PRESIDENT CLINTON (tape): Over the coming year I want to lead the American
people in a great and unprecedented conversation about race.
JIM LEHRER: President Clinton launching his initiative on race last year at
the University of California at San Diego.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: We have talked at each other and about each other for a long time.
It's high time we all began talking with each other.
JIM LEHRER: Tonight the conversation continues. A dialogue on race with
A Dialogue on Race.
JIM LEHRER: Good evening.
Welcome to an hour of conversation with President Clinton about race in
America. Welcome to you, Mr. President.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Thank you, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: The president's conversation will be with eight Americans, four
NewsHour regulars: Essayist Richard Rodriguez of the Pacific News Service,
Roger Rosenblatt, and Clarence Page of the "Chicago Tribune," and regional
commentator Cynthia Tucker of the "Atlanta Constitution." Plus four others:
Roberto Suro of "The Washington Post," author of a recent book on Hispanic
Americans; Kay James, dean of Regent University School of Government; Elaine
Chao, former head of United Way of America, now at the Heritage Foundation;
and Sherman Alexie, novelist, poet, and screenwriter. Keep in mind, please,
that whatever their affiliation and most importantly their race, each is
here as an individual, speaking only for him or herself.
what do you think is the single most important thing the president could do
to improve race relations in this country?
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ, Pacific News Service: I think, Mr. President, that -- I
think America is growing more and more complicated, and it seems to me that
our conversation is not keeping up with that complexity. This year of
dialogue began with John Hope Franklin, the head of the race commission,
saying that the unfinished business of America is black and white, but it
strikes me that after this year that what we really need to do is to
understand how complex this country is, with Samoan rap groups and Filipinos
and Pakistani cab drivers, and the racial relationships now in America are
so complex and so rich that it seems to me that we don't have a language
even to keep up with that complexity.
Keeping up with a complex culture.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, I basically agree with you about that. As a Southerner,
like Dr. Franklin, I think that there are unique and still unresolved issues
between black and white Americans, and there are some conditions in America
which disproportionately involve African-Americans.
Some of them are not
old. Today there was just this Journal of American Medical Association
story saying that African-Americans metabolize nicotine in a different way
than other races as far as we know, and therefore even though blacks smoke
fewer cigarettes, they're more likely to get lung cancer.
But to get back to your main point, I have tried to emphasize that
America is becoming a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society,
and therefore it will be more important both to understand the differences
and identify the common values that hold us together as a country, and I
often cite, since we're in northern Virginia where this program is being
filmed, I often cite the Fairfax County School District, which is now the
most diverse school district in the country with people from over 100
different racial and ethnic groups, with over 100 different languages
actually in this school district, and I think that's a pattern of where
I've got a friend who is a Southern Baptist minister here, who
used to be a minister in Arkansas, he's got a Korean ministry in his church,
and that's just one tiny example of the kind of things you're going to see
more and more of in the country.
JIM LEHRER: Cynthia, is the unfinished business still black and white?
Unfinished business still black and white?
CYNTHIA TUCKER, The Atlanta Constitution: Well, I think that there are, as
you just said, Mr. President, some issues that are unique to black Americans
and white Americans and some conditions especially that disproportionately
affect black Americans, and the most striking is poverty. In fact, I think
that what many people think of as racial differences are often class
I worry not just about black poverty, the disproportionate
amount of black poverty, but also about the growing wealth gap. There are
blacks who are disproportionately poor, and that causes them to resent
whites because they blame whites, but there are also working class whites
whose incomes are stagnating or declining, and they blame blacks and
immigrants. So it seems to me that the wealth gap has at least something to
do with continuing racial problems in America.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: There is no doubt about that. I think that whenever possible, if
you think that there is a class-related or an income-related element in the
difficulties we have with race, we ought to have income-based solutions to
A lot of the things that I've asked the Congress to do over the last
five-and-a-half years, a lot of the things that are in this budget now are
designed to address that, with greater incentives for people to invest in
inner cities and Native American reservations and other poor areas, tax
systems which would disproportionately benefit working people on the lower
income of the scale.
