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A Dialogue on Race with President Clinton

July 9, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jim Lehrer held a panel with President Bill Clinton called a Dialogue on Race. The roundtable was wide-ranging and nuanced, touching on both the roots of discrimination and the obstacles in finding solutions. President Clinton said then that economics and education were the best tools to end racism.

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 President Clinton.

Good evening. Welcome to an hour of conversation with President Clinton about race in America. Welcome to you, Mr. President.


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.

Richard Rodriguez, 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.

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.

Interesting thing. 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 we’re going.

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?

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 differences.

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 it.

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 economy.

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.

We need a vocabulary that embraces America's present and past on this race issue.President Clinton

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.

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 is something.

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.

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.

He had 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.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Let’s go back to what Kay said. What do you think the roots of racism are?

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 in.

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.

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 standards.

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 nation now?

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 live together.

JIM LEHRER: Clarence, that makes sense to you?

CLARENCE PAGE, The Chicago Tribune: That makes a lot of sense. We have gone around the table and I have exhibited great patience by withholding my comments. Everybody here is expressing this dream of integration but we all have different courses about the pain we want to pay, the pain we want to experience to get there.

I’m sure, equal opportunity in a corporate world, an educational world, but how much equal opportunity are you willing to sacrifice in pursuit of diversity. The integration dream that Roger is expressing. And let us get back to Richard’s question about the language that we speak. I have heard us go from prejudice to racism and then over to diversity and integration. You think we are talking about the same thing but we are not. You know racism is institutional. We are talking about history here.

That is why if you want diversity in San Francisco schools, if you want that virtue of having your kids exposed to other kids of different races and backgrounds, then you got to be willing to say we got to put a ceiling on some people. I have told the same thing to African-Americans back in Chicago with housing, because we want to keep desegregated housing, then you have got to tell black folks as well as white folks, hey, we have got enough of you right now, and that’s a hard thing to do but because integration, desegregation does not come by just good wishes. You got to work at it. You got to take some mechanical steps to get from here to there and until we can do that, we can’t have an honest dialogue. Until we are willing to talk about how much are we willing to pay.

JIM LEHRER: Somebody has to get hurt in order for some other people to be helped?

CLARENCE PAGE: Right. There has got to be some pain involved. And everybody talks about it. Mr. President, I have written this so, it’s only popular that I say this to you personally. I feel like that one problem with the race dialogue was that I feel you were reluctant to deal with the question of affirmative action. It is the most divisive question we got along lines of race in our country besides crime, which is another question for the dialogue. But we need to talk, and of course, I agree with you fully, we need to amend it, not end it, we need affirmative action, but how do we define it, and how do we deal with those people who feel like they are sacrificing and I think the sacrifices have been overrated and the polls tend to don’t bear me out.

Most white folks don’t feel that pained by affirmative action or quotas, etc. It’s a great political tool and until we deal with it effectively, have a real dialogue about it, it’s going to continue to be exploited politically by various people in a positive or negative kind of way. And I guess I’ll have to say how do you feel about that in terms of the kind of tiptoeing around the really tough issues of race?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: See, I believe, I frankly, I believe that the real reason it’s a problem, it’s more a problem with education now than economics because the unemployment rate is so low, and because the jobs are opening up so most gifted people feel that if they’re willing to work hard, they can find a job so you don’t see, we don’t have the anxiety about affirmative action you used to have when the police departments and the fire departments were being integrated and promotions were being given.

Every now and then you hear something about that, but most of the controversy is about education. Why? because people know education is really important and if the parents and children make a decision about where they want to go to school in the case of Elaine, a public school that they believe is good or a college, they are afraid if they don’t get in where they want to get in, they will get a substandard education.

