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"President's Race Advisory Board Needed More time,"

by Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich March/April 1999 issue of Poverty & Race

I regret that the mandate to President Clinton’s Advisory Board on Race has expired and that their Report is finished. While the Board existed, interested citizens engaged in spirited and revealing debates – both public and private – and established a new high for examination of the thorny, uniquely American dilemma of the color line. Even when transparent motives distracted discussion from the central theme of racial reconciliation and how to achieve it, the compensating sincerity of most ordinary Americans about eliminating bias and discrimination was its own reward in this increasingly multi-cultural, multi-colored, multi-racial national hodge podge.

Unfortunately, now that Dr. John Hope Franklin and his Advisory Board colleagues have ended their commendable work, I expect a status quo ante pall to smother efforts at continuing a universal dialogue on racism. The Report, as richly instructive as it is, will be shelved and the topic will be out-of-sight, out-of-mind. The incentive to examine the contemporary expressions of historic predicates to prejudice most surely will surrender to shallow rationalizations and indifferent comparisons, mostly between the assimilation rates of later-arriving people of color and the stagnating assimilation of most African American descendants of slaves. Since people usually do not read reports, and the press usually writes in sound bites, I expect that the Advisory Board’s conclusions will be largely unfamiliar to Archie Bunker’s “regular Americans” who did, in fact, pay some attention to the Advisory Board’s town meetings and public deliberations when it was still alive. The President’s Initiative is now a Report. It is no longer a Process. America is the poorer for that.

Dr. Franklin has characterized the Advisory Board’s process as “Talking, not shouting, about race,” and the Board tried to set a measured pace. Indeed, the impatience of media critics for a quick fix began when the Board was less than three months into its process. So now, reporters will dust off their hands and turn their attention to livelier arts. Yet, ambiguities of unbelievable complexity still remain largely unexamined, in public discourse as well as in the Report, because it takes more than the one year allotted the Advisory Board to untangle four centuries of racial animus and subjugation.

Take the falsely reassuring matter of “...the increasing amount of interracial marriages,” for example. This issue is a ticking stealth bomb waiting to explode the myth of a “Beige” – neither Black nor White – 21st Century America. Michael Lind writes, in a recent New York Times Magazine article: “By the end of the next century, experts predict, racial intermarriage will break down the color divide in America. The truth is much darker.” The generality of the Advisory Board Report’s language (“Further complicating the discussions of race is the increasing amount of interracial marriages...”) indeed disguises a profound difference in perspective between African Americans and other people of color, as well as tensions within the African American community.

Maybe, as the U.S. Census data show, large numbers of Hispanics and Asian Pacific Americans increasingly are “intermarrying” with others, leading to the conclusion that greater tolerance of difference and blurring of ethnicity will result. But African Americans clearly always have been a reflection of blending and mixing. Just look at any two of us. Yet, the “blended” African American is indiscriminately boxed, regardless of the visible degree of blending, by the Black-opportunity barriers of the glass ceilings, brick walls, cement floors and steel doors of discrimination. We need more than just one year and a written Report to sort that and other dynamics out.

Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich is Executive Director and C.O.O. of the Black Leadership Form (1090 Vermont Ave. NW, #100, Washington, DC 20005, 202/789-3507).

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