Useful Dialogue

The value of broadening America's national dialogue on race emerged clearly in President Clinton's recent White House round table with a group of public figures opposed to racial preferences in affirmative action programs.

They generally agreed that the United States continues to have deep problems with race. Writer Abigail Thernstrom, who with her husband Stephan recently wrote a book on the country's progress toward racial equality, noted two core problems:

* Twenty-seven percent of black families in the US are still in poverty, a figure not much changed from 1970.

* Black 12th graders are reading, on average, four years behind white and Asian peers.

Ms. Thernstrom emphasized that education is "absolutely the key" to erasing these dismal statistics for African-Americans. Strengthened K-12 education is a must, with special attention to districts that serve black and Hispanic children.

Ward Connerly, the University of California regent who has led efforts to do away with affirmative action based on preferences, said his state has made a start - reducing class sizes and looking harder at the quality of teaching. Another participant, former Reagan administration official Linda Chavez, endorsed affirmative action based on family background instead of race. She mentioned a University of Maryland program that gives special encouragement and academic aid to students who are the first in their families to attend college.

The president himself chimed in with a firm endorsement of Chicago's plan to institute mandatory summer school for students who need it and to get rid of automatic promotions to the next grade.

These are all ideas that deserve a hard look and wider dissemination. The thrust of the US dialogue, after all, should be to generate progress - and not get mired in a debate over who to blame for past injustices.

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