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One America

June 16, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now, five perspectives on the President’s initiative. Ward Connerly is a regent for the University of California system. He was the moving force behind California Proposition 209, which abolished racial preferences and public programs there. Congressman John Lewis, Democrat of Georgia, accompanied the President to San Diego for the commencement address. Ronald Blackbird Moreno is national executive director of the Aspera Association, a Latino Youth Organization. He also chairs the National Hispanic Leadership Council. Susan Allen is an attorney, president of the United States Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce; and Jim Sleeper is a journalist and author. His most recent book is entitled Liberal Racism.

Ms. Allen, what did you think of the President’s approach and speech?

SUSAN AU ALLEN, U.S. Pan Asian American Chamber of Commerce: I thought–I went to listen to that speech with high hopes–but I came out disappointed. I had hoped that he would really walk the talk and practice what he would preach. He gave us a lot of nice words and feel-good words, but I think in the end there was no substance in his speech. I had hoped that he would repeat his teen-age idol, President Kennedy, when President Kennedy said–I think it was on June 11, 1963–that race does have no place in American life and law.

And I hoped that he would start with affirmative action and as the captain of the ship of state steer the country away from the politics of division, preferences, quotas, and set asides toward a country where people are united together under the principle that this country was founded on–equality for all and preference and special treatment for none. He did not do that. Indeed, he went to California and spoke to the people who had voted not too many months ago overwhelmingly in support of the elimination of affirmative action as we know it today. It was a disappointment.

JIM LEHRER: A disappointment, Congressman Lewis?

REP. JOHN LEWIS, (D) Georgia: It was not a disappointment for me. I thought it was a great speech, a very moving speech. It brought tears to my eyes really. This is the first time since the days of Lyndon Johnson, the days of John F. Kennedy, that we had an American President to speak from his heart, from his very soul, about the whole question of race.

I think the President was saying in so many words that if diversity is a goal, then we must be a diversified society. It’s good in the boardroom, the classroom, the courtroom. It’s good for America. And we see affirmative action only as a tool, only as an instrument to moving toward one America. I think those who criticize the President should give this young southern President an opportunity to make this effort work.

This man came of age during the height of the Civil Rights movement. He was not speaking just as President, not as a politician, but as a human being. He really believed that we must move toward one America. JIM LEHRER: Mr. Connerly, what did you think of the speech?

WARD CONNERLY, American Civil Rights Institute: Well, I remember that commercial, tastes great, less filling. And I think as you listen to different people you sort of get the tug and pull of our feelings about the speech. I think it was a great speech; I really do. I think the President really shows an understanding of the enormously complex racial problem that we have in the nation. These are the best of times in dealing with that problem, and these are the worst of times in dealing with it. There are some–there are some disconnections, however, in the speech.

The President says he wants to bring us together as one nation, and yet, he proposes that we use race–something that 30 years ago I’m sure he would have been saying let’s not use race–but he wants us to use race to treat ourselves differently. And I just don’t know how we get to where he wants us to be and where I think most people of goodwill want to be treating American citizens differently. And the central theme of this whole issue about race has to be a discussion of what do we do with affirmative action preferences, and the President said he wants to talk to all of us, even those who happen to disagree, but he didn’t talk to anybody from my side, from my point of view, before he gave the speech.

He didn’t include even a token 209 believer on his presidential advisory board on race. And so there are some things there that don’t quite hang together between what he says and what he is doing. But overall, I thought that the President did the right thing and he impressed me with his understanding of the problem, although I felt that the solution came up very, very lacking.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Moreno, does it hang together for you?

RONALD BLACKBURN-MORENO, National Hispanic Leadership Agenda: Yes, certainly. I think it’s a very good start. I think we’re going down a very dangerous course in this country. And if we don’t come to grips with the issues of discrimination against not only African-Americans but other groups as well, we’re going to be in an explosive situation in the next fifteen to twenty years.

And I think bringing this to the forefront of attention, making it central to the debate, I think it’s very, very important, especially when we didn’t have a racial crisis at the moment. I have to commend the President, first of all, for bringing it to the center of attention; second, for broadening the frame of the issue beyond black and white, and bringing in other minority groups into–into the discussion.

Third, for his strong support of affirmative action we can’t wait until we have equal opportunity, until we are able to admit students of color at the University of California, provide them equal opportunity. Especially, we know we don’t have an equal opportunity school system. Third, for supporting education, I think that’s going to be key for providing equal opportunity for our children and our youth in the future.