I have a different view. The reason I supported affirmative action, as long as you don’t just let people in who are blatantly unqualified to anything is that I think number one, test scores and all these so-called objective measurements are somewhat ambiguous and they are not perfect measures of the people’s capacity to grow, but secondly and even more importantly, I think our society has a vested interest in having people from diverse backgrounds. I mean, when I went to college in the dark ages one of the reasons I applied to Georgetown was they had foreign students there and they had a policy of having a kid from every state there.

And you know, maybe I got in because there weren’t too many people from Arkansas who applied, for all I know. I think there are independent educational virtues to a diverse student body and young people learn different things in different ways so, and I don’t think objective measurements are perfect, so I don’t have a problem with it.

But I think the most important thing is that we have to understand that this is one of the hard questions, and it is best worked out, in my view, by people sitting around a table trying to work out the specifics like in San Francisco, and when people feel like they have no voice, then they feel robbed, but there will never be a perfect resolution to this.

JIM LEHRER: Richard, you agree, no perfect resolution to this thing?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: No. I do agree. I think generally no perferct solutions. I left the university over affirmative action. I consider myself a Hubert Humphrey liberal. When it came time for me to get a position over you because you were white and because America perceived me to belong to this new brown race, this complete fiction of the Hispanic race. Does not exist. There is no Hispanic race left or right of Cuba. We, my father is very light skinned, my mother looks very Indian, there are white Hispanics, there are black Hispanics, but the university didn’t care about any of that.

I was in new brown race, this new Hispanic, at a point in the American political discussion when the only person who was not a minority was people that you came from, poor whites, particularly poor white males in this society who the language of affirmative action is that they are somehow represented in the public society. Like hell they are.

Where are the Appalachian whites represented? Because there are white men in the front of the airplane. And it came to me at a time when I was middle class Mexican-American, perfectly capable of dealing with the competition for jobs and the jobs came looking for me because I was their brown man. And I threw the jobs back at them. I didn’t want those jobs.

And if that’s the way we were going to discuss race in America with these bureaucratic understandings of who is a Hispanic, without even knowing what a Hispanic means, we are in real trouble in this country.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: But let me ask you, let me ask everybody, first of all, I’m glad you said that because we are in the business of defining stereotypes tonight, so that’s good. I think all of us who have worked hard to get where we are sort of traveled, I mean, when I was a young man, I was the only person on my law school faculty that voted against our tenure policy because I never wanted anybody to guarantee me a job. I told them they could tell me to leave tomorrow and I’d go. I really identify with what you have done.

I’m proud of that. But suppose you are the president of the university. Would you like, other things being equal, to have a faculty that were not, that were reasonably racially diverse and even more importantly, would you like, other things being equal, to have a student body that reflected the way America, the way the America of these young people was going to live in once they graduated, and if you believed that and you didn’t want to infuriate people like you have been infuriated and make them feel like you felt, how would you go about achieving that? You see, I think this is tough stuff. I don’t pretend my position is easy or totally defensible. How would you do it?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I think you would start at the bottom of the social ladder. You would start in first grade rather than at graduate school to try to decide which ones of us get into law school. You would make sure America had a system of education that saved children in first grade because we lose them there.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: I think that’s absolutely right. Even though it sounds like a distinction without a difference, goals are better than quotas and if you know what you want in a particular situation, be it a workplace or a college class, then you are not stuck in the exact situation Elaine mentioned in which you are doing something patently unfair. Also the nice thing about goals is you don’t always have to reach them. The idea is to keep them, your eyes on them, and hope that you get the proper and reasonable mix in a group.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Let’s go back to this, I want to ask you to, because I want you to go in here. Did you, what exactly was it did you resent? Did you resent the fact they were going to guarantee you a job whether you were any good or not, or did you resent the fact that they were looking for Hispanic faculty members?

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: I resented two things. I resented the fact that I was being rewarded for the exclusion of other people of my ethnic group. In other words, I was an American minority at from a point which I was not a cultural minority and the absence of those people, because nine people were not there, I as a tenth person became their minority.

