place a system that will contain the virus that threatens to tribalize America and divide it."

Myrlie Evers-Williams, head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, applauded Clinton. "I think this speech will help him tremendously at the grassroots level," she said. "People will be willing to get people to go out and vote."

Support from women and minorities is considered crucial to Clinton's hopes of winning a second four-year term next year.