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"Not A Word of Criticism of Clinton,"

by Clarence Lusane November/December 1998 issue of Poverty & Race

Few people consciously appoint their own executioners. This is painfully but not surprisingly evident in the recent report presented to the President by his Race Initiative Advisory Board, where nary a word of criticism deed, as far as the report is concerned, while racism and racial discrimination still persist, they are practiced by virtually no one except a few skinheads and unreconstructed Klansmen.

The Advisory Board not only does not chastise the current administration, it goes through great contortions to praise Clinton, referring to him as the only president in U.S. history to have "had the courage to raise the issue of race and racism in American society in such a dramatic way." Apparently, the Board members never heard of Lyndon Johnson and his Great Society agenda. While arguably Clinton has distinguished himself from most other recent presidents, such as Reagan and Bush, in giving attention to the need to address race as an issue in U.S. society, look to whom he is being compared. It is ridiculous to pretend that his policies have been a rose garden of racial enlightenment and progress. Highly symbolic acts by the president that generated racial outrage among many (the pre-election execution of Ricky Rector, distancing from former Spelman College President Johnnetta Cole, undermining of Rev. Jesse Jackson with rapper Sistah Souljah, and the conservative-inspired firing of then-Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders) also failed to make the cut.

This undue, indeed unseemly, adulation is rooted in what many suspected was the true purpose of the Race Initiative all along: valorization of Clinton's New Democrat perspective on race. Clinton's affliction for talking left and walking right appears to have had a contagious effect on Board members.

The Congress and the Supreme Court, for the most part, also remain exempt from any condemnation. Congressional actions regarding crime and cuts in social programs, and Court initiatives against affirmative action and majority-minority political districts have not been minor issues in the game of race.

The report's recommendations, when not politically uninspired and timid, border on the farcical. The report notes, for example, the disparities in sentencing and incarceration between racial minorities and whites, in particular drug convictions spurred by the difference generated by the 100-1 penalty ratio between crack cocaine and cocaine powder. Clinton is honored for his administration's belated and politically pointless proposal to bring that gap down to 10-1 by decreasing the crack penalties and raising the powder ones, a proposal tat will do little to ameliorate the problem. It is prudently not mentioned that Clinton signed off on this 100-1 ratio year after year even though he was presented with irrefutable evidence of its racially disparate impact from the day he came into office. The tragic increase, from one-quarter to one-third, of young black males between 20-29 being either on parole, on probation, or incarcerated occurred during the Clinton years.

The spread of AIDS is also noted by the report as an increasing problem among African Americans. Yet in Spring 1998, even after admitting that evidence demonstrated that clean needle exchange programs saved lives while not increasing drug use, Clinton went against the wishes of HHS Secretary Donna Shalala and refused to approve funding for these efforts. This occurred at a time when Clinton's approval rating was riding high and he had little to lose.

The report also seems to believe that racism can be and should be attacked a little step at a time. There is no call for massive social intervention on the part of the state similar to the 1930s Works Progress Administration or the 1960s War on Poverty efforts. A substantial, multi-year domestic Marshall Plan is minimally needed if there is to be a significant advance in ending the class dimensions of racism.

The report correctly calls for more data gathering regarding the social and economic status of the nation's racial minorities. For instance, specific information is needed on sub-groups within the larger racial groups.

In the end, however, the report is an intellectual failure of the grandest order. It is less than the sum of its pans. At least half of the report is comprised of lists of meetings, quotes from Board members and others, and endnotes. The overwhelming majority of footnotes consist of journalistic pieces rater than the bevy of academic studies and books on race that have emerged in recent years. Compared to the 1968 National Advisory Committee report, Common Destiny, An American Dilemma, or even Reagan-era Civil Rights Commission reports, the Race Initiative Advisory Board report is a throwaway.

After dozens of meetings, hundreds of pages of report, and endless yakking, the report is another gift box in pretty wrapping paper that is empty. Clinton's "One America" remains as elusive as ever.

Clarence Lusane is on the faculty of American University's School of International Service and author of the book Race in the Global Era: African Americans at the Millennium (South End Press).

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