And I resented it for all the political liberal reasons that I have and that there was something that didn’t play on my soul, the notion that I was entitled to this job and you weren’t because I had darker skin and it didn’t play on me. I was never a primary victim of racial discrimination in this country. I belong to California and I grew up among Portugese and Irish kids, never never a primary victim and the name of the primary victims I was advanced to graduate school.

ROBERTO SURO: I’ve had some of the same experience. Not quite as explictly. There were times when I had consciously not wanted to be regarded as a Hispanic journalist and I don’t find that as a central part of my definition or qualification and even in doing reportage. I hope that I could deal with anybody and when I went overseas looking for assignments I very consciously didn’t go to Latin America. It draws this distinction that Richard raised, I think, between primary victims of discrimination, people who have different kinds of history and we are dealing with now how do you determine whether, you know, affirmative action was started as a historical remedy.

Lyndon Johnson’s speech here was about the foot race, was a reflection on history. And the question is what do you do when you have people who don’t have the same history, but belong to a minority group? Among Latinos now you have people who have experienced real discrimination and have a real history of discrimination, places like south Texas, and you have people who arrived yesterday, yet our system of looking at them puts them all together in one group.

JIM LEHRER: Cynthia, the differences, in other words, dealing with people differently?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, this may be one of those places where in fact the black experience in America is distinct. I did grow up suffering discrimination, real in your face. I grew up in southern Alabama under Jim Crow, and now I am not offended by affirmative action programs at all. I happen to think A, that that does not mean that the person is unqualified, but I also remember only too well when people that I knew were denied jobs because they were black, and so that is one of those places where the black experience is different perhaps from any other experience in this country with the possible exception of Native Americans.


ELAINE CHAO: Clearly the history of this nation as we went through these racial stages have been very tragic. No one would dispute that. And it’s clear also that we don’t live in a perfect world in which there is equal treatment for everyone, but I think it’s absolutely incumbent upon all of us to remember that that is the ideal, that equal opportunity must exist for everyone in this country regardless of color, race, or creed, or whatever and when we talk about diversity, what a wonderful notion it is. Of course, most of us support it.

I for one definitely support it. But the issue is how does one create this diversity and who gets to sacrifice as Clarence mentioned and who gets to suffer, whereas diversity is implemented right now, it’s basically implemented through the American quotas, goals, whatever they are called. Basically the touchstone word is we want it to be representative of America, which means that it’s 13 percent African-Americans, 8 percent Latino Americans, 3 percent Asian-Americans and perhaps Native, certain percentage of Native Americans and the rest white.

When we don’t evaluate things and when we don’t offer opportunity based on merit, how do we decide otherwise and what becomes, who becomes overrepresented minorities, who becomes underrepresented minorities, and that just snowballs into differential treatment, preferential treatment, where one group versus another. I think we should heed to the overall core value of this country that equal opportunity applies for all and that should be same standards for everyone.

CLARENCE PAGE: Well how do you define merit? It should be equal opportunity to get into Berkeley and UCLA. But how do you define merit? SAT’s ACT’s or other criteria?

ELAINE CHAO: No. I think very clearly — merit.

JIM LEHRER: Let me ask Sherman, where do Native Americans fit into the affirmative action debate?

SHERMAN ALEXIE: You know, I get this question asked a lot. I always say if we were taking the jobs and we were taking the stops in college then why aren’t we having jobs and why aren’t we in college? I mean, you got people worrying about medical school, people worrying about blacks being, getting into medical school or law school and I walk through the hospital, the brown people are mopping, so, you know, I think all this debate about affirmative action and about quotas is illusionary and anecdotal.

