As the first reelected Democratic president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Bill Clinton has been granted a precious opportunity: to reach for the greatness that has so far eluded him. Having failed to deliver universal health care, Mr. Clinton has his best remaining chance for greatness as a healer of America's most enduring affliction - racial division.
A crucial test will come tomorrow in San Diego, where Clinton plans to announce a new initiative on race relations at the University of California - the first institution in the nation to abolish affirmative action. With the assault on affirmative action now a national phenomenon, Clinton can elevate the debate and clarify the underlying issues.
Most Americans have forgotten (if they ever knew) how segregated the top rungs of the educational and occupational ladder were just a short while ago. Affirmative action's purpose was to break patterns of de facto segregation in education and employment. And the intensity of opposition to it is rooted, in no small part, in the fact that this is exactly what it did.
As recently as the late 1960s, the combined proportion of black and Hispanic students nationwide in medical and law school stood at 4 percent and 5 percent, respectively. By the early 1990s, these numbers had more than doubled to 12 and 10 percent. At many undergraduate institutions, the transformation was even more dramatic. At the University of California, Berkeley, blacks and Hispanics together comprised just 4 percent of the student body in 1968; 20 years later, that figure had increased fivefold, to more than 20 percent.
Measures such as California's Proposition 209 - an anti-affirmative action initiative that passed by a margin of 54-46 last November - are expressly designed to reverse these trends. The consequences are clear. At Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law, black and Latino admissions have plummeted by 81 percent and 50 percent. At the law school of the University of Texas at Austin, where affirmative action is now banned under court order, the effects are even more dramatic. Once the nation's leading producer of minority lawyers, UT-Austin expects only about a dozen Hispanics - and not a single black - in an entering class of 500.
Faced with the alarming prospect of a drastic reduction in the number of minority students in the nation's leading institutions of higher education, many well-intentioned people - perhaps including Clinton himself - believe there must be a way to preserve diversity and inclusiveness under conditions of color-blindness. The most popular proposal is affirmative action based on class rather than race.
Yet early returns on class-based admissions are not encouraging. The law school at UCLA made a good-faith effort earlier this year, and it resulted in a decline in the numbers of blacks and Latinos of 80 percent and 32 percent, respectively. At the undergraduate level, the best available projections point to similar results.
Should the president fail to speak frankly about affirmative action, he will be forfeiting his most realistic hope for a place among the nation's most honored presidents: to serve as a healer of the scar of race. He simply cannot afford to stand by passively in the face of what threatens to be the greatest redistribution of opportunity away from minorities since the advent of Jim Crow.
The time has thus come for Clinton to reaffirm, forcefully and publicly, his conviction that the elimination of affirmative action would be a giant step backward in our national quest for racial justice. Above all, the president must help his fellow citizens face the painful truth: The real choice before us is to continue race-attentive policies or to return to levels of racial segregation in higher education not seen in more than a quarter of a century.
ARMED with the stunning new evidence from California and Texas on the effects of "color blindness," Mr. Clinton can vigorously reaffirm the wisdom of the position he articulated so well in his "Mend It, Don't End It" speech of July 1995, but then placed on a distant back burner during his reelection campaign: that, while some affirmative action programs may need to be modified, it would be a disaster to eliminate them all as long as there continues to be a major gap between our great national ideal of equal opportunity and the darker reality of our actual practices.
* Jerome Karabel is a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.