Will 'Year of Dialogue' Matter?

Race In America

When President Clinton promised to lead the American people into a "great and unprecedented conversation about race," he said mere talk and policy proposals wouldn't be enough.

"But if 10 years from now, people can look back and see that this year of honest dialogue and concerted action helped lift the heavy burden of race from our children's future, we will have given a precious gift to America," he said in announcing his race initiative a year ago Sunday.

As officials tallied up the results of a year's work this week, they found much evidence of meetings and acts of policy. But they were less confident that they had met the core goal - establishing an honest dialogue.

"We knew it was a daunting task when we assumed it. None of us fully understood how many nuances there are to the question of race relations in America," says former Mississippi Gov. William Winter, a member of the presidential advisory board set up as part of the initiative.

At first glance, it wasn't a promising week to claim victory in promoting racial harmony. A brutal and apparently racially motivated murder in Jasper, Texas, grabbed headlines and revived memories of the darkest days of the early civil rights movement in the 1950s and '60s.

Nonetheless, officials close to the President's Initiative on Race (PIR) insist that they have made an important start at a critical time for race relations in the US.

Over the past year,# there have been eight meetings of the advisory board, 900 campus discussions, at least 100 community meetings, and 150 "promising practices" around the country identified as having helped bridge racial gaps.

In addition, the White House is proposing some $40 billion in new money to improve education, economic opportunity, health, housing, child care, and justice.

The Clinton administration is also pouring its own resources into the initiative. Departments are required to work up weekly reports on race, and some 35 staff members have been assigned to researching a final report for the race initiative. This will lay out the president's vision for racial reconciliation, including specific recommendations for government agencies and private sectors of society. The report is expected by late December or early January.

Many times over the past year, the public and the news media misunderstood the purpose of public meetings and had unrealistic expectations of what could be accomplished in a relatively short span of time, officials say.

"Many people mistook the advisory board meetings for the dialogue, but the purpose wa#s to lay a factual issue foundation for those discussions to proceed," says PIR Executive Director Judith Winston. "The real results will be 10 years from now."

It was also tough getting people to talk frankly about the most sensitive issues on race in a public forum. "It's hard to raise questions like 'Why is it that I walk into a room and people question my skill base from the get-go?' It's a tough topic in polite company," says deputy White House chief of staff Sylvia Mathews.

"Few white people are willing to put themselves out to charges of being racist," adds Ms. Winston.

But the glare of public meetings was also a challenge to advisory board members. At the first public meeting of the seven-member advisory board on Sept. 30, board member Angela Oh, a Los Angeles lawyer, suggested that the commission expand its fact-finding to include disparities involving Asian Americans. News reports took her comments as evidence of a rift in the commission ranks.

"We were seven people who didn't know each other, but we could only meet in a room full of 500 people and under the eyes of CNN," says former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, an advisory board member. "When you get a very sensitive issue like race, you don't want to look like you're fighting," he adds.

As a result, advisory board members rarely took issue with one another in public, and they were barred by open-meeting laws from gathering in private. In addition, periods for questions and comments from the floor were often reserved f#or afternoon sessions of public meetings or cut back to less than 30 minutes in a day-long session.

Audience members expecting a dialogue were disappointed, and journalists often spent more time covering comments of occasional hecklers than they did the evidence on race disparities or promising practices presented at commission panels.

The last time a president put this much emphasis on racial reconciliation was after riots gutted many urban centers in the late 1960s. President Johnson's Kerner Commission called for creating jobs and building 6 million housing units.

Clinton's race initiative comes at a time of marked peace and prosperity, even if the benefits of growth aren't equally distributed across racial and ethnic lines.

"This is a historic opportunity to eliminate the economic differences which have been so important in race disparities," says John Hope Franklin, a leading African-American historian who chairs the race initiative advisory board.

"My rights ought not to depend on prosperity, but I'm pragmatic enough to see that we need to take advantage of good times," he says.

Dr. Franklin was often the target for criticism over the direction of the race initiative. At an advisory board meeting in Denver in March, he was shouted down by activists angry that a native American had not been appointed to the advisory board.

"I had hoped to give examples of racial stereotypes from my own experience, but they would not let me open my mouth," he said in an interview.

"They believed that I had vetoed the appointment of an [American] Indian because I was afraid it would detract from the black-white paradigm. But I did not veto any such appointment. In fact, black-white has not been as much of a part of the dialogue as I thought it would be," he adds.

The real legacy of the president's initiative will not be its hecklers or its reports. Susan Glisson, who helped organize a meeting in Oxford, Miss., says that groups there #have continued discussions long after their March 16 meeting.

"Are race relations better today than a year ago? When I heard about what went on in Jasper, I didn't want to leave my house, because when something that catastrophic happens, it's hard to think that a meeting or a festival will solve it," she says. "But at least in Oxford, there is more concern for race than this time a year ago. Working for civil rights is hard, unglamorous work. We can't think that someone will come in and save us. We have to do it ourselves, and we are."

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