There has never been a black person who has been denied a job who has won a lawsuit against a company for not hiring them because they were black and yet we are determining national policy based on anecdotal lawsuits and on one example. In Texas, we changed a whole entire admissions system in the University of Texas based on one person’s losing a spot because of their job and it was one lawsuit that decided that that turned the tide, and so if you want to talk about affirmative action, that’s sort of a legal affirmative action where a white person has more power in the courts bringing a law suit against a university would have than a black person not having a suit against a university or not getting in. So I think —

ELAINE CHAO: Jim, I have to answer that if I could. There is a great database of differential standards that do exist for different racial groups, that is common practice in the admissions of universities today all across America that is common practice for many of our educational facilities. Institutions at the lower levels as well.

There’s definitely no questions that it’s just not anecdotal. The Center for Equal Opportunity, and many others, have compiled substantial databases that do show this is part of the racial policies of America today. I do want to say one thing about I think —

JIM LEHRER: I want to go to the president.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: You want me to answer Clarence’s things?

ELAINE CHAO: I was going to say, I think education– Richard has a good point. Education. Education is important. We ought not to talk about equal opportunity at this late stage, but how do we get to, back to K and 12. Our schools are falling apart. How do we fix our schools? How do we slash crime in our neighborhoods? How do we create economic opportunity for everyone? I mean, that’s the real goal for our country.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: What were you going to say about that?

KAY JAMES: I was just going to say, Mr. President, I think the operative phrase was in your question, all things being equal, wouldn’t we like a diverse community, particularly in the academic arena. I was looking around the table and thinking gee whiz, I bet I’m the only one here at the table that needs to make admissions decisions. And you are right. All things being equal, wouldn’t we like to have a diverse community? And I think that’s where most people in America are.

Most people in America, of course, acknowledge and have high esteem for diversity and recognize that their lives are much more enriched in that environment but what they have a problem with is feeling like there are setasides or preferential treatment for some class of people that exist for them only because of their race. As an example, I guess I run across so many middle class African-American students who don’t deserve to have preferential treatment based solely on their race. They have had every opportunity.

They have been given every chance in America and so it makes no sense to give them preference for purely race-based that maybe we should look more at some of the programs that exist in America that give treatment and preference to people out of poverty, that give preference and treatment for a variety of reasons but to purely have race-based solutions in America today doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Let me go back. Let me go back to something Clarence said at the beginning. As you pointed out, we talked about prejudice, discrimination, and we started talking about diversity and all of that. I think you need, if I could, go back to the very first thing that all of you started talking about. We need a vocabulary that embraces America’s future.

And we need a vocabulary that embraces America’s present and past on this race issue. And we need to know when we’re making distinctions, and then we need to fess up to the fact that at least when it comes to Native Americans that if we don’t do something fairly dramatic, the future is going to be like the past for too many people.

I mean, so…for example, I think most American, whether they are conservatives or liberals or Republicans or Democrats, would support the, for example, my budget proposal to give more resources to the EEOC to get rid of the backlog, because all the surveys show that 85 percent of the American people or 90% or something believe that actual discrimination against an individual person in the workplace is wrong based on race.

Now, the real problem is that affirmative action, I think, now since there are a lot of middle class blacks, middle class Hispanics, people of color, that it’s almost, people are not so sure in the workplace and the school place whether it is furthering the goal of getting rid of the lingering effects of discrimination, which is Cynthia’s experience, and mine as a southerner, ours, or whether it is now being used to create a more diverse environment which people feel is a good thing, but not a good thing if it is sticking it to this hard-working Chinese mother in San Francisco and her children, who is raising her kids under adverse circumstances.

AndI guess one of the things that bothers me is that a lot, we need to take, make these kinds of discussions practical and institution or community-based because I’ll say again, I think that we want, we want our children to grow up to learn to grow up in the world that they will in fact live in. Therefore, if you forget about discrimination for a minute, you can’t ever do that, but let’s just assume there is no discrimination, America has a wonderful system of higher education.

There are hundreds of schools I think you can get a world class undergraduate education in, and I believe that therefore it’s worth having some policy to try to diversify the student body. It’s interesting to see what Texas did when the Hopwood decision came down and they said, well, we don’t want to have a totally desegregated set of colleges and universities so we’ll say the top 10 percent of every high school can automatically go to any Texas institution of higher education.

