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  •   Race Relations Initiative May Pose Risks for Clinton

    By Michael A. Fletcher and Dan Balz
    Washington Post Staff Writers
    Thursday, June 12 1997; Page A01

    Before he finishes the final editing on his upcoming speech on race relations, President Clinton might consider calling South Carolina Gov. David M. Beasley for a real-world update. Beasley, a Republican, plunged himself into the racial caldron last year when he proposed that the state remove the Confederate battle flag from atop the capitol and install it at a memorial nearby.

    Today the flag still flies over the State House and the governor is licking his wounds.

    "You've seen the reaction I got," Beasley said. "It was very, very hostile -- a fierce, intense, emotional debate. Families were ripped apart, communities and friends were divided unlike anything I've experienced. Believe me, I took a beating. But it was the right thing to do."

    South Carolina's experience showed that, despite progress in race relations, divisions remain deep and in some cases permanent. Beasley warned that Clinton will face land mines and strong opposition as he moves forward, "especially if he plans to really do something."

    Already, Clinton's effort has sparked controversy. Some civil rights leaders fear that the speech, which White House officials said will be followed by creation of an advisory committee, town meetings and other public events, will be nothing more than an exercise in feel-good rhetoric, with no action. Some conservatives warn that Clinton's motive may be to enshrine policies they believe have failed to resolve racial differences and that impede progress.

    But other experts believe Clinton's speech Saturday in San Diego will represent a vital first step toward lessening historic divisions among the races. "Over the last decade, we've done more to avoid the issue than to confront it," said Amy Gutmann, a professor at Princeton University and co-author of the book "Color Conscious." But Gutmann said Clinton cannot stop with rhetoric. "If President Clinton is going to go on record," she said, "he had better be willing to follow through."

    Clinton faces enormous hurdles. Foremost is the absence of a sense of crisis of the kind that spurred President Lyndon B. Johnson to push for the Voting Rights Act in 1965 or to create the Kerner Commission on violence after riots in American cities in the mid-1960s.

    A new Washington Post-ABC News Poll found that while a majority of Americans view race as at least "a serious problem," only one in 10 believe the country faces a racial crisis. Asked what is the most serious problem facing the country, 3 percent cited race or civil rights issues.

    "Today, the common line is there is no race problem," said Kenneth O'Reilly, a University of Alaska historian. "Or if people do acknowledge problems, they say they are not problems of race or racism but problems of individual, moral failure."

    Nor is there a consensus on the nature of the problem the president should address. His advisers say Clinton will deal directly with affirmative action, in part because of statistics showing a decline in minority admissions at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Texas since the elimination of affirmative action programs.

    But others said the president must speak more broadly and bluntly about the overall racial climate. Former housing secretary Henry Cisneros said that at a time when the stock market regularly sets records, Clinton should focus on the entrenched poverty in America's cities. "You could argue that for some Americans, life is worse than it's ever been," he said. "It's hard to imagine a time in American history when those conditions were as stark as they are today. It sounds awfully pessimistic, but I've seen it."

    But many conservatives say the biggest racial problem facing the country is the continuation of race-based policies. Ward Connerly, a principal proponent of the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 in California, argued that the public has turned against those programs and Clinton will hurt himself if he tilts too hard against that trend. He said a president can help frame the debate and offer moral guidance, but only if he is heading where the country wants to go. "If he tries to defend the status quo [of affirmative action policies], he won't leave any legacy," Connerly said.

    The Washington Post-ABC News Poll found that nearly half of all blacks, but only one in six whites, say blacks and other minorities should receive preference in college admissions to overcome past inequalities.

    Clinton's description of the problem of race relations may be crucial to his effort. The whole question of race in American society has grown increasingly complex as immigration continues to add more Latinos and Asian Americans to the population. For states such as California, improving relations means finding ways to harmonize racial and ethnic diversity.

    "You see Chinese parents fighting admission policies that favor blacks and Hispanics. You see hate crimes increasing among African Americans, Asians and Latinos," said Dale Minami, an Asian American activist in San Francisco. "Today the tensions in America are multi-racial. Everybody has a problem with everybody, to be honest."