I think those things are very important because -- and
there is, by the way, some evidence that in the last couple of years the
income inequality has begun to abate some. But I think it's very important
not to confuse the two. I believe the primary reason for income inequality,
increasing inequality in America is that we have changed the nature of the
That is, if you go back 100 years ago and you see we moved from an
agricultural to an industrial economy, we also had a big influx of
immigrants. There was a huge increase in inequality, not so much because of
the immigrants, but because of the way people made money changed. The whole
basis of wealth changed.
That's what happened in this computer-based,
information economy, and the premium on education these days is so much
greater than it's ever been that there is a lot of stagnant incomes out
there from people who worked hard all their lives but aren't part of the
modern economy. I think we need strategies to identify the people that
aren't winning and turn them into winners, and at the very least, turn their
children into winners.
Class vs. race.
JIM LEHRER: Kay James, class or race?
KAY JAMES, Dean of Regent University: You know, it's interesting to me that
when we have conversations about race, how quickly it turns to class. I
guess one of my experiences in America is that no matter how middle class
you become, if you're still black, you're still discriminated against in
many areas. I guess I would also want to make the point that it's very
important for us not to immediately go there. It's not immediately
important to go to the issues of poverty and class, because race is so
important that it bears us spending some time there I think, to talk about
racism in America. Class is a very important discussion, and poverty is a
very important discussion, but they don't necessarily immediately go into a
discussion of race.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Obviously I agree with that or I wouldn't have set up this
initiative. I think that the point I wanted to make is to whatever extent
you can have an economic approach that embraces people of all races, if it
elevates disproportionately racial groups that have been disproportionately
depressed, you'll help to deal with the race problem, but no one can look
around the world.
If you forget about America, just look at the rest of the
world, no one could doubt the absence of a deep, inbred predisposition of
people to fear, look down on, separate themselves from, and when possible,
discriminate against people who are of different racial and ethnic groups
than themselves. I mean, this is the primary factor in the world's politics
today at the end of the Cold War.
JIM LEHRER: Sherman, does a poor Native American starting out face more hurdles
than a poor white American starting out?
SHERMAN ALEXIE, author and filmmaker: A poor Native American faces more
hurdles than a poor anybody.
JIM LEHRER: Anybody?
SHERMAN ALEXIE: Anybody, in this country. Certainly. We're talking about Third
World conditions, fourth world conditions on reservations. I didn't have running water
until I was 7 years old. I still remember when the toilet came. So...and there
are no models of any success in any sort of field for Indians. We don't
have any of that. So there is no idea of a role model existing. An Indian
has not sat on this kind of panel before. So me being here for the first time
Sherman Alexie: "A poor Native American faces more hudles than a poor anybody."
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Let me tell you something. I would like to start. I think this will help us get to the race
issue you talked about. Let's just talk about the Native American
population. When I was running for president in 1992, I didn't know much
about the American Indian condition except that we had a significant but
very small population of Indians in my home state and that my grandmother
was one-quarter Cherokee.
That's all I knew. I spent a lot of time going
around to these -- to the reservations and to meet with leaders and to learn
about this sort of nation-to-nation legal relationship that is supposed to
exist between the U.S. Government and the Native American tribes. What do
you think -- let me just -- what I concluded, that the American Indians have
gotten the worst of both worlds, that they have not been given enough
empowerment or responsibility or tools to make the most of their own lives,
and the sort of paternalistic relationship the U.S. Government had kept them
in was pathetic and inadequate.
So they literally got the worst of both
worlds. They weren't getting enough help and they certainly didn't have
enough responsibility and power, in my view, to build a future. So what do
you think the most important thing is for Americans to know about American
Indians? What do you think the most important thing American Indians should
be doing for themselves or should ask us to do to change the future?
SHERMAN ALEXIE: I think the primary thing that people need to know about Indians is
that our identity is much less cultural now and much more political. That
we really do exist as political entities and sovereign political nations.