That looks more merit based than the other decision because there are segregated high schools and there are differences in test scores and all of that, so I just would say we need to kind of, we need 10 hours to discuss this. I would like to listen to you. But the only thing I want to point out is the American people have got to decide. You know do they want a housing project in Chicago, in this case the people of Chicago get to decide, that’s integrated, if so, if the people who don’t get in, there do they have reasonable alternatives?

That’s one realistic thing. If a child doesn’t get into a good school that he or she wants to get into, do they have an equivalent alternative? If they don’t, you maybe have hurt them for life. Is it worth it to get discrimination?

Or in the case, look at Kay’s problem. She runs a government department, makes these admissions decisions in a school that has a certain religious and value-based approach to life so if a child gets deprived of going into there, even if the kid goes to Harvard, it may not be the cultural environment.

KAY JAMES: They couldn’t get barely the education they get at Regent.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Let’s assume it’s equivalent. The child may lose something noneducational. So I mean– all these things, I just want the American people to stop talking about and whether it’s real.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: Mr. President, one of the things I think we need to do as Americans is also wonder whether these terms we’re using mean anything anymore. The fact is we have been falling in love with each other for over 200 years in this country, from Pocohantas to Thomas Jefferson’s children. The fact is there are very few blacks in America, the fact is that increasingly now I’m meeting young people who don’t want to define themselves as belonging to a race.
And the two largest Hispanic groups in this country, a lot of Puerto Ricans, Mestizo Mexicans are entering this country and injecting a kind of complexity into the whole way we understand race as a singular thing, and begin to teach us that in fact we belong in some future to many races.

When I said that there is not a vocabulary for this also in San Francisco I know this young woman who is — I asked her what her racial identity was, and she said her father is African-American and her mother is Mexican.

I said, Well, what are you? She says, I’m a Blaxican. And she says she is a Blaxican because there wasn’t a word for it yet. When you asked that question about young people, I think American young people are going to be redefining the very stolid, old Crayolas that we have been coloring America.

JIM LEHRER: Cynthia, and then to Roger on this question that the president raised, the new dialogue, the new — what is — and Richard, what are the new words we use? What do we talk about in this new world?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, I think one of the things we have to do is just simply acknowledge how much the world has changed. Richard’s right. I have a Mexican brother-in-law and my sister and he are about to have a baby, and she, too, I suppose will be Blaxican, or whatever.

So I think, first of all, more Americans need a stronger sense of history. I think there has to be an acknowledgment that African-Americans and Native Americans especially have suffered burdens others have not, but I also think that all of us, including African-Americans, need to acknowledge how much the world has changed.

I think one of the reasons we hear so many interesting things from California, Elaine, is because California is cutting edge. Some days I look at California and I think that’s the wave of the future and I think oh, goodness, no. But Chelsea chose to go to school there.

ELAINE CHAO: It’s a great place.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Maybe California is doing okay. But I do think that the struggles among the various ethnic groups in California are a cautionary tale, quite frankly.


ROGER ROSENBLATT: You know, when you think about how much the world has changed, I’ll flip into a Pollyanna-ish mode for the moment, but one way it has changed is a lot of things have gotten better. Not only have they gotten more interesting, not only have they gotten more complicated, all of which is true, but you, I, you grew up in a world in which hatred was a usable instrument, where people couldn’t go to the same schools, you couldn’t vote, you couldn’t do this and you couldn’t do that, and not only that, it was an instrument that was in some dark and deeply stupid way approved of by the silence of the majority.

Now, as you say, that majority does not approve anymore. We talk about racism in the country, you know, I’m not sure if we’re talking about anything like the same racism with which you two grew up and of which we were apprised. It isn’t to say that everything is getting better or good as fast as we could want it, but I sometimes wonder how important affirmative action as an issue for debate really is because I think eventually it is going to be phased out anyway.

