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"Notes on the President's Initiative on Race,"

by Chester Hartman November/December 1997 issue of Poverty & Race

I was in the audience for the second public meeting of the Advisory Board to the President's Initiative on Race, at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, Sept. 30. Both President Clinton and Vice-President Gore attended for about an hour.

The 7-person Board is a demographic triumph -- 4 men, 3 women; 1 Asian-American, 1 Latino, 2 African-Americans; labor (AFL) and business (Nissan's CEO); a minister; two former governors, one from the North (NJ), one from the South (MS). But aside from its renowned chair, historian John Hope Franklin, a wonderful choice (and we should all be half as energetic and sharp at 82), the Board is composed of relatively unknown figures -- selections made, apparently, with little consultation with those civil rights organizations and leaders one would expect to have a say in such appointments. Franklin of course is author of classic works on slavery and the Reconstruction era -- and no stranger to society's race bias, not the least manifestation of which was a 1995 incident when he left a Cosmos Club dinner prior to receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, only to be mistaken by a white woman for the coatroom clerk.

The Board has a one-year life (which can be extended), officially ending on September 30, 1998 -- although the President's Executive Order #13050 establishing the Board was promulgated on June 13 (and dramatically announced by President Clinton at his UC-San Diego commencement address). Staffing has been slow, with the Executive Director Judith Winston -- a first-rate choice, who just has completed a term as General Counsel to the US Department of Education (and is a former PRRAC Board member) -- not having come on board until August. Almost all of the 30 staff positions now have been filled -- but very recently. Winston at the Mayflower meeting alluded to the difficulty of getting good people to take a job with but a one-year life. In the interim, the Board has been drawing heavily on input from the Nissan staff, a company said to have exemplary race policies, but about which no one I talked with seemed to have any detailed knowledge.

A Vague Mission

The Board's mission is necessarily on the vague side. Its formal role, as its title indicates, is merely to provide advice to the President "on matters involving race and racial reconciliation." Apparently, and disturbingly, it does not intend to issue its own report, merely. transmit its advice to the President, whose White House staff will take it from there.

The Executive Order specifies four functions:

a) Promote a constructive national dialogue to confront and work through challenging issues that surround race;

b) Increase the Nation's understanding of our recent [sic] history of race relations and the course our Nation is charting on the issues of race relations and racial diversity;

c) Bridge racial divides by encouraging leaders in communities throughout the Nation to develop and implement innovative approaches to calming racial tensions; and

d) Identify, develop, and implement solutions to problems in areas in which race has a substantial impact, such as education, economic opportunity, housing, health care, and the administration of justice."

With respect to item d), the Board apparently has decided to focus on education and economic opportunity -- certainly central issues but ignoring housing, where most discrimination and segregation occurs and a prime cause of educational segregation and disadvantage as well as an important factor in job market discrimination. Housing, however, is the toughest nut to crack, racewise. Research on the "hypersegregation" phenomenon by Douglas Massey, Nancy Denton and others shows how widespread and pernicious extreme racial separation is and the impacts of this isolation.

Reviewing the Data

Most of the Mayflower meeting was taken up with reports by outside consultants. Demographer Reynolds Farley of The Russell Sage Foundation ably reviewed data showing what by now should be accepted knowledge: that the US is becoming an increasingly multiracial society, due to immigration, differential birth rates, intermarriage and self-identification, and that shortly after 2050 whites will comprise less than half the nation's population (something true in many locales already due to quite different regional impacts of the forces creating this change). Harvard sociologist Lawrence Bobo reviewed the welter of confusing (and to this observer not always reliable) polling data on racial attitudes. Clearly, expressed attitudes toward integration and racial equality have markedly improved in recent decades (but I wonder how honest people are in admitting to views that increasingly are regarded as unacceptable). Stark and important differences show up in how whites and minorities view the prevalence of racial discrimination and disadvantage in our society, and in acceptable levels of residential integration (whites say they would not mind having a few black neighbors, blacks feel they need a far higher proportion of other blacks, in neighborhoods as well as other settings, in order to feel comfortable -- proportions that would lead the whites to flee). These polling data doubtless are accurate, and present a massive barrier to solving Myrdal's "American Dilemma." Equally depressing and disturbing is the extent of negative stereotyping of racial minorities (views the culture inculcates in racial minorities themselves) and the deepening pessimism about the future of race relations and the quite understandable alienation felt by the nation's racial minorities.

Other expert witnesses were psychologists James Jones (Univ. of Delaware). John Dovidio (Colgate) and Derald Wing Sue (Cal. State Hayward). From them came important, but by now well recognized, truths (often proved via cleverly designed experiments): the ways in which race is a social not a biological construct; the problems that ensue if race is ignored (effectively destroying the famous "color-blind America" push from the Right); the way that negative expectations elicit poor performance; the subtlety with which racism now manifests itself; the therefore lesser consciousness of racist practices on the part those who act in a racist manner; the need to acknowledge and recognize normal, expectable biases, stereotypes and preconceived notions based on race.

