Did John Kerry Help Barack Obama With Tuesday's Speech?

A common complaint of most media watchers is that investigative journalism, despite the tools available in today's Internet Era, has become a lost art.

Take for example the media's fawning over Barack Obama's speech on Tuesday, with many of the usual suspects calling it "extraordinary," "worthy of Abraham Lincoln," "the best speech ever given on race in this country," and a "definining cultural moment in America."

In the midst of all this sycophantic praise, mightn't someone have uncovered a speech given sixteen years ago by one of Obama's key supporters that expressed similar concerns about how affirmative action stokes resentment in the white community?

If media would have taken the time, they would have found that Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) actually spoke about this issue in far greater detail during a rather controversial address given at Yale University on March 30, 1992. As reported the following day by the Boston Globe (subscription required, emphasis added):

In a blunt break from standard liberal dogma, Sen. John Kerry said last night that an excessive focus on ineffectual affirmative action programs has helped foster a culture of dependency among residents of the inner city and cost the civil rights movement its vital multiracial consensus. [...]

When it comes to the American underclass, it is time to look past affirmative action, Kerry said. "We cannot hope to make further racial progress when whites believe that it is they and not blacks that suffer most from racial discrimination." [...]

The fact is that in 1992 the majority of the white majority in this country doesn't want to address the issues. They don't want to invest more of their scarce tax dollars in those programs that fail," he said. "It would be simple . . . to blame all this on racism, and there is no doubt that white racism persists in our society, that it is ugly and insidious and present everywhere.

"But the issues and the reasons for our dilemma go deeper and are more complex than that. They have their roots in the changing nature of the movement for civil rights.

"Where once Martin Luther King could depict the struggle for equal rights as a mighty battle between good and evil, a battle where pot-bellied sheriffs and attack dogs squared off against hymn-singing children dressed in their Sunday best, today the civil rights arena is controlled by lawyers and the winners and losers determined by . . . rules most Americans neither understand nor are sympathetic with," Kerry said. "This shift in the civil rights agenda has directed most of our attention and much of our hope into one inherently limited and divisive program: affirmative action."

But, he said, "We must be willing to acknowledge publicly what we know to be true: that just as the benefits to America of affirmative action cannot be denied, neither can the costs. Too many politicians, particularly in my own party, have not acknowledged those costs for fear of undermining the very goals of affirmative action," said Kerry. "By that failure, we send a message to many of those who feel alienated or abandoned by their government that we simply don't care about them, and that we don't realize that it is they, far more than we, particularly when the we is the government, who have borne the burden of compliance with the law. The truth is that affirmative action has kept America thinking in racial terms."

Citing the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Kerry argued that affirmative action was never meant to result in racial quotas. But "not only by legislation, but by administrative decree and court order, a vast and bewildering apparatus of affirmative action rules and guidelines has been constructed. And somewhere within that vast apparatus conjured up to fight racism there exists a reality of reverse discrimination, that actually engenders racism," he said.

"There is no question that this reality has been exaggerated by subjective perception and by people who have played on the stereotypes and by politicians eager to exploit it, but out of that reality has come a resentment that is real and widespread and dangerous," said Kerry. "It is a resentment fed by memories of court-ordered busing and images of riots and looting and raised fists and by a sense of being singled out to compensate for historical sins which today's white workers did not commit.

"If we truly care about racial progress . . . and about our cities, we must rebuild the consensus that brought us the civil rights movement in the first place. . . . We cannot equate fear of crime . . . with racism and then expect those we have called racists to invest in the very neighborhoods they have fled," said Kerry. "We cannot deride as politically incorrect the anger of taxpayers who work hard to support their families and then find themselves supporting generations of welfare families as well."

Some profound thoughts from a Democrat sixteen years ago, wouldn't you agree? As it pertains to white resentment of affirmative action, how does this compare to what Obama said on Tuesday?

Maybe more important, as Kerry is such a strong supporter of Obama's, why haven't media members paid attention to what the junior senator from Massachusetts said so long ago, and asked the question about whether or not he might have assisted his colleague sixteen years later?

Or, would that be too much like journalism?

*****Update: If media would have looked into this, they would have found that this speech by Kerry created quite a stir at the time. As reported by the Boston Globe April 1, 1992 (no link available, via LexisNexis):

Sen. John Kerry's sweeping critique of affirmative action struck a raw nerve yesterday, prompting a heated debate largely divided along racial lines.

Though Kerry reiterated his strong support for affirmative action in an interview last night with the Globe, the senator acknowledged that he sought to provoke public debate by "asking the unasked questions" in his speech Monday at Yale University. It worked: Reaction was swift and opinion was fierce yesterday as public officials and civil rights leaders in Boston and Washington digested Kerry's speech.

Many, pro or con, perceived a head-on challenge to affirmative action, citing Kerry's description of it as an "inherently limited and divisive program" that "has kept America thinking in racial terms."

But Kerry said last night that his intention was to highlight his belief that a national deadlock on the thorny question of affirmative action has weakened chances for a consensus on how to generate jobs, diminish crime and halt urban decay. He said the perception among many whites that affirmative action discriminates against them has caused support to evaporate for social programs "that could make a difference."


"You've got to have a program of affirmative action in this country, and it would be terribly destructive to undercut that," said Kerry. "But we ought to be willing to acknowledge the downside aspects of it, some of the negatives that have gone with it in the past."