It’s going to get there. And that, to go back to Richard’s irrefutable point to get down to the youngest people and the best education for them, and all social programs akin to that would seem to be part of the new vocabulary you called for.

JIM LEHRER: Roberto, how would you describe the new vocabulary?

ROBERTO SURO: You know, we’ve been trying to describe the population and how it’s changed. Roger has a good point. We have to have a new vocabulary to describe our attitudes. Discrimination is a different thing in this country than it was 20 years ago.

JIM LEHRER: In what way?

ROBERTO SURO: Well, if you take the African-American example, I’d say a young black male who lives in an inner city experiences being black differently than a middle-aged, middle class female who lives in a suburb. It’s a different experience of what it means to be a black in this country.

And when you’re talking about remedies of discrimination, when discrimination isn’t simply based that all black people will be excluded from certain institutions, as it was, as was the case earlier in our lifetimes, you need more subtle remedies, more complicated remedies, and more complicated vocabulary to describe attitudes.

Where people are classified according to multiple markers, not just skin color, but a variety of different things established status in this country. And so the remedies have to establish each of those things, I believe.

CLARENCE PAGE: I have to beg to differ. I’m a middle class black who lives in the suburbs. In my suburb right now now, there are numerous complaints about the youth being stopped by cops unfairly just as they are stopped by the cops in the inner city. The L.A. riots, we had the discussion on this program, I talked then about my 3-year-old son who everybody thought was quite cute, he looks just like me naturally, how else could they think?

JIM LEHRER: I don’t remember that coming up.

CLARENCE PAGE: You don’t remember that part. I was thinking where will he be ten years from now. My son is now 9, and now I have to say four years from now because he is going to be a teenager, and today the most feared creature on urban streets today is a young black male, and that is the future I am looking toward with my son.

I want a better life for my son like everybody else does, and the new vocabulary of race to me is very much like the old vocabulary except it’s got some new terms, like the gilded ghetto. The gilded ghetto is what middle class blacks find themselves in out in the suburbs now because the white folks who used to be their neighbors have moved farther out, like Saul Alinsky did years ago.

JIM LEHRER: What do you tell your son? What do you tell your son about why this is happening?

CLARENCE PAGE: We treat race talk like sex talk around our house, Jim. We don’t bring it up unless our son brings up a question, and then we answer the question he brings up, but we live fortunately in a desegregated, integrated neighborhood.

Our son is very well aware of racial difference, has been since he was 4 years old, as all children are, but he doesn’t see racial value, he doesn’t see one race being better than another, I hope. Certainly by the associations he has, he doesn’t reflect that. I hope that is our future.

But I have to say, and Richard and I always have this discussion, and the vision he paints of the future is so beautiful, I hate to throw cold water on it, but I’ve got to say in 1998, we are still a segregated society; blacks and whites still live mostly separate lives. We’re better off than we were 30 years ago, thank God, but we are still — outside of the workplace, outside of the workplace, we still live largely separate lives. Why in the workplace have we got such associations? Because of affirmative action. That’s a big reason for it.

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: In 1998 we are still unable to say that in fact we are part of each other’s bloodstreams. In 19 — this is — this is the heritage of racism where we were never allowed to marry each other, and now we deny it to ourselves. We say that that doesn’t make any difference. Well, I get stopped by police in San Francisco when I go jogging before dawn. The last time I got stopped was by two black policemen, and I think to myself, this is a very complicated society we live in.

CLARENCE PAGE: Who said blacks couldn’t be prejudiced? Of course.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: You know, I’m very sympathetic with what you say, and I want it to be, as you say, and I agree that we have all kinds of overlapping stereotypes that we haven’t even talked about. One of the things that came up after the Los Angeles riots, you know, the attitudes of the African-Americans to the Korean grocers and the Arab grocers and the Hispanic customers and all that, you know, it’s a lot more complicated than it used to be.

