Colorado College Commencement Address
Given by Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar

May 21, 2001

“Diversity:  Our Painful Past -- Our Bright Future”

It is a great honor and privilege for me to be here today some 24 years after I was where the students are now.  I congratulate you -- the graduates, the parents, faculty, administration, my fellow members of the board of trustees, and all of you who have made this day of celebration possible.    

It also is a special occasion in part because there are two students who are graduating here today -- Andrea Autobee and Robert Salazar -- the daughter and son of two of my great friends and two people who were really role models for me, who decided that a young man from the San Luis Valley could in fact come to a place like Colorado College, and could in fact succeed.  So my good friends, Tom Autobee and Robert Salazar, who were here at a time when there was not a lot of diversity at the college, were working on it back in 1969 and 1970 for them, and now for their children.  For me, this is a very, very special occasion.

For my family, I know we have been in this state for a very long time, and I know we’ve been in the northern part of New Mexico for an even longer time.  I think about the Southwest Studies program at this college and what it does, it terms of teaching the history of this place.  For me, it is a special jewel.  Because even though my family settled the area along the Rio Grande Valley and the city of Santa Fe back in 1598 with Capitán Juan de Salazar (one of the people who made that settlement almost 403 years ago), and even though it was my family who came up into Colorado after the Mexican-American War in 1848 and settled the small town of Los Rincones in the very southern part of the San Luis Valley, when I went to high school and my own elementary school, I was still being taught only a certain perspective on history.  I was being taught that the history of my people was really one which was very much tied into Plymouth Rock, which was tied into the settlement of the eastern part of this country.

Yet, it was only this place, it was this place called Colorado College, the friends at MEChA, and my professors in the political science department and the economics department, who taught me that there was a lot more to learn about the world and that indeed my own personal history was in fact a tremendous history and a tremendous heritage that I should be very proud of.  That heritage and that history had within it the richness of values that ultimately would make me succeed.  So the one lesson I would ask all of you to think about this morning (not only the graduates but also everybody else here) is:  In each of your own personal lives, there is a tremendous amount of history and there is a tremendous amount of wisdom that has accumulated through the ages and has been passed on to you.  And as you think about how you will pass that torch on to the generation that comes behind you, let us make sure that we pass that torch on to a world that is an even better place, a world that is a more welcoming place, a world that is a more inclusive place, a world where young people and all people have the opportunity to live up to all the potential that God has given each and every one of us.

When I think back to the fact that I was elected as Colorado Attorney General in November of 1998, it was a dream come true for me and a milestone in many ways.  I became the first Hispanic to ever be elected to any state-wide office in the entire 125-year history of the state of Colorado.  So, for me, it was a remarkable milestone, but I think even more importantly, it was a remarkable milestone for our state of Colorado.  What it demonstrated is that:  No matter what your background is, no matter what your humble beginnings are, no matter what obstacles you have in front of you, in this place we call Colorado, it is in fact a place of equal opportunity for all.  It is a privilege and an honor that I cherish every day to be able to serve the people of Colorado as your Attorney General.

I wanted to reflect back just a minute about some of the history of the relations between people in our country because I think, that as we look ahead to the next century, how we address the whole issue of diversity and the relationships among our different communities is going to be one of the most difficult challenges that all of us who are here at this graduation ceremony are going to have to deal with in one way or another

The demographics of our country tell us this country is changing in a very rapid way, demographics tell us today there are nearly 35 million African-Americans in this country, and over 35 million Hispanics, and almost 5 million Asian-Americans -- so that the total population just of those three minority groups is almost 30 percent of the population of America.  And so when we look at what this means to us in the years ahead, in this new century, it’s important for us to look back to see how far it is we have come as a nation.  You would not have seen a Hispanic or an African-American or a woman president sitting before the commencement ceremonies here 100 years ago, and yet because of the progress we have made as a society over the last 400 years, we today have some new opportunities and some new challenges, but challenges I know we can very much address.   

If you step back just for one second, this country, for the first 250 years -- from the time pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, the time that the southwest were settled in 1598 and beyond -- really had a definition.  We were characterized by a relationship between groups which was the relationship best typified by the concept of slavery.  It was ok in many parts of our country, the Eastern parts, to own blacks simply because they were viewed as inferior, they were viewed not as equal human beings.  In the Southwest, the Spanish enslaved many of the Indians, because they felt they were also inferior.  Two-hundred and fifty years is a very long time.  That was the kind of relationship that we had among ourselves and our society for the first 250 years of this country, and it took the bloodiest civil war, and the bloodiest war yet in the history of America for us to end that institution of slavery.  It was only that civil war that ushered in the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments that said, in our country, when we talk about equality, we are talking about equal rights for all, we are talking about voting rights for everyone, and the system of slavery is something that will forever be barred in our country.   

So that is what the Civil War did, but what did that usher in?  It ushered in again a whole system of trying to redefine the relationships between groups.  Even though slavery had ended, we then entered into what I call the next 100 years of the doctrine of separate but equal.  It was ok to say we were all equal, but if you were African-American or of other groups, you were placed in separate swimming pools, schools, and public accommodations.  From 1865 until the famous decision of Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, we really lived in a society in which being a part of different groups was the right way to go. 

