|LOOKING AT THE RACE|
October 27 ,1999
MARGARET WARNER: Tonight we hear from four people who participated in a NewsHour special last year, a round-table discussion on race with President Clinton moderated by Jim Lehrer. They are Sherman Alexie, a poet, novelist and screenwriter who wrote the screen play for last year's movie "Smoke Signals"; Elaine Chao, a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and former president of the United Way; Kay James, the former dean of regent university school of government, now also at the heritage foundation; and Roberto Suro, a "Washington Post" reporter and author of a recent book, "strangers among us: How Latino Immigration is Transforming America." The other four panelists from last year's round table, three NewsHour essayists and one of our regional commentators, have taken part in other agenda 2,000 discussions. Welcome all. Sherman Alexie, the current campaign seems well underway. What is it you'd like to hear the candidates debate and discuss?
SHERMAN ALEXIE: Well, first of all, I think I'd like a real discussion about race and racial equality, especially in terms of the rapidly changing demographics of the country. I think all too often, discussion is related in code words and negativity rather than programs that are designed to bring us all together.
MARGARET WARNER: And are you hearing that yet?
SHERMAN ALEXIE: No, not really. I think everybody is hiding behind campaign slogans as usual, the compassionate conservatism or the liberal pragmatism. And I don't think anybody is talking about that at all, other than the fact of George Bush saying, "well, I'm married to somebody brown and have brown kids." I think that's pretty much the extent of it, and I think people are afraid of the issue.
MARGARET WARNER: Yeah, I think that's actually another Bush brother, but I know exactly what you are saying. Elaine Chao, what is on your list? What would you like to see the candidates debating and talking about?
ELAINE CHAO, Heritage Foundation: Well, I think we've been very fortunate in that this past decade has been a period of great prosperity, but I think Americans are still very much concerned about pocketbook issues, and that they're concerned about the number one issue on everyone's mind, and that is education, followed by taxes-- tax reform-- followed by Social Security reform, and I think health care reform. And these four major topics will have an ample opportunity to be aired in this presidential campaign, because this presidential campaign will be pivotal in deciding the role of government in resolving and bringing about solutions to all four of these major issues.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, of course, the role of government has certainly been a hot topic in almost every campaign since the Reagan election of 1980. Is it different this year? Is it...
ELAINE CHAO: I think in every single election, there are going to be issues that are absolutely key, and I mentioned four of them. But the role of government does need to be refined from election to election. And, clearly, in this upcoming election, we have the whole issue about education. Who gets to control education? Will it be the parents or will we expand local control? Or will we respond to a big bureaucracy in Washington? The same thing with Medicare and health care, Social Security, and taxes also -- what is going to be the role of government? Will it be this all-consuming, all-powerful entity that will take care of our every need, or are we going to rely on the private marketplace, on individuals, on the private sector to bring about solutions?
MARGARET WARNER: Roberto Suro, what are you looking for here?
ROBERTO SURO, Washington Post: Well, last year when President Clinton was here, he talked about the need for a new vocabulary of race, a new way of talking about racial issues, and this campaign could be an occasion for developing that kind of vocabulary that looks at America the way it is now with new populations, primarily driven by Hispanic and Asian immigration, that take us beyond a world of black and white and that raise all kinds of different issues, and hopefully new ways of examining questions of identity and assimilation and heritage, and new ways of addressing the problems of discrimination that still exist in our society.
MARGARET WARNER: And are you hearing that yet?
ROBERTO SURO: Not yet.
KAY JAMES, Heritage Foundation: I guess I'm looking for something maybe a little bit different. As I travel around the country with the citizenship project at the heritage foundation, I'm appalled at the level of cynicism and pessimism that I see among a lot of our citizens. They tend to be apathetic and not necessarily want to be involved in the political process, and I sincerely believe for this country to work, as it should you've got to have informed citizens and they must be involved. And so I think what's going to be required in this campaign cycle, and what I'm looking for, are the candidates that exude optimism, that exude leadership, that exude vision and have a set of core values and principles that can be applied to any of the specific public policy issues. As an example, I am looking for the candidate who will look right into the camera and say, "There is no place in America for racism under any circumstances, no way, no how." If he says that, then what I'm looking for is that that will translate into specific issues in terms of immigration policy, in terms of education policy, in terms of access to housing and those sort of things. And to pick up on Elaine's, I'm looking for the candidate that says, "I believe that there is a role for government to play, but what is that role?" And for me, I want to hear "I'm looking for government that is limited yet efficient and effective," and if that's the core value of the candidate, then I would expect that to translate into all of the specific public policy areas, and that has some real meaning in terms of what he-- and, unfortunately, I can no longer say she-- may do in education policy, in health care, in welfare and the whole host of other issues. I'm looking for passion, leadership; I'm looking for core values that will really help this nation to be optimistic and go into the next millennium.
MARGARET WARNER: Sherman Alexie, how do you think the candidates can address this broad demographic change that both you and Roberto... we were all talking about, but that you're talking about. In other words, do you...what's the language to talk about that? Is it broad and thematic, or do you think they have to talk about specific sort of policy prescriptions?
