One America: Report On Race
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JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner has the race commission story.
MARGARET WARNER: Fifteen months ago, in San Diego, President Clinton launched a national dialogue on race — and named an advisory board on race relations to spearhead it. He set lofty goals for its work.
President Clinton: “If we do nothing more than talk, it will be interesting — but it won’t be enough.”
PRESIDENT CLINTON: If we do nothing more than talk, it will be interesting — but it won’t be enough. But if ten years from now, people can look back and see that this year of honest dialogue and concerted action helped to lift the heavy burden of race from our children’s future, we will have given a precious gift to America.
MARGARET WARNER: Over 15 months, the initiative generated 9 board meetings, more than 300 public hearings, and three presidential forums on race. Today, Chairman John Hope Franklin delivered the board’s final report to the president.
JOHN HOPE FRANKLIN: Since June 1997, we’ve been engaged in plantings seeds of racial reconciliation. But those seeds will require cultivating and nurturing, if we are to grow and if we are to become truly one America – a stronger, more just, and unified America, which offers opportunity and fairness for all Americans. We make no apology for what we have not done. There are limits to what one can do and what one can achieve in 15 months.
MARGARET WARNER: In addition to policy suggestions in civil rights enforcement, education, economic opportunity, housing and criminal justice, the board urged the president to adopt four major recommendations: appoint a permanent President’s Council to promote racial harmony; create a public education and media program on racial issues; urge business and government leaders to address racial concerns together; and encourage young people to get involved in bridging racial divides. President Clinton praised the board’s work and endorsed Franklin’s call for continuing the national dialogue on race.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: This board has raised the consciousness and quickened the conscience of America. They have moved us closer to our ideal, but we have more to do. The first thing we have to do is keep the conversation going. We should not underestimate the power of dialogue and conversation to melt away misunderstanding and to change the human heart.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, four perspectives on the results of the president’s race initiative: Angela Oh, a member of the advisory board, is an attorney in private practice in Los Angeles; Christopher Edley is senior adviser to President Clinton on the race initiative, is a professor at Harvard Law School; Roger Wilkins, a long-time civil rights activist, is a professor of history at George Mason University; and Linda Chavez, former chairman of the Civil Rights Commission during the Reagan administration, is now president of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Chris Edley, this was an advisory board to the President. You’re the President’s adviser on these matters. Are you impressed with the results?
Mr. Edley: “It’s going to be very helpful.”
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY, Senior Presidential Adviser on Race: It’s going to be very helpful. I think it’s a compendium of an awful lot of work, a lot of information, and some important perspectives that will provide a lot of foundation as the President prepares his own report to the American people. I think particularly in telling the nation to really look beyond the black-white framework of the 60′s and the new diversity that we have to grapple with – but also highlighting that this is a challenge that involves matters of the heart – healing people, bringing people together, as well as matters of opportunity, the concrete actions that will change social and economic facts.
MARGARET WARNER: Are you impressed, Roger Wilkins?
ROGER WILKINS, George Mason University: Well, it’s hard to comment on a report that you haven’t been able to read yet.
MARGARET WARNER: Hundreds of pages, yes.
ROGER WILKINS: Right. But I’d say, first of all, I’m glad the president initiated this action. I’m glad that the commission did – the report did what it did over the year. The executive summary tells me that there’s – they have covered virtually every base there is to cover. And I approve of it all. The trouble is that it appears to me that it is a gentle and diffuse treatment of the problem when it needs to be sharp, focused, and ring some real bells of alarm. We don’t just have a kind of a gentle race problem here. We’ve got kids in inner cities, Latino kids, and black kids particularly, who are being destroyed in large, large numbers.
And if you don’t believe it, just look at the prison populations and see who they are. They’re kids who have been abused as children; they’re young people who can’t read. We’re not just wasting Americans; we’re destroying them. And I don’t see in this report – at least the summary – a call of the urgency that I think is required for an analysis that is as sharp and as clear as I would have hoped.
MARGARET WARNER: Address that point, Angela Oh, because a lot of the news stories that came out today about the report – I guess they’d gotten advanced copies – made a similar point. I think the Los Angeles Times says – characterized the recommendation as just keep talking. That seemed to be the sum of the critique – too gentle, too diverse – as Roger Wilkins put it?