JIM LEHRER: Jim Sleeper, the President said we must have an honest dialogue. Is an honest dialogue possible about race?

JIM SLEEPER, Journalist/Author: Well, I think it is, Jim. I’m not sure he hit all of the right notes toward getting us there, though. I think if we’re going to talk about becoming one America, we’ve got to admit that part of the problem is not just our racial history, profound though it is.

It’s the sheer rapidity and validity of the change we’re undergoing now that is scrambling our notions of race so completely that I agree with those who’ve said there’s something wrong with using it as the main lens. And another problem I think with having an honest dialogue, he said at one point that if we–the rollback of affirmative action would resegregate campuses. I don’t know if he meant to imply that there’s something racist about admissions officers who would not admit qualified candidates.

I think if we want to have an honest dialogue, we have to ask why have the number of applications dropped in Texas and California? These go to questions of preparation, of remediation, things that do demand resources, but in order to get to the point where we could build a consensus about assembling those resources, we have to be honest that some of the racial color coding, some of the relentless color coding of our public and private lives that we’ve been engaged in is not the solution.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Congressman Lewis, there’s too much color coding?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: No. I don’t think so. I think what the President said and what many of us who have been involved in the Civil Rights movement have been trying to say, we’ve come a distance, we’ve made a lot of progress, but the scars and strings of racism are still deeply embedded in American society. And we cannot forget that. Look what has happened in California. Look at what has happened in Texas and other places around the country. There must be a willingness of us to put all of our cards on the table and deal with the whole question of race.

JIM LEHRER: Ms. Allen, from your perspective, are all the cards on the table, all the things that need to be talked about being talked about, and will they be talked about?

SUSAN AU ALLEN: Well, I hope so, but I think we should not look to the federal government as the arbiter. It is nice for the President to put it on the national agenda, but I think the most effective way to deal with race relations is to go to the local communities. I can tell you places in New Orleans, in St. Petersburg, and in North Dakota.

They have started this process long before our President started to talk about it. In 1971 and ’72, for two years, I sat with Marilyn Quayle and 25 women of all ethnic groups, all religious beliefs and all racial orientations–racial backgrounds, and we sat down. We wanted to talk about what it is that we women of all colors, all backgrounds, can do together to bring a more harmonious society. We did that in 1991, and there was no photo ops, no cosmetic jobs.

I think while we have to deal with this, it is pernicious for us to ask four-year-olds when they first step into a school to directly themselves or through the parents to categorize them by race, to ask to check the box to say whether they’re Asian, Hispanic, Black, native American, or white. My 18-year-old was filling out a form for the University of Chicago last night. He got accepted there.

I’m very happy. He yelled out from the kitchen, “Mom, what am I? Which box should I check?”. I had to say, “Check whatever–that describes you.” He is both white and Asian, but he said, “Mom, there’s only one box.” I said, “Ignore that instruction.” This is not right for children, for students to have to pick a classification on racial grounds. And that classification will later follow them for the rest of their professional and business life to hurt them and sometimes help them. This is not right. It’s not fair, and it’s not fair to people like the Chinese woman who we saw on television.

That kid never discriminated against anyone. Why should he, having forgone television, video games, and all that, worked hard, would be excluded from the school of his choice so that he can move over and give it to somebody else who may qualify for the school but did well than he did?

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Moreno, you believe the classification by race must continue.

RONALD BLACKBURN-MORENO: I believe that people who have been historically discriminated against in this country have the right to equal opportunity. And that’s the main purpose of affirmative action, is to provide equal opportunity to students who don’t have equal opportunity, to students who don’t have access to college. We–on the one hand, we have a growing divide in the country by race, by socioeconomic status. And on the other, we’re having a very, very significant and rapid change in the face of America.

And we have to come to grips with that. And until we can come up with a way–until we can come up with a school reform, for instance, that will provide equal opportunity to all students, to all students, quality education for all students, we have to find ways of providing the opportunities for students to go on to college. Why don’t students go on to the University of California and University of Texas? Why are applications down? What message is the University of Texas and the University of California sending to minority students?

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Connerly.