The several hours of testimony was all very well done. But it is hard to imagine that the Board members (or most of the 200 or so people in attendance -- the majority of whom did not return for the afternoon session, after Clinton and Gore's appearance) learned much new. There was little interaction among Board members and not much came from them other than their prepared statements. No audience participation was allowed. As Steven Holmes observed in his NY Times account the next day, "Missing. . . was any crisp talk about what the panel itself would do. . . . "Sub-sequent Washington Post and NY Times stories were headed, respectively, "Race Initiative Appears to Be Foundering" and "Critics Say Clinton Panel About Race Lacks Focus."

Dialogue or Beyond?

And that of course raises the Big Question: What Is To Be Done? And is the President's Initiative any more or other than yet another largely time-buying, windowdressing move to give the impression that Something Is Being Done about the country's historic, deeply grounded racism? Vice-President Gore told the audience that "this may turn out to be the most important initiative of the Clinton presidency." But little occurred at the Mayflower to back up this claim.

The key buzzword is "dialogue." But is there evidence that dialogue by itself leads to real change? Most efforts at dialogue are notably shallow. The President and Board Chair Franklin announced there would be a series of "town meetings" around the country (the first scheduled for Dec. 2, with Clinton likely the host). Honest dialogue itself (which realistically cannot happen at a media event like a town meeting), while having the potential to be a healing step, takes an incredible amount of trust and preparation: Letty Cottin Pogrebin, in her contribution to the excellent collection Struggles in the Promised Land: Towards a History of Black-Jewish Relations in the U.S., edited by Jack Salzman and Cornel West, describes the decade (sic) of regular--and even-tually failed -- meetings among a small, homogeneous, biracial group of women before feelings could honestly and comfortably be put out.

Dialogue of course implies a very personal, individualistic and interpersonal approach to racism. While individual attitudes and behavior of course are central issues, an exclusive or predominant take on racism from that perspective will slight the larger institutional forces that reflect and undergird the racist character of American society. How do we deal with the enormous, and growing, racial disparities in wealth and income? How do we fix our education system so that it does not reproduce and exacerbate these disparities and create "hypersegregation"? How do we counter the current judicial and legislative moves to undermine and limit the political representation of Blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans? How do we get the govermnent to effectively enforce its own anti-discrimination laws? How do we face the ways in which racism benefits various groups and entities -- including the very corporations deemed so essential to the goal of economic opportunity? Questions such as these -- and the list could be expanded greatly --would seem to lie beyond the Board's purview. And even if they were willing to deal with racism at that level, what advice would our not notably courageous President take and go with?

A frequently invoked theme was the need to involve youth (a demographic category absent from the Board's composition). President Clinton pointed proudly to the Fairfax County, Virginia school system as probably the nation's most diverse: 182 nationalities, 100 language groups. But I suspect any honest look at the workings of that system would show all the signs of disparate educational opportunities by race and class, tracking, de facto segregation and most if not all the other problems that characterize school systems across the country. Ex-Governor William Winter of Mississippi proudly passed around to the President and Vice-President photos of his young grandchildren's integrated school in Oxford, but where is the evidence that simply going to an integrated elementary school (a dying institution, given the rapid resegregation occurring in our country) produces positive results later on? (Going through some office materials while waiting for the meeting to start, I was struck by an account from the SouthWest Organizing Project's newsletter of two teachers fired by the Vaughn, New Mexico School Board for using the teaching materials provided by the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Teaching Tolerance" project and SWOP's 500 (Years of Chicano History in Pictures.)

That's History

Then there's the role of history. John Hope Franklin has declared that no progress can be made on the racial front without an understanding of history. Will the Board look beyond "recent" history? The knotty and complex question of the continuing impact of 250 years of slavery ought to be raised (something Congressman John Conyers has tried to do for years via a study commission -- but the bill has never made it out of committee). Is the reparations issue one to at least consider? And what about the "apology for slavery" resolution recently introduced by a group of white House members? Certainly, by itself it may not mean much; but could be a start toward dealing with country's racist past -- not only slavery, but our treatment of Native Americans, Mexicans, Chinese. "That's history" seems to be a putdown nowadays; we need to understand and come to grips with our history and how it affects the present if ever we are to disprove the "permanent racism" thesis of Derrick Bell and others.

Perhaps it was providential that as the Board wound up the day's proceedings, a noisy birthday party in the adjacent meeting room was heard playing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."

The Advisory Board says it wants input from the public. They're reachable at The New Executive Office Bldg., Wash., DC 20503, 202/395-1010.

Chester Hartman is Director of Research at PRRAC.

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