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Clinton Vows to Fight for Affirmative Action

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 18 1997; Page A03

President Clinton resumed his crusade to improve race relations in America today by vowing to battle the tide against affirmative action and reverse recent actions threatening to virtually wipe out minority enrollments in some California and Texas graduate schools.

The president denounced "the rather shocking consequences" of new admissions policies in the nation's two largest states that have left some graduate classes bereft of any African American students. Although vague about how he would do it, he pledged to find "some ways to get around it" if not through a direct challenge then "by indirection."

"It's a great concern to me, and I think it is moving the country in exactly the wrong direction," Clinton told the annual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists here tonight. ". . . I think a lot of people who even voted for [Proposition] 209 have been pretty shocked at what happened, and I don't believe the people of California wanted that to occur. And I think the rhetoric sounded better than the reality to a lot of voters."

Although Clinton has previously criticized the new university policies, tonight's remarks were his most extended and forceful, even to the point of promising "we can reverse it in . . . a couple of years." As one possible solution, he embraced a Texas proposal to guarantee college admission to the top 10 percent of every high school class in the state.

Sponsors of new policies such as Proposition 209, which eliminates race as a factor in a broad range of state functions, including hiring and contracting, have promoted them as a fair route to a truly color-blind society. The fact that so few black students qualified for law school and other programs without affirmative action, the proponents have argued, is a testament to the failure of schools to prepare them.

Clinton's comments came during a question-and-answer session at the end of a day when he had largely avoided the more divisive issues involving race. During his formal speeches here and to the annual NAACP convention in Pittsburgh earlier in the day, Clinton lauded the value of diversity without saying much that would stir dissent.

Until asked about it tonight, for example, he did not even mention affirmative action, nor did he weigh in on the split on his own new race advisory board over how much to focus on black-white relations versus multiculturalism generated by the increase of Asian and Latino Americans. He made a passing reference to the legacy of slavery without taking sides in the controversy over whether the nation should extend a formal apology to the descendants of slaves.

In Pittsburgh, he did challenge the predominantly black audience to hold the next generation to higher standards.

"We must not replace the tyranny of segregation with the tyranny of low expectations," Clinton said. ". . . Often when we see people in difficult circumstances, we feel compassion for them, and we should. But when this compassion leads to expecting less of their own children, that is a mistake, for it sells their future down the drain. I am tired of being told that children cannot succeed because of the difficulties of their circumstances. All we do is consign them to staying in the same circumstances."

The day's back-to-back events were intended as the next stage in Clinton's much-touted campaign for racial reconciliation, but his choice of African American audiences left a bad taste in some mouths – most prominently his own new chief adviser on race. By focusing on black listeners, some said, Clinton missed the point.

"The white side has been in control of virtually everything, so they're the ones who need educating on what justice and equality mean," John Hope Franklin, chairman of the race advisory board, told the Associated Press Wednesday.

Aides said later the schedule was more related to the vagaries of the calendar rather than any conscious decision to focus on African Americans.

"We certainly intend to reach out to a broad cross section of Americans and, more importantly, to take the same message the president had today to a variety of audiences, white and otherwise," said White House press secretary Michael McCurry. "The dialogue that the president foresees cannot occur unless all are engaged."

Clinton unveiled a $350 million scholarship program intended to lure 35,000 teachers to poverty-stricken urban and rural schools over the next five years. And he expounded on the importance of "rebuilding run-down schools," although he did not mention that he dropped his $5 billion school construction program in May to win Republican support for a balanced budget plan.

Clinton was warmly received by both audiences. NAACP chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams praised his race initiative as "a bold step," adding, "We know that your heart is in the right place."

Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher in Pittsburgh contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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