But it is a factual matter, if you just look at prison population, you wanted to bring that up, if you look at all the unemployment rate among young single African-American males without an education, if you look at the physical isolation of people in these inner city neighborhoods, we have the lowest unemployment rate in 28 years, there are still New York City neighborhoods where the unemployment rate is 15 percent. If you look at these things, if I could just come back to sort of what I think is practical here, I think it is imperative that we somehow develop a bipartisan consensus in this country that we will do those things which we know will stop another generation of these kids from getting in that kind of trouble.

And my best model now, I guess is what they’re trying to do in Chicago in the school system and what they’ve done in Boston with juvenile justice system, but in Boston they went for two years without one kid under 18 being killed with a gun. Unheard of in a city that size.

So, and if you look at what they did in Houston, we need to at least adopt those strategies that will invest money in keeping these kids out of trouble in the first place so to try to keep them out of jail and give them a chance to have a good life, and if there’s disproportionate manifestation of race, then so be it, then we ought to have an affirmative action program, if you will, that invests in those kids’ future and gives them a chance to stay out of trouble to me, it’s the kids that are being lost altogether and the disproportionate presence of racial minorities among those kids that is still the most disturbing thing in the world. Because if you get these kids up there, 18, 19, heck, they’ll figure out things, our kids will figure out things we weren’t smart enough to figure out.

That’s how society goes on, that’s progress is all about, but I think we have to recognize that’s still a big race problem in this country, especially for African-Americans.

JIM LEHRER: Clarence raised the point, Sherman, about race talk in his family, and Mr. President, you have said you had trouble getting people to talk bluntly and honestly about race?

PRESIDENT CLINTON: Yeah. We don’t talk alot about it.

JIM LEHRER: How do you get people to talk about race?

SHERMAN ALEXIE: Just walk into a room, I think people are always talking about race. It’s always coded language. They call it class. Or they use coded language. Well, nobody nobody says that’s a black person, let’s talk about being black. It always ends up coming up. Usually, what they will do is come up to me and tell me they’re Cherokee.

But that’s usually what it amounts to. Nobody talks about Indians. So I don’t have to worry about that. We grew up not being talked about at all, and we’re still not talked about. You know, I walked by the locker room out there and there is a Washington Redskins bumper sticker out there on a locker, and I thought nobody cares about Indians.

JIM LEHRER: But do Indians talk about race?

SHERMAN ALEXIE: We are actually probably a lot more conservative and racist than any other single group of people. We are much more reactionary. It’s funny. Politically, we give our money to the Democrats, but we vote for Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: Kay James, how do you get honest talk? Do you think there is honest talk about race?

KAY JAMES: You have to get people talking about their personal experience. It gets there pretty quickly. Everyone has a story to tell. I’ve noticed around the table even today that as we talk about race in America and the distinctives of being African-American and that it’s really a black-white issue, I guarantee you if you’re bringing an Irish American in here they would tell you they’ve experienced discrimination in this country, and if you get — you talk to people in the Jewish community and they’ll say, well, you know, our experience in America has been this, and so when you get people to talk out of their own experience, it gets there fairly quickly.


ELAINE CHAO: I think the bottom line is, I think there has to be not allocation of programs based on preferential treatment at all, but that there be equal opportunity, and going back to Clarence’s issue about merit.

JIM LEHRER: We’re talking about talking bluntly about race.

ELAINE CHAO: I think this is part of it and I think the president wanted me to answer Clarence’s Thomas–sorry–Clarence’s question about merit–

JIM LEHRER: I have to interrupt you all now and to say thank you, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: We’re just getting warmed up.

JIM LEHRER: I know. I know.

ELAINE CHAO: However merit is defined.

JIM LEHRER: But from Washington this has been a conversation with President Clinton about race. I’m Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night. And as you see, may the conversation continue.