Even Supporters Grumble Over Clinton Panel on Race

As blue-ribbon group meets today, its many critics say a 'national dialogue' isn't enough.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Its goal is to spark a national dialogue of tolerance and to heal racial rifts among America's diverse population.

But almost four months after President Clinton announced its formation, the panel in charge of a national initiative on race has been slow out of the blocks, frustrating some supporters and arming its numerous critics.

To be sure, the President's Initiative on Race and Reconciliation has captured the imagination of some of the public. The panel receives 10 to 20 pieces of mail and e-mail a day from a cross-section of Americans, all wanting to take part in redressing what they feel is wrong between the races. Others have sent elaborate videos, artwork, and essays.

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The panel, which meets today for the second time, may now begin to accelerate its plans for a series of "town meetings" and to synthesize its ideas into a final report, due in a year.

"This is not rocket science; it's harder than rocket science," says Christopher Edley Jr., a Clinton adviser on race and a Harvard Law School professor. "Criticism of political leaders is the true national pastime. The difficulty of the [race-initiative] undertaking can't be understated."

Moreover, Mr. Edley expects another Clinton priority, the lifting of educational standards, to be incorporated into the race initiative in what he calls "pillars of an overall opportunity strategy."

Despite these lofty ambitions, the panel has endured a host of critics since the day it was unveiled in June.

Gerald Reynolds, president of the conservative Center for New Black Leadership here, believes a national dialogue about race is not what is needed now. "If we could wave a magic wand and do away with racism and discrimination overnight, it is not going to change or improve the lives of black Americans," he says.

"Today the issues flow from other areas," says Mr. Reynolds, such as high crime rates in minority communities, increased birth rates of children to single mothers, and lack of educational opportunities.

Critics who want the president's commission to find solutions to these problems, and eschew the dialogue approach, are legion.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia has suggested that leadership by platitude is discouraging. Instead of creating a dialogue, America needs to "focus on the future and launch projects big enough to draw people together," he says.

Multiethnic groups say initial hopes about the commission have been dashed. "To the panel, we are invisible," says Susan Graham of Atlanta-based Project RACE, who believes mixed-race individuals have some different concerns than other minority groups have. The panel, like the US Census, appears not to recognize mixed-race citizens, she says.

Members of the congressional black caucus, too, cite concerns that the panel may not specifically address, such as racial discrimination in federal employment practices.

"The situation [for black Americans] has deteriorated to the point where we have to do more than just talk. We need to equip people to solve their own problems. This panel was not set up to do this," says Reynolds.

But Mr. Clinton and his panel have the power of the presidency behind them - and supporters say that counts for much. Clinton used that power last week to raise national awareness of racial issues, when he traveled to Little Rock, Ark., for a ceremony at Central High School to commemorate efforts to desegregate the school and confront institutional discrimination.

"Sometimes presidents have a role as educator," says Stephen Wayne, a government professor at Georgetown University here. "What you are trying to do is change biases and attitudes. That's different from creating a law that requires a certain behavior. [Clinton] is in that educational stage."

Duke University professor emeritus John Hope Franklin heads the seven-member panel. Aides say public meetings may begin in December.

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