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Presidential race panel:
Sham or success?
Race Relations
Race Relations Report 'Conversation About Race': Just Talk?

By Peter Baker and Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, June 14, 1998; Page A09

When President Clinton launched his "conversation about race" a year ago, he knew it was a daunting mission. Mere talk, he said, "won't be enough." Neither would a series of "disconnected acts of policy."

So after 12 months of talk and a patchwork of disparate policy proposals, the president and his advisers are searching for ways to turn what many inside and outside the White House considered a high-minded, if disappointing, initiative into a long-lasting effort that will bring about meaningful change.

The project's one-year timetable has been stretched an additional three months to allow for another televised forum involving the president and other activities. And as Clinton prepares to draft a final report to the nation on how to improve race relations in the 21st century, his top advisers are pushing him to create a permanent organization focused on closing the opportunity gaps among the races.

"The experience has told us . . . that we need a larger effort," retired historian John Hope Franklin, the chairman of the Clinton advisory board set up to oversee the race dialogue, said in an interview last week. "The way race is institutionalized in this country, we need to institutionalize the effort to overcome it."

Franklin said he is still formulating recommendations to present to the president in September but suggested a public-private partnership in which Clinton would enlist corporate leaders to join government in a campaign against discrimination in economics, housing and education.

"We're going to ask the president to take the leadership in that," Franklin said. "I can't ask the Fortune 500 to do that, but he can."

The challenge for Clinton will be to make any follow-up actions broad enough to make a difference, and impressive enough to win over skeptics who have found his efforts so far to be wanting. Many people who welcomed the initiative last year with great hope came to see it more a recitation of good inten-

tions than an explicit prescription for reform.

"Frankly, we don't think the initiative has been particularly bold in outlining steps to be taken toward addressing racial disparities in this society," said Charles Kamasaki, senior vice president for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group. "To the extent that the commission is going to have a lasting legacy, it is going to have to address some of those issues."

Kicked off at the University of California-San Diego a year ago today, the race initiative has involved two presidential town hall meetings, monthly hearings by his advisory commission, a White House session with conservatives and a Web site featuring "promising practices" by community groups across the nation fighting to improve race relations in their hometowns.

In addition, a series of mostly inexpensive proposals has been unveiled, such as increased money for civil rights enforcement, housing tax credits and scholarships to lure teachers to impoverished school districts. However, many of these plans still depend on congressional support.

Acknowledging they got a slow start, White House officials are trying to squeeze in more in the next few months.

Clinton will participate in a race forum on PBS on July 8. A book of "promising practices" will be compiled for widespread distribution. Conferences will be held on race and health, corporate race issues and the social sciences of race. And just yesterday in Oregon, the president spoke out on the value of immigration in America.

Still, some White House officials privately concede that the effort failed to achieve as much as they hoped. Just as they felt they were beginning to build some momentum half-way through their year, Clinton was sidetracked by the Monica S. Lewinsky investigation, which some aides said made it difficult to get the president's attention -- or the media's -- much less for him to use the power of moral authority to advance his cause.

Moreover, alienated by what they deemed a one-sided conversa- tion intended merely to reinforce Clinton's support for affirmative action, some conservative scholars ultimately gave up and formed their own group to explore other solutions for the racial divide.

Christopher Edley Jr., the Harvard law professor who served as a consultant to the president, said the initiative's efforts "have not met our ambitions," but added, "it is not over." Judith A. Winston, the project's executive director, said, "there were expectations created about what would happen in the year that probably were unrealistic."

When the advisory board and its 35-member staff close the $4.8 million project Sept. 30, they will pass along recommendations to Clinton gleaned from their research. Some were telegraphed in letters Franklin wrote the president over the last year, in which he called for more "aggressive government actions" concentrated on the poor.

Among the suggestions contained in Franklin's dispatches were stronger enforcement of anti-discrimination laws; periodic audits and reports measuring race-related problems and agency efforts to combat them; an anti-dropout project aimed at Hispanic students; and expanded programs intended to enroll more minorities in colleges and universities.

Clinton may incorporate these ideas in his own report, to be issued in December. While not disclosing specifics, Edley said it will include a "significant public policy component" as well as "bully pulpit" leadership.

But officials are leery of producing a report that will simply sit on the shelf like so many before it. "How do you produce a living document?" White House communications director Ann F. Lewis asked rhetorically. "How do we use it both as a source of information but also reach the largest audience? We don't need to reinvent all of the dialogue that's gone before, but sort of take it the next step."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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