When President Clinton met recently with conservatives to discuss race relations, he said they should try to imagine a racially just society in the future, and "then we should ask ourselves, OK, how are we going to get there?" A worthwhile exercise.
What do liberals envision happening in the United States regarding race relations? What they see now, apparently, is an often racist majority confronted by still aggrieved minorities. They believe that these minorities are entitled not only to protection from discrimination, but to preferential treatment so that no group is "underrepresented" in colleges, employment, contracting, and the like.
End in sight?
Presumably, these preferences aren't supposed to last forever. Must they last until the "underrepresentation" disappears? Discrimination or no discrimination, there is no reason to suppose that each demographic group will be mirrored in each walk of life. And the longer preferences are in place, the more entrenched they will become and the harder it will be to end them.
The liberals' lack of vision on race is leading us down a dangerous blind alley. Their model is perfectly constructed to ensure that our racial wounds do not heal. It tells minorities that they live in a society that has been, continues to be, and likely will stay so racist that they cannot be expected to succeed without preferential treatment. This model is guaranteed to breed just what we don't need: white resentment and a minority victim mentality.
The conservative approach better befits a forward-looking country that resists the notion that one's rights depend on one's ancestors. The legal protections offered any race should be the same as those offered all others. This is the prescription that best obeys the first duty of doctors and governments - namely to do no harm.
But, under the conservative vision, how will race relations be improved? Well, the main problem Americans have with race is that we are obsessed with it. Many elected officials, bureaucrats, and civil rights groups, in particular, see every social and economic problem in racial terms. This obsession distorts our policymaking process, distracts us from addressing our real problems, and, ironically, worsens race relations.
President Clinton's race-relations initiative is fundamentally misguided because it feeds this obsession rather than treating race with the benign neglect it deserves.
Common sense, history, and the best polling data make clear that race relations have never been better. Our country has made enormous progress in the last generation toward eliminating racial distrust. Americans' racial attitudes - particularly among younger Americans - have never been more open and tolerant than they are today. We should declare victory in the civil rights war, enforce our antidiscrimination laws, and get on with our national life.
True, we still have racial problems in the United States, but they aren't major and, in any event, preferences are not the way to overcome them. Preferences increase racial friction and paper over the real problems we have, such as the shamefully poor preparation for life that many children - but disproportionately poor black and Hispanic children in inner cities - receive. Too many of these children grow up without fathers in crime-ridden, drug-infested neighborhoods and are sent to mismanaged public schools. Because so many of the underlying problems - illegitimacy, drug use, crime - stem from moral failure, the role of urban churches is critical.
These problems are not only an important source of the skills gap that makes preferences seem necessary, but they also are the main cause of our remaining racial mistrust. So long as these pathologies exist, many whites will make unfair generalizations about blacks. And blacks will resent these generalizations and at the same time exaggerate the extent to which they occur.
But if those favoring preferences are wrong in thinking that they can lead to a future of racial harmony, the antipreference forces are equally wrong if they think that preferences can be ended without support from at least some Democrats. They are too entrenched for that.
This gives President Clinton a historic opportunity: Just as only a Republican could go to Communist China, only a Democrat can strike the decisive blow against preferences.
If this president wants to leave a real legacy, and if he is willing to act with the political courage that history demands of the presidents it ranks highest, then he has his chance. But so far President Clinton doesn't seem interested.
* Roger Clegg is general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity in Washington.