For example, Kerry said, "If you've got a cop in a police station who passed a test but doesn't get a job because of affirmative action, he's going to be angry, and we've got to acknowledge that. . . . You can't look at that person and call him a racist."

Kerry said affirmative action is a vital remedy for the racism he believes is still rampant in America, but he contended that only by acknowledging the resentment and alienation some whites feel over affirmative action will "a measure of truth and credibility be established in the debate."

Some observers praised Kerry for making a bold foray into politically perilous waters, while others condemned his strong words on race relations in equally strong terms of their own.

"Stereotyping and race-baiting from John Kerry?" said Dianne Wilkerson, a Boston lawyer and a leader of the local NAACP chapter who worked with Kerry on assisting victims of a home mortgage scheme. "I'm ashamed of him. I thought I knew him, but this has shaken the very foundation of my faith in him."

Added Hubie Jones, interim president of Roxbury Community College: "It is sad and tragic that Sen. Kerry, who purports to be a liberal, is about to abandon affirmative action, a social invention that has created tremendous progress for people of color, particularly in the area of employment."

City Councilor Anthony Crayton (Roxbury) said his office was deluged with calls yesterday from constituents angered by Kerry's speech. He was harshly critical of Kerry, saying: "People need to stop feeding the myth that whites are being harmed by affirmative action, because it's simply not true. Minorities are still minorities in terms of salary and in terms of jobs. Our unemployment rate is always twice that of whites."

Others said yesterday that Kerry was breaking new ground by asking difficult, but necessary, questions about affirmative action that few public officials have openly posed.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, in a statement last night, lauded Kerry's speech as "a thoughtful and constructive contribution to the important national debate on race discrimination and the most effective means of eliminating it. Civil rights has always been the unfinished business of America, but for the past 12 years, the Reagan and Bush administrations have used race to divide Americans for political advantage. Senator Kerry's address is an impressive antidote to that kind of racial politics."

In Boston, some public officials were equally impressed.

"This is a developmental milestone in the civil rights movement," declared City Councilor John Nucci. "Sen. Kerry has put himself on the cutting edge of what progressive and liberal approaches have to be in the '90s. John Kerry doesn't want to be a liberal dinosaur, and this is the first step out of the tar pits."

State Rep. Mark Roosevelt (D-Boston) called Kerry's talk "a good speech, a productive speech," and said he is "pretty favorably inclined toward what Sen. Kerry is saying."

"I looked at the positive parts of the speech: His proposals on fully funding Head Start, early childhood education, prenatal care - and those are my legislative priorities," he said. "But as for the more spiritual side of the speech, the social disintegration we see in some communities is an issue we definitely need to address as Democrats. I hear it more and more from the black community."

"Sen. Kerry doesn't accept the blatant race-baiting that is used to divide people," added Roosevelt. "He's trying to start to acknowledge the problem, then let people of good intentions figure out what to do about it."

Whether liberal or conservative, those leaders enthusiastic about Kerry's speech were mostly white and ready to applaud him for publicly airing a touchy issue that is usually debated privately, while black leaders objected to the speech as a case of blaming the victim and they challenged his basic assumptions.

Joyce Ferriabough, a political consultant who formerly headed the Black Political Task Force, acknowledged there might be "room for changes" in affirmative action, but she accused Kerry of shortchanging the success stories the program has engendered.

"I know any number of folks who would not have had the opportunity to go to college were it not for affirmative action," said Ferriabough. "Sen. Kerry needs to give some specifics about which affirmative action policies he would change and how that would be beneficial."

State Sen. Bill Owens (D-Boston), chairman of the Legislature's Black Caucus, called Kerry's speech "a slick political statement" designed to "speak to a moderate right constituency."

He also characterized the speech as hypocritical because, he said, Kerry criticized affirmative action at the same time that he outlined benefits that affirmative action programs have brought about.

"He said that the majority of white people don't want affirmative action," Owens said. "Well, that's nothing new. Most white people didn't want us to vote, or have equal access to education, or sit down at the lunch counter.

"If Sen. Kerry thinks these comments are going to placate people in our community, he has another think coming, because that's not going to work."

Owens said he plans to write a "critical analysis" of Kerry's speech, and probably compose an open letter to the senator. The NAACP's Wilkerson said she also plans to draft a response to Kerry, possibly in a series of published commentaries.

Supporters and opponents of affirmative action found something to embrace in Kerry's speech.

City Councilor James Kelly (South Boston), a longtime foe of affirmative action, said he was gratified that a "typical liberal" such as Kerry has launched a debate on affirmative action. "You have to define affirmative action for what it is, and that's clearly quotas and set-asides," said Kelly. "These programs have made blacks dependent on the government."

City Councilor Rosaria Salerno, a backer of affirmative action, agreed with Kerry's premise that "it is time to look at the issue, not to divert ourselves from the goal of equal opportunity, but how we may be getting sidetracked."

Mayor Flynn was in New York yesterday and could not be reached for comment. Reacting to Kerry's speech, Neil Sullivan, Flynn's chief policy adviser, said affirmative action "when administered fairly, remains an effective tool in the struggle for economic justice. It should not be abandoned merely because it is misused or applied unfairly at times."

Rep. Barney Frank of the 4th Congressional District and state Rep. Marc D. Draisen (D-Roslindale), cochairman of the Legislature's Progressive Caucus, both said they preferred to read the speech before commenting.

Interesting stuff, yes? Yet, according to media, there's nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.