ANGELA OH, President’s Advisory Board on Race: Well, I think that we’re dealing with a subject here that is one that surfaces a lot of pain, a lot of rage, a lot of resentment, what are you saying, are you blaming me for the conditions under which we all need to work and live? I don’t think that it is too gentle. I think it is an appropriate tone, given what we have heard from the American people in this year. There is a need for sensitivity to be brought to bear here.
And it’s a highly complicated time in which we are looking at this issue of race in connection with all of the things that we touched on in this report. You know, we have to also incorporate the reality of the advances we’ve realized in telecommunications and in technology. It’s shifted the framework in which we must work and in which we must think about what our options are for the next steps.
So while the critics are out there, my response to it is, well, the critics were there at the very beginning, you know. No. We did not in 15 months tie up all the loose ends. And there are lots of loose ends in this area. But what we did learn was that there are an enormous number of people in this country all across the country who really still hold hope and who really want an initiative like this to go forward in some more permanent way. You will see policy spin-offs; you will see activity that will touch people at a local level.
One of the four main recommendations is a call to action to our local leaders, because we understood at the advisory board level that while the nation must be led and the vision must be put out there, real change is going to happen at a local level, at a grassroots level, and that’s where some of the most creative, innovative, and dedicated people are.
MARGARET WARNER: What was your impression of it, or at least the summary we’ve all read and the recommendations?
Ms. Chavez: “I think that it seemed to me . . . that some of the really tough problems were not, in fact, dealt with.”
LINDA CHAVEZ, Center for Equal Opportunity: Well, I started out somewhat skeptical, although hopeful. I thought that President Clinton should be commended for initiating a conversation on race and promoting healing.
I must say from what I have read of news reports and reading the executive summary that I think promoting racial harmony is not advanced by using terms like racial domination, like European Americans, or terms like white privilege. And I think more importantly even than the kind of tone that I thought does not promote that kind of harmony is Roger Wilkins is absolutely right – there are some enormously serious problems in the minority community today.
The fact that you have two out of three black children being born out of wedlock – the fact that there are more black and Puerto Rican young men in prisons than there are in college – these are serious problems, which speak to a new generation that is going to not have even the advantages of previous generations, even with more discrimination in the past than there is today. These are problems that I don’t think have been dealt with in any meaningful way.
Education, which everybody understands is the cornerstone of trying to do something to improve the chances for the next generation of young black and Latino-Americans – I did not see anything that was anything more than sort of platitudinous, a reaffirmation of the current system – the public school system fall – no serious look at alternative ways of educating – no serious look at issues like vouchers, for example. So I think that it seemed to me that there were a lot of generalizations there that some of the really tough problems were not, in fact, dealt with.
I think the one thing that I was pleased to see in the executive summary was there was an acknowledgement that race in America is no longer just about blacks and whites, that, in fact, we are a multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation, and becoming more so every day.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Roger Wilkins, are you and Linda – you seem to both be saying you wanted, what, real policy prescriptions or bolder new steps? What would you have liked to have seen, not necessarily on a specific issue but in terms of the approach?
ROGER WILKINS: Well, let me say something that I should have said first, that – John Hope Franklin, who chaired the board, is my dear friend and my mentor and -
MARGARET WARNER: As an historian -
ROGER WILKINS: Oh, as an historian and just a great human being. And one of the things that was in this that I thought must have come from John Hope was the idea that he really had to understand our history in order to understand where we are and where we’re going. And I think if you look at our history, you will see that we don’t really make enormous progress unless we focus and we work awfully hard. We can’t – we can’t fix this whole problem all at once.
But if we really focus on educating poor children and giving their parents the economic opportunities to provide stable homes for them, we may make big inroads on those desperate populations, as Linda and I are agreeing on, and as I look at this, there’s nothing in the summary that I disagree with. I agree with all of it. What bothers me is that if you kind of stand back and you say, well, here are all the things we may do – you know darn well that the U.S. Government is not going to do them all.
So you really have to focus, and there has to be at the end of this, there has to be teaching, and there has to be a framework, and there has to be urgency. And at this moment I don’t see the framework; I don’t see the priorities; and I don’t see the urgency.
