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JIM LEHRER: President Clinton’s call for a national conversation on race is where we begin tonight. The race relations issue was the centerpiece of the President’s commencement address Saturday at the University of California at San Diego. We’ll have a conversation about what he said following these extended excerpts from the speech.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: If all the questions of discrimination and prejudice that still exist in our society the most perplexing one is the oldest and in some ways today the newest, the problem of race. Can we fulfill the promise of America by embracing all our citizens of all races? Not just at a university where people have the benefit of enlightened teachers and the time to think and grow and get to know each other, but in the daily lives of every American community.
In short, can we become one America in the 21st century? A half century from now when your own grandchildren are in college there will be no majority race in America. Now, we know what we will look like, but what will we be like? Can we be one America, respecting, even celebrating our differences, but embracing even more what we have in common?
Can we define what it means to be an American, not just in terms of the hype in showing our ethnic origins, but in terms of our primary allegiance to the values America stands for and values we really live by? Our hearts long to answer yes, but our history reminds us that it will be hard. To be sure, there is old, unfinished business between black and white Americans, but the classic American dilemma has now become many dilemmas of race and ethnicity.
That is why I have come here today to ask the American people to join me in a great national effort, to perfect the promise of America for this new time as we seek to build our more perfect union. Now when there is more cause for hope than fear, when we are not driven to it by some emergency or social cataclysm, now is the time we should learn together, talk together, and act together to build one America. (applause) We must continue to expand opportunity.
Full participation in our strong and growing economy is the best antidote to envy despair and racism. We must press forward and move millions more from poverty and welfare to work, to bring the spark of enterprise to inner cities, to redouble our efforts to reach those rural communities prosperity has passed by. And most important of all we simply must give our young people the finest education in the world. In our efforts to extend economic and educational opportunity to all our citizens we must consider the role of affirmative action. I know affirmative action has not been perfect in America.
That’s why two years ago we began an effort to fix the things that are wrong with it. But when used in the right way, it has worked. (applause) I know that the people of California voted to repeal affirmative action without any ill motive.
The vast majority of them simply did it with the conviction that discrimination and isolation are no longer barriers to achievement. But consider the result: Minority enrollments in law school and other graduate programs are plummeting for the first time in decades. Soon, the same will likely happen in undergraduate education. We must not resegregate higher education, or lead it to the private universities to do the public’s work. (applause)
For those who oppose affirmative action, I ask you to come up with an alternative. I would embrace it if I could find a better way. And to those of us who still support it, I say we should continue to stand for it. We should reach out to those who disagree or are uncertain and talk about the practical impact of these issues. We must build one American community based on respect for one another and our shared values.
We must begin with a candid conversation on the state of race relations today and the implications of Americans of so many different races living and working together as we approach a new century. We must be honest with each other.
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. Honest dialogue will not be easy at first. We’ll all have to get back past defensiveness and fear and political correctness and other barriers to honesty. Emotions may be rubbed raw, but we must begin. What do I really hope we will achieve as a country? If we do nothing more than talk, it will be interesting, but it won’t be enough.
If we do nothing more than propose disconnected acts of policy, it will be helpful but it won’t be enough. But if 10 years from now people can look back and see that this year of honest dialogue and concerted action help to lift the heavy burden of race from our children’s future, we will have given a precious gift to America.