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Clinton: Can U.S. Become A 'Truly Multiracial Democracy'?


SAN DIEGO (AllPolitics, June 15) -- The most compelling issue facing the United States going into the 21st century is the state of relations between the races, President Bill Clinton said after calling for a national debate on race during a weekend college commencement address.

"I believe the most profound question facing us is whether we can become the world's first truly multiracial democracy," the president told CNN's Frank Sesno on "Late Edition" in an interview taped Saturday and aired Sunday.

"Can we preserve the character of America? Can we continue to work together?" he said. "Are we going to begin to let the whole American idea unravel, or are we going to redefine it in multiracial terms in a new economy and a new society?"

When asked whether he supported a recent proposal by 12 white lawmakers for an apology to African Americans whose ancestors were brought to the United States as slaves, Clinton said he would need time to think about it.

"But let me say generally on the question of symbolism, an apology under the right circumstances -- those things can be quite important," he said.

Clinton cited as an example his May 16 formal apology on behalf of the government to a group of blacks whose syphilis went untreated for decades as part of a U.S. Public Health Service study.

"Surely every American knows that slavery was wrong... and surely every American knows that the separate but unequal system we had for 100 years after slavery was wrong. And surely every American knows that the discrimination that still exists in this country is wrong," he said.

"And just to say that it's wrong and that we're sorry about is not a bad thing. That doesn't weaken us," Clinton added. "Now whether this legislation should pass, I just need time to just think about that."

In the interview, the president called for "an honest conversation across racial lines in every community in the country." He rapped those who have called his speech -- to the graduating class at the University of California-San Diego -- political grandstanding and a late effort by the president to appeal to minorities.

"First of all, if they say that, they just weren't paying attention," he said, referring to his opposition to Proposition 209, the successful California ballot initiative that ended affirmative action programs.

"I mean, I was in the middle of a presidential campaign with a lot of ... responsibilities as president, and I came out against 209 every time I was in California and every time I was asked about it."

Proposition 209 was immediately challenged in court by its opponents.

The stakes of a continuing national discussion, Clinton said, go far beyond affirmative action, however.

"How are we going to guarantee economic opportunity across racial lines?" he said. "How are we going to guarantee just the capacity of the community to deal with problems like law enforcement problems across racial lines? How are we going to avoid the misunderstanding between minority groups with each other?"

Progress is being made in those areas, the president said, "but we have a long way to go as a country."

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