Vice President Gore offered a broad view of the nation's often-treacherous racial terrain today, saying that more must be done to close the gaps that tend to separate minorities from whites in everything from wealth to Internet access.
Speaking before a national convention of minority journalists, Gore also offered a vigorous defense of affirmative action, saying the measures are still needed to ensure that racial minorities are treated fairly. He ridiculed those who argue against affirmative action programs based on the assumption that discrimination is a thing of the past.
"How in God's name do some people in our nation get the impression that one generation after Brown vs. Board, one generation after civil rights laws . . . all of a sudden we have a colorblind society?" Gore said.
The line won Gore loud applause from the assembled journalists, who themselves had debated whether to hold their Unity '99 convention in Seattle because of Washington state voters' passage last year of Initiative 200, a ballot measure that outlawed most affirmative action programs in state and local government. Affirmative action is a core issue for the Unity coalition because its mission is to increase the number of minorities in the nation's newsrooms and improve coverage of the nation's rapidly growing minority communities.
Gore was the fourth presidential candidate to appear before the group over the past two days. On Thursday, Democrat Bill Bradley addressed the conference, which is being attended by about 6,000 black, Latino, Asian American and Native American journalists. Republicans John McCain and George W. Bush caused a stir by making last-minute appearances at the conference Thursday after initially declining invitations to attend. McCain made a short speech and answered questions from a couple dozen journalists, while Bush spent about 15 minutes walking through the convention's job fair, shaking hands and answering questions from a trailing pack of reporters.
Gore spoke today at the start of a crowded plenary session about how the nation's changing racial makeup and emerging technologies will affect the country's future, a topic that has captivated Gore through the years.
The vice president called for an "all-out national crusade" to close the gap in computer and Internet access separating Americans. A Commerce Department report released Wednesday said the widening "digital divide" that has the poor and minorities far behind in access to computer technology is becoming one of the nation's leading "economic and civil rights issues."
Gore said government should double investment in information technology to fund storefront computer centers to make technology more accessible. He also said more should be spent on education to prepare young people to take advantage of computer technology. "In the 21st century, innovation and technology can be engines of opportunity, not engines of inequality," Gore said.
Gore ventured far beyond technology both in his prepared remarks and in his responses to questions. He said more must be done to close the health gaps separating minorities from whites, to bring high-quality teachers to inner-city schools and to bring an end to discriminatory practices, such as the use of racial profiling by police.
But perhaps his most passionate remarks were reserved for the topic of affirmative action. Gore said the nation did not need any more "phony" ballot initiatives such as the ones that have outlawed affirmative action programs in Washington and California.
Later, during a question-and-answer session, the vice president was challenged by an audience member who asserted that President Clinton has made similar pledges but turned up "missing in action" in the campaigns against the anti-affirmative action initiatives in both Washington and California.
The question prompted Gore not only to defend Clinton, whom he said vigorously opposed both ballot initiatives, but also to touch on his own vision for racial unity. Gore called the quest for racial unity a "sacred mission" for the country, given its history of racism and violence against minorities.
Gore said people around the world are "looking to us for proof that in the 21st century and beyond, humankind can dare hope to overcome the residue of the tragedy of our history."