SHERMAN ALEXIE: Well, I think one of the first things that if it's a symbolic issue is I think these presidential debates should be happening in those communities. I think they should be visiting, you know, inner cities and reservations and mining towns and all these different communities and involving them. One of the panelists mentioned earlier about involving people and making them optimistic and passionate about the process. And I think they feel excluded. I think the presidential election is a very elite process, and I think it's up to the candidates themselves to bring it to the people.
MARGARET WARNER: Elaine, you've been trying to get in here.
ELAINE CHAO: Well, I think the candidates are discussing issues and I think that the media is not covering it. I think the media is very much concerned about the horse race and not so much a substantive issue. If a candidate makes a ten-point substantive speech, it gets relegated to page B8 and if they somehow slip in the polls, one versus the other, it's page A1 news. So I think the media bears some responsibility for highlighting some of the major issues that we're discussing, and the candidates are discussing issues. I mean, for example, Bradley and Gore, they are engaged in a major discussion about how to fund our health care, and Mr. Bradley has already spent the non-Social Security surplus many times over for the next ten years, and these are issues which are being discussed right now.
MARGARET WARNER: I would like to go back to this demographic change as one of these big profound changes. How do you think, Roberto, that the candidates can talk about it? I mean, again, maybe picking up on what Sherman had been talking about, is it broad policy prescription... excuse me, is it narrow policy prescriptions? Is it broadly? What are you looking for?
ROBERTO SURO: Well, it's both. I mean, broadly speaking, the candidates should address the nature of opportunity in our society. They should address the points of discrimination that still exist in our society. There should be... and there is also a bit of discussion of how the benefits of this economic expansion should be shared in different parts of our society, and there are specific things as well. We're in an era of large-scale immigration, and assuring that newcomers have a place to arrive here, they're welcomed into our society, is very important. There are people who are... they are the most enthusiastic participants in the civic process. And you have, for example, on the narrow point, a huge backlog of people waiting to become citizens, and large bureaucratic delays that prevent them from exercising the franchise and bringing that enthusiasm to the electoral process. So it goes across the board. You are talking about a kind of change that is profound in every aspect of society.
KAY JAMES: I think there's a tremendous opportunity for the next President of the United States to address these issues, these issues that have historically been very divisive, and do it in such a way that it pulls us together. I am looking for the next President of the United States to address the specific policy issues, and I'm sure that's going to come as we go through the debate process, but right now what I'm looking for is the person who can talk about race in America and do it in such a way that inspires us to want to be better, that inspires us to want to rid our communities of racism and hatred and bigotry, and I think that's beginning to happen.
MARGARET WARNER: Race has often been, Elaine Chao, an issue or subtext of elections, often not in a very constructive way. Do you think it can be wrestled with constructively in a campaign context?
ELAINE CHAO: I think you will see in this campaign some very different views about what racism really is, and whether indeed, as one party says or one group of people say, that racism is the core of all evil, and that it is the reason for everything that is evil within our society. Or will there be others who say that racism, yes, it's an evil, but it is by no means not the sole cause of every single child that is in poverty or that... for the tremendously poor educational system that we have. So there are other issues besides race in this particular election that I think will be addressed, and these are pocketbook issues that will impact everyone regardless of their ethnic or racial background. And those are the four issues that I talked about: You know, health care, Social Security, the educational system. And this is especially important as we embark upon a global marketplace.
MARGARET WARNER: Sherman Alexie, how do you think race can be constructively addressed in a campaign context? Do you think it can be?
SHERMAN ALEXIE: Yes, I think it can be, actually, and I think one of the ways to immediately address race and the idea of racism is one of the forgotten groups in this country are lower-class white people, and I think they get failed to mention in any context in terms of programs to help them with affirmative action, with education. You know, a white kid growing up in Appalachia has just as many difficulties and problems as a kid growing up on a reservation or an inner city, and I think that's one group that gets forgotten constantly in this discussion. You know, they're a different race in a minority group of their own.
KAY JAMES: I would just hope if you are wondering what our hopes and dreams are, that as we go into this cycle that race would not be used in a negative way to divide us and to be used as a wedge issue to separate us. I think it can be used, and I'm looking for the person who can inspire us and motivate us to the true core value of what it means to be an American where racism is no longer an issue. Race will always be an issue, but where racism is taken off the table.
ROBERTO SURO: I think what we're all talking about here to a certain extent are the structures of opportunity rather than simply those old questions of race and racism. We're looking at the doors that are open for some and not for others and the extent to which government or the private sector can insure that those doors are open more equally for all, and it goes much beyond the old, but still important, questions of racism.
MARGARET WARNER: Which of course is what Elaine was referring to also. All right. Well, thank you all four very much.
JIM LEHRER: A reminder that you can participate in our agenda 2000 project by visiting our Web site at: www.pbs.org/newshour and also by regular mail, to: The NewsHour, Box 26262, Washington, D.C., 20013.