WARD CONNERLY: You know it’s kind of interesting that all of those who want to continue affirmative action preferences point to diversity. It’s the very diversity in California that has inspired us to say we can’t go on doing what we have been doing in the past. We’re making public policy for the future. We’re trying to build a society in which those things don’t matter; that race will not matter. And I don’t know how we do that if we keep living in the past. And our skin color and our–how we spell our last name are not measurements of who we are.

And what we want to do in this state–and this is why people of California voted for 209–is we recognize that this natural diversity that is bubbling out of our system here is not going to allow us to continue classifying people by race. We don’t even know what boxes to check, as Ms. Allen said, and the only hope for us to make this experiment of American democracy work is to do away with those silly little boxes and get beyond the questions of race. And we can’t do that until we do away with these programs that classify us and decide who gets into college and who gets a job and who gets a contract on the basis of race.

JIM LEHRER: Jim Sleeper, can there be a dialogue about this very subject, a national dialogue about whether or not we should continue to classify people by race?

JIM SLEEPER: Oh, I think it’s inevitable. I think we’re going to have it. And–

JIM LEHRER: As a result of what the President’s done, or was it already underway?

JIM SLEEPER: I think it’s already underway. And I think, again, I share the concern on his panel, he should have included some of the younger black writers, whether it be Randall Kennedy, or Itibarian Jerry, and others who are dealing with the increasing vagueness of around race loyalty and race pride. I think that’s very important. And if I can just say, Mr. Moreno rightly invoked the idea of equal, equal opportunity education–equal opportunity for people as individuals, not as members of groups.

When the President said, if there’s an alternative to affirmative action show me and I’ll embrace it, I’m sure Mr. Connerly could speak to that better than I, but my understanding is that when the University of California realized that 209 was going to pass, the institute had special preparatory sessions, remedial sessions in some inner city neighborhoods. Kids flocked to them. People applauded. And the only question in my mind was: My gosh, why weren’t they doing this before? Isn’t that a way of equalizing opportunity without pasting labels on people and making these presumptions. Those are the kinds of things that I would like to see candidly discussed in the kind of dialogue that the President is initiating.

JIM LEHRER: Can they be talked about, Mr. Moreno?

RONALD BLACKBURN-MORENO: Of course, of course, and I think that the President is just bringing this to the forefront once more. And I think that the issues that have been discussed here like equal opportunity and other people have to be brought into the discussion as well. The people who really held power in this country have not been part of this discussion.

JIM LEHRER: Like who?

RONALD BLACKBURN-MORENO: Corporate America has not been part of it. And more than any other sector, these are the people who own the economic resources in this country, 93 percent of the economic resources in this country. And these are the people who, these Fortune 1000 companies have to be part of the dialogue. They have to realize that equal opportunity and inclusion are good for America and are good for American business. And it’s very important that this major group–the major sector be included in this discussion.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Connerly, are they going to be included?

WARD CONNERLY: Well, I’m sure they will be included, but I respectfully disagree here. This problem is not going to be solved by corporate America. This problem is going to be solved by the firemen and the policemen, the shoeshine man, the people on the street who have to live with the whole problem of race every day. Those are the people that will solve this problem. And until we recognize that reality, we’re not getting anywhere. The problem has to be solved within the hearts and minds of the American people and all the stereotypes about race have to be banished by those people. We’ve gone as far as we can go with those who have the lovers of power in government. It has to be solved by the everyday people in our society.

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Lewis, is it a hearts and mind problem now?

REP. JOHN LEWIS: Well, it’s that, and it’s more, but when you have the President of the United States, the highest elected official, helping to set the climate, creating an environment, creating a sense of hope and optimism, I think it’s important. I think we should be grateful that we have a President who’s prepared to take on this hard and difficult task, but in the real sense there must be a revolution of ideas and values on the part of the American people.

The same way during the 60′s, that we brought the problems of segregation and discrimination from under the American rug I think we must bring this problem out into the open, and we all can deal with it. I think we can have a national dialogue, and we can change the hearts and minds of the people, but the President must be involved in that process.

JIM LEHRER: National dialogue has begun, Ms. Allen?

SUSAN AU ALLEN: Yes, it has, and I think I do agree with the President that you cannot throw money at it; power cannot change it; and you cannot use high technology to create it. It has to start with people’s hearts, and people will only follow if they think they will be treated fairly.

JIM LEHRER: Ms. Allen, gentlemen, thank you all very much.