Misremembering Hubert

Growing up in Minnesota I acquired a healthy respect for Hubert Humphrey. He established the modern state Democratic Party in a death struggle with the Communists and persevered to make his reputation with a devotion to the cause of civil rights when civil rights meant colorblindness.
The great victory of the civil rights movement was one of moral persuasion. Leaders such as Humphrey and Martin Luther King, Jr., persuaded Americans that it was wrong and deeply un-American to treat people differently based on the color of their skin. That victory of moral persuasion was translated into the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the law that prohibited discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, or sex in employment, public accommodations, and federally funded programs (including colleges and universities).
Professor Edward Erler has commented: “No more powerful expression of a commitment to equal opportunity can be found in the annals of modern legislation anywhere in the world.”
As Judge Alex Kosinski recalls, strong opposition to the bill arose from senators who suggested it would be interpreted so as to call for quotas and preferences, and that it would be used to overturn union seniority systems. Then Senator Humphrey, the bill’s principal sponsor, made numerous statements flatly contradicting those suggestions: “Title VII prohibits discrimination. In effect, it says that race, religion, and national origin are not to be used as the basis for hiring and firing. Title VII is designed to encourage hiring on the basis of ability and qualifications, not race or religion.”
On the floor of the United States Senate in the summer of 1964 Humphrey famously promised to eat the bill if it required racial preferences. Responding to one of his colleagues in debate on the bill, Humphrey said: “It the Senator can find in Title VII … any language which provides that an employer will have to hire on the basis of percentage or quota related to color, race, religion, or national origin, I will start eating the pages one after another, because it is not in there.”
The defense of racial preferences in the name of “affirmative action” and “diversity” has nevertheless become part of contemporary civil rights orthodoxy and many purportedly sophisticated arguments have been advanced to justify the practice. In 2003, for example, in express disagreement with Martin Luther King’s great 1963 speech on the Washington Mall, Hillary Clinton stated: “If we don’t take race as part of our character, then we are kidding ourselves.”
The depth of the racial discrimination practiced in the university setting became evident in the two University of Michigan cases decided by the Supreme Court in 2003. In the undergraduate school, applicants for admission were simply sorted into different pools with lower admission standards if they identified themselves as African-American, Hispanic, or Native American, and higher standards if they identified themselves as white or members of non-preferred minority groups. In the law school, the university rigged its standards year after year to achieve a minimum 10 percent quota of students from designated “underrepresented” minority groups (African American, Mexican American and Native American).
For years the university covered up the existence of the racial discrimination that it practiced. Once exposed, the university defended what it could not conceal in the name of “affirmative action” and “diversity.” In reality these terms are extremely misleading euphemisms for the practice of racial discrimination.
According to the Supreme Court in the two University of Michigan decisions, the euphemistic practice of racial discrimination is good enough to pass constitutional and legal muster just so long as it isn’t too bald. Indeed, before the ink was dry on the Civil Rights Act of 1964 liberals were retreating on the principle of equal treatment and touting “affirmative action” if not racial preferences in their own name.
Did Humphrey ever oppose them? Having been persuaded by Humphrey and King that equal treatment was the correct principle, I kept looking for Humphrey to say that he did. I may be mistaken, but I don’t recall his having done so.
Rick Perlstein strongly suggests that Humphrey did. Yesterday was the centennial anniversary of the birth of Hubert Humphrey. Perlstein took the occasion to celebrate Humphrey as “America’s forgotten liberal.” Perlstein implies that Humphrey opposed the use of “affirmative action” (i.e., racial preferences) when liberals openly supported it:

At a time when other liberals were besotted with affirmative action as a strategy to undo the cruel injustices of American history, Humphrey pointed out that race-based remedies could only prove divisive when good jobs were disappearing for everyone. Liberal policy, he said, must stress “common denominators — mutual needs, mutual wants, common hopes, the same fears.”

Perlstein’s quotation of Humphrey does not state opposition to the use of racial preferences in principle. Rather, the quotation suggests that the open support of racial preferences is politically unwise. Could it be that Humphrey never forthrightly opposed racial preferences in principle after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964?
Perlstein’s quotation of Humphrey appears to derive from a speech given by Humphrey in a symposium on civil rights at the LBJ Library in December 1972. Timothy Thurber quotes the speech on page 231 of The Politics of Equality: Hubert H. Humphrey and the African-American Freedom Struggle. Thurber quotes the sentence fragment that Perlstein quotes and then quotes one full paragraph from Humphrey’s speech that concludes with this observation:

. . .I would argue that the civil rights movement got into trouble when more and more people came to see it as an effort to give blacks a special break that was afforded no other group in American society. We know this perception is wrong. But it exists, whether we like it or not.

(Emphasis added.) So Humphrey denied the proposition that racial preferences had been implemented (“we know this perception is wrong”). So far as I can tell Humphrey did not state that they were wrong in principle. Humphrey seems to be saying that the advocacy of racial preferences was politically problematic for the civil rights movement and the Democratic Party. And we know now that the practice of racial preference is massive, whatever the truth was at the time Humphrey spoke in 1972.
Perlstein to the contrary notwithstanding, the Humphrey quote is not exactly the clarion call to equal treatment with which Humphrey had advocated the passage of the civil rights bill. Indeed, Humphrey’s retreat on this point is representative of what has happened to liberal orthodoxy in the years since 1964.


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