We’ve read and know about the Civil Rights movement and history back in the 20s and 30s that said the system is wrong.  But it took Justin Warren and the unanimous Supreme Court decision in 1954 to say that under the 14th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, the doctrine of “separate but equal” had no place.  The doctrine of “separate but equal” had no place.  1954 was not that long ago.  400 years seems like a long time ago, 150 seems like a long time ago but 1954 was the year before I was born, so for me it doesn’t seem like it was that long ago.  But 1954 marked the beginning of what I call the new age of the diversity.  That’s the age that we recognize that it’s important for us to learn from each other, to make sure the opportunities that are available to one group are not somehow not made available to another group just because of their race or color.

It took the civil rights movement, the tumult of the 1960s, and the civil rights laws that were passed at that point in time to essentially help us usher in this new age of diversity.  We are still struggling with exactly what that means.  Because by the time we got to 1977, the Supreme Court again had revisited the issue in a case called Bakke vs. the Board of Regents of California.  In that decision, the U.S. Supreme Court said a white male was discriminated against by the University of California system because that medical school had set aside 16 of its 100 slots for people who were from minority backgrounds.  The white male plaintiff prevailed before the U.S. Supreme Court in that decision in 1977.  

We’re still trying to work through what all that means and how we address the issue of diversity.  It’s an issue that is confusing to America, an issue that is confusing to the courts.  Perhaps the place where we see its greatest confusion just in the last year is what’s happened at the University of Michigan.  At the University of Michigan, one federal district court judge taking a look at the admissions programs for the undergraduate program at the University of Michigan said, yes they have a constitutional program because diversity is a compelling state interest and, because it furthers the educational goals of the institution, it is legal under the 14th amendment.  And yet another federal district court judge in Michigan again said the University of Michigan law school was violating the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment because it was taking into account race as a factor in its admissions program.  Courts in the same state involving the same institution.  So what does that tell me?  It tells me that we are still very much trying to understand how he deal with this whole issue of diversity and inclusion.

I have a couple of observations to make from that, in terms of my own personal experience.  I believe that we as a society are much better off when we embrace the principal of pluralism and inclusion and I think we are much better off when we do that for a number of different reasons.  First, as a society, if we were all the same, we would frankly be a very boring society.  Sometimes when we travel to places in Europe, Asia, Africa, or Mexico, we travel there to learn about those places and communities and somehow our own lives are enriched.  When we think about the fact that we have the same kind of diversity and opportunity within our own country that can enrich our own lives, it tells me that one of the things we need to do this century is to celebrate our diversity -- that we not tolerate the diversity, but that we celebrate our diversity -- because that is going to be necessary for our country and for our society to deal with these issues that would otherwise be very contentious. 

Secondly, it’s important for us to make sure we understand there is an economic hook to embracing the concept of inclusion and diversity.  We know that women and minorities are going to be entering the workforce, and have entered the workforce, at very high numbers and for our economy to keep moving along and to be a successful economy, we need to make sure that all of the people in our society are given an opportunity to participate in that economy.  So, we need to be able to do that for our own self survival.  

Let me conclude by saying that I command and ask all of us here to dedicate ourselves to a mission of service.  For some of us, the mission of service may be to continue the educational mission of faculty members here at Colorado College, or in the case of the Board of Trustees, to make sure this institution continues with the proud legacy this institution has created.  For others of you, it may be in the medical field, it may be in government, but whatever that is, we need to make sure that all of us have a mission of service.  I have had many blessings in my life, opportunities to serve and opportunities to make money that I have declined because I believe passionately in public service.  

When I think about why it is that I think that way, I think back to what my forefathers told me when I was growing up. I remember my grandmother, who when I was a young boy, I stayed with for a long time.  She would tell us a story of her own life and how she had struggled.  She had 11 children, and out of 11 children, eight of them died before they had reached the age of five.  She told me once a story about my uncle Willy and about his death.  They had been homesteading a place that was 640 acres right on the New Mexico line in the 1920s.  He had become sick and overnight started to tell his mother and father, “Oh, Mom. Oh, Dad.  Oh, God.” In the morning they saw his condition had declined and they decided it was time to take him to the doctor.  They put him in a covered wagon and they headed 30 miles down a road that was very difficult to traverse.  About five minutes before they got to the doctor’s office, he died in her arms.  And yet somehow that woman that had so much pain, that had to struggle through so much, picked up the torch of life and said that she would dedicate her own life to making sure that her children had an even better life than the life she had.

The result of that is that she raised three wonderful children, and one of them was my father.  He had this sense that education really was a keystone to opportunity for all of us.  Yes, we were poor, yes we didn’t have electricity, yes, we didn’t have a telephone, radio, or TV, but he would sit around the room and tell us that it didn’t matter that he couldn’t give us a lot of money, or large ranches, but the one thing he wanted to make sure we got a good education.  Because, in the end, no one could take that away from us.  The result of his teachings and my mother’s teachings is that all eight of their children graduated from college and many of us graduated with post graduate degrees as well.  That’s a tremendous testament to their belief in education and the belief that somehow the life that they had would be an even better life for their children.  

In the same way, when I dedicate myself to public service and I dedicate myself to this college, I believe I have a duty and a responsibility to make sure the world I help create will be an even better world for my two daughters, and will be an even better world to the generation that is coming behind us.  Ultimately it is that dedication to make a difference, to serve -- a mission of service -- that I implore all of you to embrace as you move forward from this commencement.   

Thank you very much.  

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