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President Accepts Report on Race

Franklin and Clinton
Board Chairman John Hope Franklin, left, suggests the president's involvement could have been curtailed by "preoccupation with personal problems." (The Washington Post)

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 1998; Page A08

President Clinton yesterday formally accepted the report of his advisory board on race, saying that despite widespread criticism of its work, the panel has managed to nudge the nation along the difficult road toward racial reconciliation.

"This board has raised the consciousness and quickened the conscience of America," Clinton told civil rights activists and others at the Old Executive Office Building. "They have moved us closer to our ideal. But we have more to do."

On the Web
Official White House page on the race initiative.

In a report criticized as lackluster by civil rights activists and others, the board called on the president to establish a standing race council to continue its work. It also called for a public education program to highlight the "common values" of a racially diverse nation. The board's ideas are expected to be included in a report the president is scheduled to deliver to the nation sometime this winter.

Yesterday's report is the product of hundreds of meetings held by the board, which was headed by noted historian John Hope Franklin. For the past 15 months, the panel has met with experts and traveled the nation to engage Americans in what was touted as "a great and unprecedented conversation about race." The board's effort was a key element in Clinton's Initiative on Race, which included three televised presidential meetings and hundreds of other sessions hosted by top administration officials.

But critics complained that few of those sessions created frank exchanges, making it difficult for them to penetrate the public consciousness. And once the effort appeared to be gaining momentum, the nation's attention was diverted by the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal.

As a result, the board's work, which once engendered high hopes, was generally greeted with disappointment by civil rights activists, who still gave Clinton credit for initiating the effort.

"There are not a lot of bold, new or exciting recommendations in the report," said Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. "But it is important to understand that this is not the final step in the process. This stuff is hard."

Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, executive director of the Black Leadership Forum, said she thought the race commission met with a measure of success. Those who say otherwise, she said, expected too much. "The board certainly created some kind of momentum," she said.

Conservative activist Clint Bolick, meanwhile, denounced the report. "For this commission, nothing has changed since the 1960s. So long as we fail to address such problems as out-of-wedlock births, abysmal inner-city public education and . . . escalating violent crime, we will not achieve real equal opportunity."

Advisory board members and staff called their work the beginning of an enormous effort to bridge the nation's racial divide and prepare the country for a future when its population is projected to grow even more diverse.

Clinton has made an array of proposals in connection with the initiative. They include money to reduce class size in schools, bolster enforcement of civil rights laws, improve educational achievement among Hispanics, and increase the amount of Small Business Administration loans flowing to minorities. Yet, even as many civil rights activists have criticized those efforts as modest, most of them are languishing in Congress.

"It's too easy to say that the proposals should be bigger and more expensive," said Christopher Edley Jr., a Harvard law professor who is helping to prepare the president's report on the initiative. "But that ignores the reality that the majority in Congress has put the opportunity agenda on hold."

In an effort to underscore the importance of the race commission's mission, the president's Council of Economic Advisers yesterday released a report detailing often wide disparities in education, economic status and health between people of color and other Americans.

"Race and ethnicity continue to be salient predictors of well-being in American society," the report said. "On average, non-Hispanic whites and Asians experience advantages in health, education, and economic status relative to blacks, Hispanics and American Indians."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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