BOSTON — Robert Jackson had traveled a considerable distance by the time he heard President Clinton's new race initiative. He'd gone from the dusty dirt roads of Alabama, where he'd use his town's "colored" drinking fountain on the way home from school, to the electric years of civil rights marches, on to Vietnam's unsegregated trenches, and finally, to a Hartford, Conn., plant where he worked his way up from the floor to a manager's office.
Mr. Jackson's journey mirrors America's as the nation has confronted its charged legacy of race, a heritage Mr. Clinton wants to address with a year-long series of discussions and outreach projects that will culminate in a presidential report to the nation.
In taking on what is perhaps America's most enduring and bedeviling conflict, Clinton is attempting to establish a legacy of his own. But for people like Jackson, the talk of discrimination and opportunity is the stuff of daily life. His response to Clinton's plan - open, but wary of empty promises - reflects not only the realpolitik view minority groups have developed of the president, but also how much they feel an open dialogue on race is needed in the US today.
"This country has been in denial about the race problem," says Jackson. "With [Clinton] starting this, it's bound to get people to stop and think. If anyone can start tolerance, it can start with the highest ranking office in the land."
Clinton has unveiled his plan for "One America" at a time when polls show blacks think racism is far more prevalent than whites do. Delivering his speech at the University of California, San Diego, commencement ceremonies, Clinton described race as America's "most perplexing" issue and one of its most crucial: By 2050, the US will be close to having no majority racial group. The key to integrating America by then, Clinton argued, lies in expanding economic and education opportunities. But apart from forming a multiracial panel to help him study the issue, Clinton's call to "perfect the promise of America" was light on detail - a fact that worried many.
"Honest conversation is the important beginning," says Sanford Cloud, the African-American head of the National Conference on Christians and Jews. "But it's got to be dialogue that's followed by action - public policy decisionmaking consistent with his goals."
It's a comment echoed across the board, and most say it means Clinton has to put some money where his mouth is if he's to be taken seriously. Jackson wants to see banks encouraged to invest in inner cities. Charles Matthews, vice president of diversity management at Quaker Oats in Chicago, wants to see inequities between urban and suburban schools eliminated. "If we want a truly color-blind society based on merit," he says, "we have to make sure the playing field is level."
But acting on minority concerns is not seen as a Clinton strong suit. "He's always talking about race," says Boston musician Jason Williams. "But what's he doing? He's not painting houses in the ghetto. And that still wouldn't help."
Jina Yoon, a Korean-American graduate student in New York City, is unimpressed by Clinton's track record on minority issues. "After immigration, welfare, affirmative action, we're skeptical," she says.
But many question whether programs and laws are the ultimate solution. "We've got laws," says Beverly Harvard, Atlanta's black police chief. "But we still have racial issues
and racial strife. That's because we are dealing with individual attitudes and actions."
And Clinton's track record hasn't seemed to affect his minority support - in part because his oversight of an unraveling social safety net has been offset by a booming economy.
Personal and political style are factors too: Clinton has worked hard at fostering diversity in his staff and Cabinet. Blacks cite his comfort with them and applaud his willingness to talk about race at all.
"He's the only guy who seems halfway sympathetic," Jackson says.
Some minorities feel they should be more active, considering Clinton's sensitivity. "We have someone in a position to work for us and we can't be scared of criticizing him or making suggestions," says Allston, Mass., resident Patric LaCroix. "We have to take it to the next level - we have to talk and march."
CLINTON'S seven-person advisory panel, made up of whites, blacks, a Hispanic, and an Asian, is meant to signal that dialogue won't be cast solely along black-white lines. It's a gesture other groups appreciate. "The black-versus-white model excludes us," says photographer Harry Gamboa Jr., a Los Angeles Chicano. It's also out of date, argues Ms. Yoon. "If his panel could recognize race relations are so much broader than black-white, they'd do a real service."
Increasing diversity could make dialogue even more challenging. In his speech, Clinton pointedly emphasized his support for affirmative action - a jab at his University of California hosts who have partially banned it. But some say that simple gesture indicates how difficult straight talk on race is.
"Every time people try to talk about race, it boils down to welfare reform or affirmative action or immigration, and race is the subtext," says Mr. Matthews. "No one really talks about race anymore - about issues like bias or separation in our schools and communities. People don't even know how to begin."
If dialogue is to work at all, honesty is the key, says Ms. Harvard in Atlanta. And she cites the instructive example of the O.J. Simpson verdict as a help in boosting honest discussion. "It's a kind of honesty. It shows that these racial divides are far worse than we've acknowledged," she says.
"I think right now, people come to the table ... with great distrust," she says. "And trusting other folks ... is exactly what ... it takes."
* Christina Nifong contributed to this report from Atlanta.