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Explosive Issue Fails to Ignite at Town Hall Meeting on Race
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, December 4, 1997; Page A01
AKRON, Ohio, Dec. 3—He poked and prodded and preached. He wandered the stage with microphone in hand and often challenged his audience. When is voluntary segregation acceptable? What difference does it make for whites and blacks to socialize together? Is it time for government to stop helping people based on race and focus instead on class?
The answers were not always as blunt as the questions. But as President Clinton hosted his first town hall meeting on race today, he labored to draw out frank talk about the lines that divide this midwestern industrial city and, by extension, get the nation to explore perhaps its most vexing and volatile social issue.
"What we're trying to do here is drop a pebble in the pond and have it reverberate all across America," Clinton said. "If we can find constructive ways for people to work together, learn together, talk together, be together, that's the best shot we've got . . . to avoid some of the difficult problems we've had in our history."
Never before has a president personally conducted such a public discussion on race in America. For two hours, as a national television audience watched, Clinton and 67 college students, civic leaders and business executives recounted their experiences with people of different colors. From a white man who admitted fearing black men on the street to a biracial youth insulted because his checks are held up at the bank, the talk at times touched on the most sensitive and poignant of human relations.
Yet as divisive as race has been in the nation's political arena lately, today's inaugural forum produced more anecdotes and entreaties for better relations -- one woman urged everyone to follow the Golden Rule -- than extended debate about the public policy issues that remain unsettled in the post-civil rights era.
The most dramatic moment did not come until the end of the forum when Clinton engaged in a sharp exchange with author Abigail Thernstrom over her opposition to affirmative action. After the president asked for a show of hands from those who support continuing such programs in college admissions, Thernstrom interjected that the real question was whether they favored racial preferences.
"Abigail," retorted Clinton, towering over her as she sat in her chair, "do you favor the United States Army abolishing the affirmative action program that produced Colin Powell?" When she hesitated, he pressed the point. "Yes or no?" he demanded. "Yes or no?"
"I do not think that it is racial preferences that made Colin Powell . . ." Thernstrom started.
"He thinks he was helped by it," Clinton interrupted.
"The overwhelming majority of Americans want American citizens to be treated as individuals," Thernstrom finally got in.
The town hall meeting, conducted at the University of Akron and broadcast live on C-SPAN, was the first of several Clinton plans to hold over the next six months as part of his year-long campaign for racial reconciliation. To encourage Americans to talk about issues that often are left undiscussed absent a national crisis, the White House organized 96 "watch sites" around the country where groups of people tuned into the Akron forum and then engaged in their own discussions after it was over.
Clinton hoped the Akron meeting would mark a turning point in his initiative, which has been criticized as unfocused and closed to dissent. In an interview with Knight-Ridder this week, the president acknowledged "we got off to a little bit of a slow start, but that partly was my fault" and he hinted he may extend the project beyond a year's time.
In selecting people to share the stage with Clinton today, the White House pledged to find a cross section of society and came up with a blend of participants from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. But in addition to students, organizers drew heavily from the local establishment, including a senator, congressman, mayor, university president, school superintendent, city council member, county executive, bank vice president, newspaper publisher and Fortune 500 CEO.
Although Thernstrom was invited to provide a more conservative voice, the stage remained dominated by people who shared Clinton's view of race. Just a half dozen raised their hands when he asked how many thought affirmative action in college admissions should be ended -- a far cry from the majority sentiment in the nation's largest state of California, where voters decided to abolish it.
At times, Clinton appeared frustrated as he tried to elicit more raw feelings from the audience. A moderator called on pre-selected participants to share their stories, but as time was running out, the president dispensed with that and began calling on people at random, running over the allotted time by a half-hour.
"He felt that he did have to work hard to draw people out, but . . . he had expected that, given that people sometimes have a hard time opening up in front of the president," White House press secretary Michael McCurry said afterward.
During the program, many shared sometimes painful memories of how they have been treated because of their race. "I've been to banks where I've given them a check to deposit for my mother and . . . they've put holds on them unnecessarily," said McHughson Chambers, a biracial University of Akron student.
"When I tell people I'm Puerto Rican, they wonder why I'm not like [actress] Rosie Perez or anybody like that -- why don't I speak like her, why don't I look like her," said Anna Arroyo, a pre-med student.
An African American woman who did not give her name recalled that a college roommate "broke out in hives when she discovered that I was going to be her roommate and I was black."
Only one of those who spoke, though, confessed to harboring any racial thoughts of his own. Jonathan Morgan, a white university student, said bigotry was more of a problem in "the older generations" -- which he defined as "thirties, forties, fifties and up" -- while he grew up with a different attitude because "Cosby" was his favorite television show.
"At the same time, I have my own prejudices," he added, "whereas if I'm walking downtown on a street and I see a black man walking toward me that's not dressed as well, I may be a little bit scared."
To add to the discussion, the White House tapped Thernstrom and two other authors to present their research. Thernstrom, co-author of "America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible," provided a rosier view than the others by noting how much progress has been made in the last half century, rattling off statistics about everything from interracial dating to neighborhood integration. "Black progress is indisputably here to stay," she said. "This is a train that left the station 50 years ago and there is no going into reverse."
But David K. Shipler, whose new book, "A Country of Strangers: Blacks and Whites in America," explores the tricky terrain of racial assumptions, said "the image of blacks as less capable is a powerful one that still lurks under the surface of America."
While researching his book, Shipler met a white couple who had adopted a biracial child who looked black and was allowed to drift through school. By contrast, the couple's biological children received a lot of attention from teachers, including calls and notes home when they were not doing well.
"These teachers were not wearing white hoods. They were not standing in the schoolhouse door barring integration," Shipler said. "They came from the mainstream of white America, which still harbors many of these powerful assumptions."
Many of the 1,500 local residents who watched the exchange in the campus hall here later said they were encouraged by the dialogue -- even if it did not always delve as deeply as they wished into the subtler issues of race. "They touched on a lot of things, but they didn't always dig into them," said Christavus Dominic, a graduate student.
Anup Kanodia, a university senior who is of Indian descent, said the session addressed problems that are "very real." But much of the discussion had nothing to do with people like him. "There was very little talk about other minorities," he said. "Often, I feel like I don't fit with blacks or whites, even though I bear some burden of being a minority. People call me nigger too."
JoAnn Harris, a criminal justice professor at the university, called the meeting refreshing. "I'm glad he's doing it," she said of Clinton. "But it is almost sinful that we are still talking about and dealing with a problem that has plagued us for so long."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company