Dialogue on Race

To little fanfare, the advisory board to the President's Initiative on Race last week submitted its report, concluding a year of meetings and public hearings. Response ranged from ho-hum to sharp criticism for not going far enough.

The board recommended, for instance, restraints on police use of "racial profiling" to identify likely crime suspects. Those who rightly criticize this practice would have preferred a move to prohibit it.

The board's major recommendation, appointment of a permanent council on race relations in the country, will strike many as bureaucratic and soft. The same objections greeted President Clinton's original initiative on race. What good is there in just talking more about race?

A lot more good, we'd suggest, than in not facing continued racial tensions and discussing them as a nation. Dialogue on this subject is more than an avocation for a president embroiled in scandal. It's a worthy use of the bully pulpit.

White House-directed discussion is one way to raise the level of debate about such emotional topics as affirmative action. What is the national duty toward people who suffered historic wrongs? What is the national interest in helping all segments of a diverse population progress?

Those issues have been joined anew in the recently published work of Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, and Princeton economist William Bowen. Their study of black graduates of selective colleges and universities is titled "The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions." It holds that programs to increase minority enrollment have successfully brought blacks into positions of wealth and influence, and fostered greater understanding between the races.

Those findings are not surprising, and they need not conflict with the view - expressed on this page at times - that outright racial quotas in admissions are divisive, not helpful. Recruitment of students can take racial and economic background into account without sliding into quotas.

The most constructive role of a national dialogue is to identify various ways of assuring the educational and economic progress of individuals from all parts of America's racial and ethnic tapestry.

The report handed to the president last week was a start, quiet though it was. It's up to interested public servants, and citizens, to make sure there's follow-through.

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