MARGARET WARNER: Chris Edley, let me ask you about this sort of theme, and we have several themes on the table here, but the sort of lack of urgency – Tom Kean, former governor of New Jersey, who also was on the panel, said he felt that the panel was almost being discouraged by the White House from making bold policy recommendations, and he would have liked to make bolder steps. Do you share Roger’s critique, do you think it hit just the right tone, did you all not want anything more hard-edged?
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: I’m trying to remember why I agreed to come do this. I think that -
MARGARET WARNER: Because you’re a nice guy.
CHRISTOPHER EDLEY: Because I’m a nice guy, right. Look, I’ll be candid. I mean, the president’s appetite for boldness on this issue has consistently exceeded the appetite of his staff, there’s no question about it. He feels an urgency about this and a passion about this that not only led to his wanting to launch this initiative in the absence of a hot burning, immediate domestic crisis, but also viewing this really as a first step.
This is not the end, by any means, of the discussion of the dialogue of the formulation of discreet actions to be taken in the future. He’s going to build on this and do his own report to the nation probably around the beginning of the year.
And I fully expect he has said to us that he does want it to include some bold measures; he does want to have it focused; he agrees with the board that education is a critical priority. And moreover, he wants to talk to the nation not simply about what the federal government ought to be doing, but a work plan for the nation as a whole, where we need to go, federal, state, local, public, private, personal, over a decade, if we’re really going to make some headway on this issue into the 21st century.
What I – I do want to make sure that people understand – notwithstanding some erroneous reports – what the board has produced is not all about talk and all about dialogue. In fact, my guess is that the few people that managed to read the whole thing are more likely to criticize it because there are too many policy ideas in it, rather than too few. Now it is the president’s job in discussions with many people to figure out the focus and the priorities and, in essence, really what are the key values on which we need to engage in order to create a moral and political consensus for the bold policies.
MARGARET WARNER: Angela Oh, let me ask you about something that Linda Chavez sort of criticized, but you seem to be embracing, which was that the commission talk about the importance of race in our history, and said that the nation must understand and confront “this country’s history of white privilege” – almost, it seemed to be saying, as a prerequisite for bridging racial divides. Why is that so important? And of course, Linda Chavez was saying she didn’t like that tone, but why is that important, do you think?
Ms. Oh: “It’s hard to listen to words like white privilege. . .because a lot of whites don’t feel privileged.”
ANGELA OH: Well, this whole conversation actually reflects one of the challenges that we faced as a board. You know, we don’t yet have a language, a vocabulary that allows for the differences in perspectives and experiences that emerge when you start talking about race to be heard without a lot of other stuff that comes along with the words that get used. The term “white privilege,” for example, I mean, this is what’s in the literature. This is what some experts have brought to us in the way of a language that’s being used.
It is what some segments of our people in this nation see as one of the obstacles to reducing the disparity gaps and increasing the opportunities for realizing this wonderful principle that we hold so dear of equality and justice, and it’s not just the education piece that we hold as a priority. We also very much focused on the economic opportunity piece as well. These – if any two substantive areas emerged as priority concerns that we heard over and over and over again – it was education and economics. These were the two areas, and this is where the policy work will likely focus, I would imagine.
The language – it’s hard. It’s hard to – listen to words like white privilege, it really is, because a lot of whites don’t feel privileged. And we heard that too. I’m not privileged. I don’t feel that I as a working person, single parent, dad, with two boys, has to pick up the paper – and this is a real phone call I got – has to pick up the paper and read about how our government is going to help some poor minority buy their first house. You know, these are the emotions that are out there.
LINDA CHAVEZ: Those emotions are out there, and I think Chris Edley is absolutely correct, that the work that has to be done in America today is largely the work of changing people’s hearts and minds. We have laws on the book which I believe ought to be vigorously enforced. We ought to have adequate punishments when people break those laws and actually do discriminate. But a lot of the work that needs to be done is getting people to get beyond race. And you don’t get beyond race, particularly by hammering people over the head with this idea that this generation of Americans are all the products of a history of white privilege. And I think if you ignore that and if you continue to use those catch phrases, what you will do is to drive a wedge between Americans.
MARGARET WARNER: And I hate to say this, but we are out of time. Thank you all four very much.