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Clinton on Race: 'We Must Break Down The Barriers'


SAN DIEGO (AllPolitics, June 14) -- President Bill Clinton launched a yearlong campaign Saturday to heal America's racial wounds with an attack on a California measure that bans affirmative action.

"I know affirmative action has not been perfect in America. That's why two years ago we began an effort to fix the things that are wrong with it," Clinton said, speaking at the commencement of the University of California-San Diego. "But when used in the right way, it has worked."

In the widely anticipated speech, Clinton touched on broad themes of race and tolerance. "The ideals that bind us together are as old as our nation, but so are the forces that would pull us apart."

He singled out California's Proposition 209, a 1996 ban on racial preferences, as a step backward in the effort to achieve equality.


The proposition, approved by California voters in November, bans consideration of race and gender in state hiring, contracting and education. It has not taken effect because of legal challenges, which the Justice Department has supported in briefs to the federal courts.

"I know that many people in California voted to repeal affirmative action, and did so without ill motive. But the results are dramatic and devastating. Enrollments in law school and other graduate programs are plummeting for the first time in decades," Clinton said. "Call it what you will, but I call it resegregation."

Sitting on the platform stone-faced as Clinton spoke was Ward Connerly, the chief advocate of Proposition 209. He ran radio ads attacking Clinton's speech even before it was delivered. Connerly attended because of his position as a university regent.


"It seems to me this is pretty much a rescue mission to save preferences, and I don't think the American people are going to hunt with that dog," Connerly said.

Clinton also has critics from the other side. They're asking where the president was last year when the measure was gaining support. At the time, some political advisers urged him to avoid the issue, rather than jeopardize the state's 54 electoral votes.

Clinton's signing of the 1996 welfare bill and his effort to curb federal affirmative action programs have drawn fire from the left. Some civil rights leaders also worry that Clinton may simply be looking to change the subject from Whitewater, Paula Jones, political fund-raising and other scandals.

But Clinton says the timing is right to begin a long-overdue dialogue on race.

"Now, when there is more cause for hope than fear, when we are not driven to it by some emergency or social cataclysm, now is the time we should learn together, talk together and act together to build one America," he said.

Recalling struggles for civil rights in his native South, the president said, "We have torn down the barriers in our laws. Now we must break down the barriers in our lives, our minds and our hearts."

To address the issue, the White House plans to set up a seven-person advisory panel to examine race. The effort likely will address housing, education and the judicial system, aides say, though they do not know how much such a campaign would cost or the source of funding.

The president's plan has drawn interest from diverse segments of the community.

"We've got to be able to talk about that [race] in open dialogue and understand that no race has any lock on being special," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said.


Speaking on CNN, J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) said that while he disagrees with Clinton on affirmative action, he commends his race initiative. "I think it encourages us to sit down at the table of brotherhood and try to find real solutions to these things."

House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) was more skeptical.

"I'm going to work with the commission. But a commission that asks a bunch of abstract theoretical questions about race in America is just going to be one more liberal failure," he said.

The president insists he's deeply committed to the racial campaign, even though some of his advisers privately have expressed concern he could lose focus if his attention is diverted by other issues.

"If there is any issue I ought to have credibility on, it is this one, because it is a part of who I am and what I've done," he said.

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