That's the most important thing for people to understand, that we are
separate politically and economically. And should be. For Indians
themselves, I think we have to recognize the value of education, which is
something culturally we have not done. With the establishment of the
American Indian College Fund and the 29 American Indian colleges on
reservations in the Indian communities throughout the country, I think we
have begun that process of understanding that education can be just as
traditional, just as tribal as a powwow or any other ceremony, that
education should become sacred.
The Asian-American view.
JIM LEHRER: Elaine Chao, where are the Asian Americans, what kind of obstacles
do they start out with compared to white Americans or Native Americans or
black Americans, whatever?
ELAINE CHAO, The Heritage Foundation: I think what exacerbates the
relationship between the races is, in fact, the feeling of inequity that
somehow somebody else is getting a better deal through unfair means, and
Asian Americans are a much maligned minority. On the one hand they are
sometimes counted as minorities when it's convenient for others to do so,
and other times when they are -- when they skew the figures in a less
favorable way, like university admissions, then they're counted as white, so
Asian Americans suffer the brunt of both worlds.
But in many ways, Asian
Americans are now the victims of being an underrepresented minority, which
means that they're excluded from many of the equal opportunities that are
available in this country, and I think that's a very, very serious problem
that I hope that your race panel will be able to address.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Give us an example.
ELAINE CHAO: Well, there is a single mother by the name of Charlene Loen in San
Francisco, and she has raised two boys. One boy, Patrick, is applying for a
school in San Francisco. It is a school system, it's the Unified San
Francisco School System that has basically implemented a quota system
through a consent decree, and Patrick, though he scored 58 on his testing
scores, out of 69, was barred admission to the high school of his choice
because there were too many, quote unquote, Chinese Americans.
already fulfilled the Chinese quota. There are different standards in that
school system for different students of different colors. If you are white,
you have one standard. If you are Asian-American, you have the toughest
standard to meet. And of course, other races have other standards as well.
That is a horrible example of preferential treatment and of unfair treatment
based on race, and I think something's got to be done about that.
The roots of racism.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Let's go back to what Kay said. What do you think the roots of
KAY JAMES: I think the root of racism, it's out of vogue and out of style in
this country to even use that kind of language, but I believe it and so I
say it. You know, I believe that the root of racism is nothing but a very
sinful and a very black and dark heart.
I mean, after all, racism is a heart
problem, a character problem, an integrity problem, and that's why I think
when we have a conversation about how we overcome race in America, it's
important to talk, you know, on those issues and on those terms. I think the
government, and I think you, Mr. President, can do a great deal to end
discrimination in America, and that's an important topic to talk about, what
can we do to end racism.
And I think that's going to happen as
relationships are formed in communities, as people come to trust each other,
as people come to spend time with one another, get to know one another, and
that's when the stereotypes are dispelled, that's when people have the
opportunity to set aside their preconceived notions, their prejudice, and
they get to know each other as individuals.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Do you think young people -- you're the dean of a school of
government. Do you think young people are less racially prejudiced than
their parents on the whole?
KAY JAMES: Well, that's interesting. I remember when I was a part of the group
that integrated the schools in the south and particularly in my hometown of
Richmond, and I can remember going into that school and hearing the young
people parrot what their parents had said to them, and while the government
took the correct and appropriate action of forcing integration, I have to
tell you, it was the most segregated integrated environment I had ever been
The good news is that over a period of time, there were relationships
that were established. There were individuals that became friends for life
out of that, and so I think we break down the barriers of discrimination and
then we deal with the human condition and the human heart in terms of
stereotyping and prejudice and bigotry.
The origins of racial attitudes.
JIM LEHRER: Roger Rosenblatt, how would you answer the president's question,
where do we get our attitudes about race? Where do they come from?
ROGER ROSENBLATT, NewsHour essayist: Well, they come from fear, I guess,
and they come from ignorance, and they come from a general sense of
otherness which doesn't only apply to us, it just applies to everybody
perceiving something different, and then backing off in some way. For the
worst of those who back off, it takes the form of hatred. For the best,
just a kind of shy retreat.
But what Kay was saying about integration came
back to something you were saying, too, Mr. President, what can the
president do on this major issue, this deep issue? I would love to see the
goal of integration be boisterously set again.
