BEGINNING THE DIALOGUE
December 3, 1997
President Clinton and his race advisory panel held their first town meeting in Akron, Ohio. Following a background report, Phil Ponce and two experts examine at President Clinton's national dialogue on race and the impact it is having across the country.
PHIL PONCE: More now on President Clinton's call for a national dialogue on race. Christopher Edley, a Harvard Law School professor, is senior policy adviser to the President on race relations and consultant to Mr. Clinton's seven-member advisory board. Linda Chavez, former chair of the Civil Rights Commission during the Reagan administration, is now president of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Welcome both. Professor Edley, you heard excerpts from today's town hall meeting in Akron. Is that the kind of dialogue that you envisioned?
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
December 3, 1997:
A background report on a town hall meeting in Akron, Ohio.
December 2, 1997:
A report on a camp working to better relations between the races.
November 25, 1997:
Cornel West and the NewsHour historians discuss the importance of civic symbols.
September 30, 1997:
Presidential race advisers discuss Clinton's One America initiative.
September 25, 1997:
A look back at school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas 40 years ago.
October 10, 1997:
The President's race advisory panel on school desegregation.
July 4, 1997:
The Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook joins Angela Oh respond to your questions on race relations.
May 20, 1997:
Betty Ann Bowser reports on the effects of dropping affirmative action programs in Texas universities.
April 9, 1997:
A federal court in California upholds a state ban on affirmative action programs.
Jan. 15, 1996:
Benjamin DeMott discusses his book The Trouble with Friendship: Why Americans Can't Think Straight about Race.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of Race Relations.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY, Presidential Advisory Board on Race: Comes awfully close. From what I've heard I'm quite pleased. The initiative--the President's effort here--really has to proceed on two tracks. One, of course, is the development of policies, and the opportunity agenda that will close the racial gaps in social and economic opportunity. But the other piece of it--in some ways the harder piece of it--is to figure out strategies for closing the divisions in values and perceptions, the divisions in our hearts, if you will. And dialogue is a part of it. It's got to go beyond dialogue, beyond singing "Kumbaya," to creating experiences that connect communities across lines of color and class. But I think honest conversation is an important starting place, giving people--modeling for people, if you will, the kinds of discussions, the kinds of activities that might make a difference in institutions and communities around the nation.
PHIL PONCE: Linda Chavez, your reaction to today's town hall meeting.
LINDA CHAVEZ, Center for Equal Opportunity: Well, first of all, I think the President is to be commended for taking to the bully pulpit on this issue. I think it is important to have frank discussions about race. I was pleased that he only had one dissenting voice there on the question of preferences, Abigail Thernstrom. But at least he had one. I think the President said something very important today, and that is, you know, there's a lot of emphasis on celebrating diversity, and I think the President pushes that celebrating diversity too much, but he said something that I think is more important, and that is that what we have to focus on is what we have in common with each other. And if we really want to talk about racial harmony, really want to improve race relations in this country, I think the question is, what are the policies that will, in fact, focus on what we have in common? And here I think is where Chris Edley and I and where President Clinton and I would have some disagreements. I think when you have policies, as President Clinton does, in place, which people are constantly being asked to check boxes to determine what group they belong to in order to get favorable admission into a job, or into a university, or into a federal contracting program, that what you're doing then is emphasizing those racial differences. You're constantly making people think that race is the single most important thing. And I think that leads to less harmony, not more.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Edley, more harmony, less harmony, having to do with the issue of affirmative action?
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: The difficulty here is that I certainly believe that paying attention to immutable characteristics like color or gender, for that matter, making decisions about people on that basis, is not costless. There is some cost that goes along with it. The question is: Is it a cost that we should be willing to pay in at least some circumstances in order to have an effective means of remedying and combating discrimination and in order to bring about the kind of inclusion that produces excellence in institutions from colleges to police departments? I suppose where I might disagree with Linda is that while acknowledging that there's some risk of resentment, some risk of backlash, I think much of that is overstated. And I also think that progress necessarily involves making some people uncomfortable. If we had let resentment or the fear of backlash stand in the way of the 1964 Civil Rights Act because we didn't want a white luncheonette counter owner to be resentful of being ordered to serve African Americans in the South, we obviously wouldn't have had as much progress as we had in the last couple of decades. So we ought to note the dangers--some of the costs--and that's why it's important, I think, to pursue policies like affirmative action with great care.
PHIL PONCE: Linda Chavez, is discomfort an inherent part of a robust dialogue?
LINDA CHAVEZ: Well, I think it's more than discomfort here. It's whether the government acts as a moral force to judge people as individuals without regard to their race. And I thought that's what the civil rights movement was all about. I thought that's what we were fighting for in our legal system. We were asking that government, in particular, not treat people differently based on their skin color. Now President Clinton talked today about the affirmative action program in the army, for example, and he talked about Colin Powell. Well, regardless of what Colin Powell thinks about affirmative action and whether or not it contributed to his movement ahead in the army, we do know that the policies in the army are quite different than they are in most universities. If you look at West Point, for example--and I've actually examined the test scores and the grades of incoming students into the West Point Academy--and you find that the racial differences are much smaller. There are about 100 points difference in the SAT scores of incoming students who are black compared to whites. If you look at a university like the University of California-Berkeley, you see huge differences. So when you have government actually mandating programs that judge people by different standards that don't have a level playing field, that don't apply the same rules to everybody, regardless of color, I think that is a cost that is too high to bear, and I think it isn't the principles that we were fighting for in the civil rights movement.
