WASHINGTON -- House Speaker Newt Gingrich said yesterday that racial prejudice continues to limit opportunities for black Americans, but added that he thinks it is possible for everyone to succeed without affirmative action programs that require federal government or legal assistance.
"I believe there is real prejudice in America," he said. "I don't believe we live in a color-blind society.
"But I don't think you can find individual justice by litigation," he said. "I think when you try to create that backward-looking grievance system, you teach people exactly the wrong habits. They end up spending their life waiting for the laws to come instead of spending their life seeking opportunity."
In an hourlong discourse that repeatedly returned to his views on affirmative action, Mr. Gingrich said that federal programs intended to assist minority businesses should be scrapped and a new system erected that will provide opportunities for blacks, women and other groups.
"I'm looking for positive models, not ones based on genetic codes that exploit a lawyer-defined system," he said.
The breakfast meeting, organized by National Minority Politics Magazine, a conservative, black-owned publication, invited Mr. Gingrich and black journalists to talk about current events. A smiling and jovial Mr. Gingrich freely offered his opinions on school busing, federal assistance to cities and civil rights history.
His comments attacking government affirmative action -- the nation's 160 federal programs that take into account race and gender in hiring, promotions and awarding of federal contracts and benefits -- came three days after a related Supreme Court decision. The high court ruled in a 5-4 decision that preferential treatment based on race is almost always unconstitutional even if it is intended to correct past discrimination against minority groups.
The White House said yesterday that its planned announcement of its findings from a broad review of federal affirmative action programs has been delayed as officials scramble to understand the impact of the court's decision.
Mr. Gingrich, however, said the GOP-led House would press on with efforts to repeal federal affirmative action programs. But he said there were other more pressing issues facing Congress and didn't know when legislation would be introduced.
"We're very interested in maximizing affirmative action for individuals and for people who are financially and culturally deprived," he said. "But I think that there is a growing consensus against genetically-based patterns and grievance-based patterns."
Mr. Gingrich said civil rights leaders -- spurred on by lawyers -- created an affirmative action system that rewards people for belonging to groups and not for individual initiative or merit.
Mr. Gingrich said that he believes racism still exists in American life, but that it is overestimated as a barrier to black advancement. "It is harder to be black and American," he said. "It is more difficult to acquire wealth as a black in America."
Asked if he believed that to be true, what should government and civil rights leaders tell black youths about opportunity in this country, Mr. Gingrich said: "I'm prepared to say to the poor, you have to learn new habits. The habits of being poor don't work.
"In this country in 1996, if you work twice as hard, you're going to succeed," he added. "There are enormous avenues for opportunity in this society."