    Still, the most enduring divisions in America are between blacks and whites, and the president will confront a huge perception gap between whites and blacks, as the O.J. Simpson trial so dramatically underscored.

    What sets black-white relations apart from relations among other ethnic groups is the historical experience of slavery, said Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg. The influx of Latinos or Asian Americans, he said, "is still largely an immigrant experience, which a large percentage of America shares. The slave experience is unique and continually pushes blacks and whites apart."

    A Gallup Poll released Tuesday found major differences in perceptions about the racial climate, with blacks far more pessimistic than whites. While three in four white Americans said blacks in their community are treated the same as whites, only 49 percent of blacks agreed.

    Whites see little problem when it comes to opportunities for blacks in jobs, education and housing. Many blacks, meanwhile, continue to see racial discrimination as a fact of life. The Post-ABC poll found that 44 percent of blacks and only 17 percent of whites believe blacks face "a lot" of discrimination in American society. Also, 45 percent of blacks surveyed by Gallup said they had been treated unfairly because of their race in the past 30 days.

    Blacks and whites also have vastly different views of the role government should play in addressing the effects of past and present discrimination. One in three whites think government should make special efforts to support minorities, while nearly six out of 10 blacks see the need for more government help, according to the Gallup survey.

    Aides to Clinton say he wants to make improved race relations part of his legacy. Many analysts and civil rights advocates applaud that goal. But given the prevailing opinions on race, they question how bold he is prepared to be to achieve his goal.

    "This man has been president for 4 1/2 years, and now he is trying to make civil rights part of his legacy. Isn't it kind of late?" said Roger Wilkins, a history professor at George Mason University and an assistant attorney general during the Johnson administration.

    Wilkins said healing America's racial divide boils down to helping America's poorest black residents. "You have neighborhoods in every city where 35 to 60 percent of the people are unemployed," he said. "The poor need jobs, training and decent housing. That really means effort and money. But this is a fellow who already said we don't have any money. . . . That's why it is hard to be optimistic about what this man will do."

    Few presidents in American history have been willing to risk the ire of their white constituency to advocate policies beneficial to racial minorities. George Washington agonized about the evils of slavery in private, but as president refused to free his slaves. Thomas Jefferson, a slaveholder and architect of the Declaration of Independence, did nothing to oppose slavery as president.

    In modern times, the biggest racial strides often were made under extraordinary circumstances. Harry S. Truman desegregated the armed forces in the wake of World War II. John F. Kennedy reluctantly supported the nation's civil rights revolution after it had captured worldwide attention, and only after Kennedy's assassination was Johnson able to push civil rights legislation through Congress.

    Today, the lack of urgency about racial issues, the drive to balance the budget and skepticism about government's ability to solve big problems have helped undercut support for the big-dollar initiatives many civil rights leaders believe are necessary to lend meaning to Clinton's race initiative.

    Earlier this year, the bipartisan Citizens Commission on Civil Rights said Clinton should develop a comprehensive urban policy, increase funding for federal anti-discrimination agencies, broaden affirmative action efforts and improve health care for minorities.

    "The fundamental problem is economics," said Rep. Albert R. Wynn (D-Md.). "To the extent the president can promote an economic growth agenda it will do more for race relations than the peace-and-love message that we often get."

    The public has mixed feelings about Clinton's work to improve racial harmony. More than three in five Americans approve of how he has handled race relations, according to the Post-ABC poll. But they are divided over whether he has made substantial progress.

    "President Clinton's personal and heartfelt inclinations when it comes to race, I think, are beyond question," said Adonis Hoffman of the World Policy Institute. "But transforming that into policy is another matter."

    Clinton comes to the issue with a long history of involvement in racial politics, but some critics fear he could make race relations worse by begining a public debate. "In some ways, society would be better off if it took a holiday on what divides us," said Stephan Thernstrom, a Harvard history professor. "Having a dialogue on race may be exactly the wrong way to go about it."

    "The challenge for Clinton is to be able to reframe the debate," said Geoffrey Garin, a Democratic pollster. "We've got a debate now that's inherently polarizing. I think the drama here is whether Clinton can pose a different set of questions around the issue of race that's more likely to produce a sense of consensus in the country."

    Polling director Richard Morin contributed to this report.

    © Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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