WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In an eloquent and courageous speech t America about affirmative action Wednesday, President Clinton issued one of the greatest statements ever about race in America.
In his gutsy truth-telling about bigotry in America, and his firm assertion that ''affirmative action has been good for America,'' this son of once-Jim Crow Arkansas gave an address that ranks with Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 ''I have a dream'' address, and President Lyndon Johnson's 1965 commencement speech at Howard University.
Mr. Clinton's ringing defense of government and private programs to give equal opportunity to all Americans was especially remarkable because he delivered it in an atmosphere of intense racial demagoguery, especially by the Republicans who seek to oust him from the presidency in 1996.
That address was of enduring greatness because of what Mr. Clinton refused to do.
He would not accept strident arguments that affirmative action has been a blight on the nation or justifies the assaults of ''angry white men.'' In fact, he asserted that politicians -- such as Gov. Pete Wilson of California and Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas -- are shamefully trying to make many Americans believe that affirmative action is the cause of their economic distress.
Noting many deep problems, the president said, ''Affirmative action didn't cause them and won't cure them, and wiping out affirmative action won't cure them.''
He did not accept the pretenses that racial discrimination in the job market, in education, in government contracting, or in the granting of business and housing loans has been erased to the point that affirmative-action programs are no longer needed. In eloquent ways, some personal, Mr. Clinton acknowledged the painful and shameful truth that racism still permeates all aspects of American life.
He did not embrace the paranoid assertions that vast numbers of white Americans are unfairly victimized -- and hordes of minorities and women unfairly rewarded -- by government and private programs involving contracts, scholarships, hirings and promotions. He emphasized such realities as the fact that black unemployment remains double that of white joblessness, and that the median net worth of black families in America is a pathetic $4,604 compared with the median net worth of $44,408 for white families.
''On the whole, the federal programs are fair and do not unduly burden nonbeneficiaries,'' the Clinton report said.
He rejected suggestions that affirmative action be made just another poverty program with the focus only on aiding the poor. Somehow, Mr. Clinton came to understand that if the nation is to benefit, affirmative steps must be taken to extend equal opportunity to an affluent black MBA leaving the Harvard Business School, a middle-class female college graduate who wants to work for the State Department, or a non-impoverished Hispanic who wants help from the Small Business Administration in building an enterprise that will provide work for many heads of families.
He acknowledged that no nation can afford to ignore or misuse its greatest talent simply because the talented are not impoverished.
What the president wants to do, properly, is to extend federal contract set-asides and other affirmative help to white business people who live in areas of chronic poverty and deprivation. That would be an unassailable reform.
But this president refused to abandon the idea that special efforts must still be made to alleviate the effects of hundreds of years of discrimination against former black slaves, women and those facing obstacles still put in the way of relative newcomers, especially those with brown or yellow skin.
Affirmative steps by universities in Maryland, Virginia, California and across the nation in granting college admissions and/or scholarships have become a huge political issue.
Pete Wilson has made opposition to all affirmative action the launch pad for his efforts to win the Republican presidential nomination, and he was predictably apoplectic after listening to the president's reasoned call for fairness.
Not only did Mr. Clinton walk away from what some of us feared would be a politically expedient cave-in to Governor Wilson and other Republicans, but he reaffirmed the rightness of universities such as Maryland trying to redress indisputable generations of bigotry against blacks.
Mr. Clinton conceded that just as he thought it good for America for him to appoint a Cabinet of racial, ethnic and gender diversity, so is it good for the nation and everyone for colleges to build student bodies and faculties of diversity.
The prospect before Wednesday was that in 1996 this nation would tear itself apart in strife over ''affirmative action,'' with the combatants thrashing blindly with no common concepts of what affirmative action is or does.
Mr. Clinton, in this one act of calm courage, has given us all a chance to understand what affirmative action is and is not.
It is a pity that the major networks did not give everyone in this troubled society a chance to hear all of an extraordinary speech.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.