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(1987) Thurgood Marshall, “A Colorblind Society Remains an Aspiration”

On August 15, 1987 U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall spoke to a gathering of federal judges.  Reflecting on his two decades on the Court and particularly on recent affirmative action rulings by the High Court, Justice Marshall reminded his audience that the United States had not yet achieved racial equality or as he termed it, a colorblind society.  His words appear below.

Chief Judge [Wilfred] Feinberg [of the U.S. Court of Appeals, Second Circuit] and friends: As you know, it is wonderful to come up here and, am one of the Justices of this Court who appreciates the circuit, because I don’t have much trouble with it, I sit there at times and listen to the bandying back and forth about all the problems they have in this Circuit and that Circuit, and every now and then somebody asks me, “What about your circuit?” I say, “It runs itself.”

What I have to say this morning is, I hope, of interest…

I would like to speak today about an issue much discussed in recent months, in part because of cases which came to our Court from this Circuit last year. I refer to the Sheet Metal Workers case, in which our Court affirmed the excellent decision by Judge Pratt, and to the question of affirmative action. Much has been said lately about the scope of permissible remedies, both voluntary and mandatory, in cases of employment discrimination. The decisions of our Court in this past term suggest to me that there is still a basic agreement among a majority of the Justices that the commands of Title VII and the equal protection clause should be implemented, where necessary, through broad-based relief including the imposition of affirmative duties to eradicate the effects of past discrimination, But because statements in sharp opposition to the use of affirmative remedies have recently been heard with increasing frequency, I think it is appropriate to share with you some general thoughts about why affirmative action is necessary, and on the role which it plays in our law despite many people in high offices trying to