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From the NewsHour Archives: President Clinton on Race Relations in America

On the July 8, 1998 NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, we aired excerpts from a panel with President Bill Clinton called “A Dialogue on Race.”

Speaking from the White House Friday about the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin ruling, President Barack Obama offered very candid remarks on race relations in America and why the killing of an African-American teenager resonated with him so personally.

Fifteen years ago, in July 1998, Jim Lehrer held a panel with President Bill Clinton called “A Dialogue on Race.” Watch excerpts from the conversation above and the full one-hour version PBS aired on July 9, 1998 below. 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 BILL CLINTON: 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 are disproportionately depressed, you will help to deal with the race problem. But there is — no one could 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.

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, 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. 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, and that ought to be said too. But if you could reaffirm the idea, remind us that integration is the goal, I think it would be a huge first step.

PBS aired the full one-hour roundtable on race on July 9, 1998.

On Friday’s PBS NewsHour, Jeffrey Brown hosts a discussion on what it means when the nation’s first black president takes to the White House briefing room to talk race in America.