You and I and others around
this table remember the -- they were hard, but the best of times in the
early 1960s when frankly people now at each other's throats were all on the
same side. At least most people believed in that side. Since then, as
Cynthia mentioned blame, that's all we have had is contexts of blame or
theories or bigotries or separatist notions. If the race issue is a
microcosm of what the country ought to be, then the solving of racism ought
to be the solving of the country.
We are one place, one complicated,
roiling, difficult place in which a great deal of progress has been made.
That ought to be said, too. But if you could reaffirm the idea, remind us
that integration is the goal, I think that would be a huge first step.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: What about what Elaine said, though? Let me give you a little
background, although I don't know about the facts of this case. California,
I give them a lot of credit, California is trying to have, within the public
school system, much higher performing schools by, among other things, going
to charter schools which seek to have the benefits of public education with
the strengths of private standards-based education, and San Francisco is a
numbers group, this is probably a part of their school choice program where
they basically create schools, they get out from under the rules and
regulations of central administration, and they hold the kids to high
So...but apparently they made a decision also that they think they
ought to have some diversity within their student body, and so is it fair
for a Chinese student who may be the 5th best Chinese student but also the
5th best overall student who asks to get in a class to be deprived the
chance to get in the class? And if it's not fair, if this child was unfairly
treated, what do you do with the kids who didn't do very well, what schools
should they go to and how can you guarantee them the same standards?
JIM LEHRER: Roberto, how would you answer that?
ROBERTO SURO, The Washington Post: It seems to me it's sort of a dilemma
that points up the need to go beyond the black-white paradigm that we've
worked with for so long.
I mean, it's very hard to apply a matrix of a white
majority and nonwhite minorities when you get to a situation as complicated
as the San Francisco schools, and we don't have a language even to describe
these situations, let alone mechanisms that are defined to work in
situations, where you've got -- where the lines aren't so clear anymore as
to a group that's in and a group that's out, where you have mobility of
identity and of economic status and where racism takes a variety of forms.
You know, it's interesting, we talked a little bit about history
and when you talk about race, you often talk about your childhood memories
of the south, and how it informs your views of this. You know, my question
is how we take that history and adapt it, move it, evolve it, into a very
different demographic situation now than the one in which it was sent. And
I'm curious, how you use that, how you take those, your memories of the
black-white situation in the south and apply it to a much more complicated
PRESIDENT CLINTON: Well, the short answer is that I try to do now what I tried to do
when I was a kid, when I realized what was going on. Because I had an
unusual background for a lower middle class white guy in the south because I
had grandparents who believed in integration. And my grandfather ran a
little store and most of his customers were black so I had an atypical
background but I was sort of hungry for contact with people who were
different from me.
And my theory, going back to what Kay said, basically if
you were to ask me what's the most important thing we could do, I think the
more people work and learn and, and worship, if they have faith, and serve
together, the more likely you are to, to strike the right balance between
celebrating our differences instead of being afraid of them and still
identifying common values.
Now, you still have, you have a separate problem
for Native Americans who literally many of whom still live on reservations,
but there has to be a way, you cannot overcome what you do not know. And,
if I could just say one other thing, one of the complicating factors,
believe me, there are lots of hard questions. I don't think, one of the
hard questions is the education question, whether it's affirmative action
and college admissions or what Elaine said, for the simple reason that I
believe there is an independent value to having young people have learned
in an environment where they are with people of many different racial and
ethnic backgrounds and the question is how you can balance that with our
devotion to merit and you are not discriminating against people because of
their race in effect when they would otherwise on the grounds of economic
merit get a certain situation.
That's one of the hardest questions we face,
but I still think the more we are together... I was quite impressed, for
example, when our daughter was trying to select a college and one of the
things that she said, she went around and actually got the composition and
makeup of every school to which she applied because she wanted...and then she
actually went there to see whether the people were actually not just
admitted, but actually there with each other because -- but a lot of the
young people in her generation that I spend time talking to understand that
this is something they need to do.
I mean, they figured out that their life
is going to be real different from ours, and they better figure out how to
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