WASHINGTON — In coming weeks President Clinton hopes to prod the United States public into thinking deeply about one of the nation's greatest historic problems: racism.
Mr. Clinton is scheduled to unveil a major race initiative on June 14 in a San Diego speech. Though it involves talking, study, and idealism more than expensive new federal programs the administration is touting the plan as a centerpiece of the Clinton second term.
The goal is to try to ease racial tension and establish a sea change in American tolerance for the next generation. Today's children think differently about the environment, pollution, and recycling than their parents did, after all. The legacy-minded president hopes that via the use of his chief-executive bully pulpit he can help effect a similar paradigm shift on racial attitudes.
"We need to depend on diversity and we need to focus on that as a strength," says deputy chief of staff Sylvia Mathews, who has been working on the plan with almost two dozen staffers for months.
If the tolerance effort is to succeed, it needs to look to history and not just the next day's headlines, according to some observers with knowledge on the issue.
Clinton "should provide the nation with an authentic statement of where we are on race and provide a common vision of what racial and ethnic justice means in the 21st century," says Christopher Edley, a Harvard University law professor who served as an adviser on racial issues to Clinton in the first administration.
In one sense, the race initiative has already begun. Last month Clinton formally apologized to survivors of the infamous Tuskegee experiment, a federal project in which hundreds of black men went untreated for syphilis so doctors could study the progress of the disease.
Few specifics about the initiative have been made public. Overall, it's clear the plan focuses on generating a message instead of creating a federal bureaucracy.
Taking the form of a blue ribbon commission, a high-profile racial summit, a series of town-hall meetings, or all of the above, the effort is designed to identify racial divides. Then, using the bully pulpit, the president plans to therapeutically provoke, influence, and change.
Can US attitudes towards race - a problem since the founding of the republic - really be changed by such a jaw, jaw approach?
Charles Kamasaki thinks so. A senior vice president of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, Mr. Kamasaki has been meeting with White House staffers as they construct their plan.
"There is nothing like having the bully pulpit of the president to stimulate dialogue and catalyze real discussion," he says.
Addressing a civil rights group recently, Kamasaki was challenged by someone in the audience who asked if an initiative based on mere rhetoric was Pollyannaish. He responded by pointing out dramatic changes in perceptions of sexual harassment in the years after the Anita Hill hearings. "Fifteen years ago people didn't take that issue very seriously, and there has been a major attitude shift based on the way leaders addressed it," he said.
CLINTON supporters claim the president has unique credentials to tackle this issue. Coming from Arkansas, backdrop to some of the nation's ugliest racial unrest, he sees the issue - which he calls a "constant curse" - in personal terms. His early lessons on tolerance were absorbed watching his grandfather's treatment of black patrons in his Hope, Ark., grocery.
"I've known him all my life and his interest [in racial matters] is sincere and has been since he was a kid," says childhood friend Patty Criner.
More recently, the O.J. Simpson verdict further moved the president to act. "What has struck all Americans in the aftermath of the trial," Clinton said less than a week after the verdict, "is the apparent differences of perception of the same set of facts based on the race of American citizens."
Aides say his resolve to make race a major speaking point strengthened soon thereafter.
But some believe the race plan will be little more than a one-day story. Says one black presidential observer, "What did the administration do about the [recent] reports of minority academic enrollment going through the floor? Nothing."
The initiative could also be a hard sell to minorities, especially in the black community, who question whether Clinton is the one to usher in a new era of racial understanding.
"No way," says Gerald Reynolds, president of the conservative Center for New Black Leadership. "President Clinton, civil rights groups, and reporters are talking about old battles - things are different," he says. Mr. Reynolds, who preaches a message of "pull yourself up by your bootstraps," believes that by the time the president filters a message through traditional civil rights groups and the media, it will not have the character needed to effect real change.
Discrimination, others say, is no longer the real problem in the black community. They point to high rates of incarceration, disintegrating families, and general victimization. "The traditional civil rights focus on preferential policies benefits blacks in the middle class. We need to focus on problems" of the underclass, says Reynolds.
But other black leaders disagree. "The president has the ability to move the country, and I hope the race initiative will be the articulation and the projection of that," says Rep. Danny Davis (D) of Illinois, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.
Other groups are concerned the initiative will focus on black and white issues to the exclusion of other racial and ethnic groups.