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"The Speech President Clinton Should Have Made,"

by Howard Winant July/August 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

"My fellow Americans of all colors and all national origins: it is an honor to address you all, and to recognize you all, as equals. For a long time, this country has been moving toward that recognition, as we work together to overcome the legacy of a deeply racist past. It is time to acknowledge the pain and suffering that were wrought by African enslavement, by the virtual holocaust of the native peoples who lived here before there was an America and by the coerced manual labor of millions of immigrants. Where would our country be today if these countless people, of all colors, of all varieties of the one human race, had not expended their toil, their blood, sweat and tears to build this society? Their contributions were not properly appreciated; indeed, they often worked for nothing or under the lash. What would America be without the enormous contributions that racially-defined minorities have made to our culture? Think of American music and dance and poetry, think of American military achievements, think of the very language Americans speak. Without the efforts and ideas of a people which included not just white folk, but also black, brown, yellow and red folk, we could not even know ourselves.

"Despite their great gifts, for cen-turies these givers - these people of color - were mistreated and exploited. Even after African slavery was abolished and the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans came to an end, racial segregation and discrimination, lynching and deportation, denial of the franchise and widespread
neglect, all continued. hour own lifetimes we have witnessed tremendous wrongs committed in the name of race. Yet the struggles of these same peoples for justice, combined with the help of many whites, have begun to overcome the legacy of racism. The great pioneers of the movements for emancipation and civil rights, for the rights of working people and the War on Poverty did not labor in vain.

"But even today, as we near the end of the 20th Century, we are not done with the task of achieving racial equality and respect across the color lines that still survive in America. Yes, some would like us to believe that today we live in a 'color-blind' society, where all are judged according to their merit. I too would like to believe this, but I do not.

"Is opportunity equal when ghetto schools spend only half the money suburban schools can spend per pupil? Is it equal when black unemployment remains twice as high as white unemployment? Is there a commitment to civil rights when the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission labors under a backlog of tens of thousands of discrimination cases? Is there a 'color-blindness' in immigration law? If there is equal opportunity housing in America, then why do we still have ghettos and barrios, as well as nearly exclusively white neighborhoods? Is the attack on affirmative action, which is going on at the state and local as well as the federal levels, going to create more equality, or will it return us to the segregated employment and education we thought were being eliminated?

"If, despite all the progress we have made, there is still a lot of racism in America today, then it is my task as President to provide leadership, and to propose policies, that will work to reduce it. Here are some of my suggestions, which I have directed my staff to formulate, as appropriate, into legislative proposals and legal briefs:
"First, we should intervene systematically against racial harassment. The persistence and even growth of racist organizations and cults, often armed and dangerous, must be effectively countered. Many of them call themselves militias and organizations of 'patriots,' but they are little more than modern-era night riders and racist terrorists. We cannot accept their use of the word 'patriot,' because nothing could be less patriotic than spreading the bile of racial hatred.

"Second, we should reinforce our commitment to racial integration. Assaults on minority families trying to move into a previously segregated neighborhood are still a flourishing form of racial harassment; they should be prevented by law and by strong community commitments to tolerance. I'm a great believer in the phrase W.I.M.B.Y. -Welcome In My Back Yard.

"Third, the federal government should endorse the principle of equal law enforcement, notably by police and courts. For example, the wide-spread police harassment of racially-defined minorities, for the crime known as D.W.B. - Driving While Black - must be ended. The federal government could play a big role in training our often beleaguered and bewildered police to respect all citizens regardless of race. Our police have a tough job to do, but they still must do it fairly. The same is often true of judges and juries.

"Fourth, I will dedicate the rest of my second term to developing programs to foster massive investment in urban infrastructure (in the style of a new WPA). A brief visit to the ghettos and barrios of our nation quickly reveals the price of neglect, a price that will be paid by our nation's youth and by future generations in the form of more crime, higher taxes and a less open society. The investment we make now, both public and private, could restore our cities to their past comfort, safety, efficiency and economic viability. It will pay off tremendously all across this country. There is certainly plenty of work to be done:
schools and facilities need rebuilding; public transport, roads and sewer systems do, too. Where such need exists, how can we permit, how can we justify, endemic unemployment in our impoverished urban neighborhoods? Once the efforts begin to rebuild our cities, private investment and job creation in the inner cities will start to grow again as well. This is the lesson of my great Democratic predecessor, Franklin Roosevelt: to provide useful work to those in poverty is a sacred duty of government.

"Fifth, I dedicate myself to a renewed commitment to enforcing the civil rights laws, both through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and other civil rights agencies. Those who experience discrimination in employment, housing, education or voting rights must be assured that the federal government will actively intervene to investigate and remedy racial injustice. I also announce my intention to foster racial equality through judicial appointments: I will seek to appoint judges who have demonstrated their interest in and commitment to civil rights and equal opportunity. I will also direct the Justice Department actively to defend existing policies and programs, such as voting rights, against attempts to nullify or weaken them.

"Finally, I want to let you know, my fellow Americans, of my ongoing commitment to affirmative action. Far from being the evil its opponents label it, affirmative action policy is one of the most valuable tools we have in our effort to combat racism. In government and in the corporate world, it has many supporters, but it needs one more supporter very strongly: the President of the United States. In many areas, but particularly in education and employment, affirmative action works, not only to overcome the habits of discrimination developed in the past, but also to forestall discrimination in the present. Research demonstrates over and over again that affirmative action policies do not discriminate 'in reverse.' Affirmative action programs do not need to be used (and are indeed rarely used)
as quotas. Rather, they offer one of the only avenues through which racial minorities can advance through the minefields, unfortunately still very much present, of discrimination and inequality. We cannot dispense with them while substantial racial injustice still exists.

"My fellow citizens, we must recognize that race remains, and probably will remain for a long time, a prominent dimension of our social structure and culture. We must accept that although we have made progress in fighting racism, systematic social inequality continues along racial lines. Once we comprehend this, we can stand together as a people and a government for the ideals we most deeply cherish: that all men and women are created equal. And we can do this not only in principle, but in practice."

Howard Winant Howard Winant is Professor of Sociology at Temple University (713 Gladfelter Hall, Phila., PA 19122). He is the author of Racial Formation in the United States and Racial Conditions: Politics, Theory, Comparisons.
 

Notes:

We were underwhelmed by Pres. Clinton 's San Diego speech on race - pretty good (but not great) rhetoric-wise, but woefully short on programmatic substance (the Wash. Post editorial flat labeled it "fuzzy"). So we were delighted when Howard Winant sent us his version of what should have been said. (You can get a copy of the Clinton speech from us with a SASE - 78C; and if you think it's worthwhile getting in touch with the new commission on race headed by the superwonderful John Hope Franklin, he can be reached at the Dept. of History. Duke Univ., Durham, NC 27708.)

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