The focus of the President's initiative.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Edley, moving on, what is the focus of the President's initiative at this point?
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Well, first of all, let me emphasize, I'm simply a consultant to the White House, so I'm speaking in my personal capacity. On these two tracks I'm sure that you will see a series of policy announcements over the course of the year that--sort of policy making on the installment plan, if you will, on this opportunity agenda that the President spoke about. The education empowerment zone today is one example. But on the broader issue the question in my mind is: What can we tell leaders in communities and institutions around the country who recognize that progress on a number of fronts, of education to affordable housing, to job creation, progress may be stalled because of our divisions on the basis of color? What are we to tell these leaders who are looking for strategies to overcome those divisions? What are the practical things that they can do to try to knit their communities together? The kind of conversation that we saw in Akron today I think is a start in that direction. I hope that by the end of the year the President will be able to write a report for the American people in his own voice that presents his vision of racial and ethnic justice in the 21st century and some news we can use, so to speak, in how to move forward with that vision, a work plan for the nation for a decade.
Linda Chavez: "The President hasn't been very interested in listening to voices like mine."
PHIL PONCE: Ms. Chavez, Professor Edley is a consultant to the President. If you were a consultant to the President, what would your advice be?
LINDA CHAVEZ: Well, unfortunately, the President hasn't been very interested in listening to voices like mine, and I think he would benefit from talking to those of us who've been in civil rights for most of our adult lives but who hold a different view than he does on preferences. And what I would say to him is that I think that programs that divide people that have different standards according to race are inherently divisive and do not move us closer to racial harmony. But I would also say to him that there is a problem in terms of black progress in the United States, particularly academic progress, that some minority communities, black community in particular, but the Hispanic community as well, need help, and that children who go to school in inferior inner-city schools are not going to be given that same opportunity. I'd like to tell him that we ought to give those parents the same choice that he exercised for Chelsea and that we ought to be moving to look at things like vouchers, opening up creative ways of helping people to make decisions for themselves that are going to better prepare them to be able to compete in that world out there.
PHIL PONCE: Professor Edley, do you see a move on the part of the panel to be more inclusive of diverse political views, such as those held by Ms. Chavez?
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Well, I think it was clear from the President's launching of this initiative that it would be quite inclusive in terms of listening to a wide variety of voices. And that effort is underway. I don't think there is any question but that in order to address the hard issues, the hard questions that divide us, and to figure out solutions to these divisions, one has to listen to a wide range of voices, a wide range of responsible voices. And, listen, I can't let go one observation, and that is the continual use of the word "preference." One reason I think that Linda and many others who are opponents of affirmative action use the word "preference" as a matter of religious faith is because they recognize that in polling data the American people oppose preferences but support affirmative action. So the use of the term "preference," it seems to me, is an example of the unhelpful kind of dialogue, the unhelpful way of discussing the issues. Let's talk about what we mean by excellence. And I think by excellence we mean paying attention to the whole person, paying attention to all the indicators of where they have come from and what they can do with their lives, and a simple test score is not the way to do it.
PHIL PONCE: Ms. Chavez, a quick reaction to the distinction between preferences and affirmative action.
LINDA CHAVEZ: Well, I would quit using the term "preferences" if universities around there quit having preferential admissions policies, if everyone were, in fact, judged by the same standard. You decide what the standard is, and I'm happy to listen to Chris Edley and others on this, but once you have a standard, once you have a rule, make it apply to every single person, regardless of their race, their sex, or their national origin.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Excellence is the standard.
Is the initiative sparking a national dialogue?
PHIL PONCE: Professor Edley, at what point will you know to what extent this initiative is, in fact, sparking a national conversation?
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: It clearly is already, and frankly, that's one of the gratifying things about this. I think far more than I imagined back in June, when the President launched this. If you go outside the beltway, there are communities and institutions all over the country where people are trying to figure out how to do this, how to make a difference. They've accepted the President's challenge to put this issue on the front burner. It's almost a generational challenge. I think that the post Martin Luther King generation has really failed to define its responsibility and its mission in carrying forward this struggle, this burden that America has had since 150 years before the Declaration of Independence. So the conversations are happening. I see it. I hear about it in communities across the country. The next challenge, it seems to me, is to distill what are the most promising practices to present, if you will, almost a guidebook, so that if you're a city counselor in Buffalo or a school superintendent in Boston, you have strategies that you can use to try to knit your community together to move forward on issues like K through 12 opportunity.
PHIL PONCE: Linda Chavez, very, very quickly, do you think this initiative is having an impact across the country? Are people talking about more about these issues?
LINDA CHAVEZ: I think people have been talking about race for a very long time. I think it's good that the President is involved in that conversation. I hope it really does turn into a dialogue. I think we need to hear a lot of diverse views on this, and we ought only not just to be talking about white racism; there are problems of racism among minorities, among blacks, and among other groups as well, both towards whites and towards each other. We ought to be talking about that as well.
PHIL PONCE: Well, Linda Chavez, Professor Edley, thank you both for joining us.