Why Talk Is Not Cheap
The turmoil of Clinton's race initiative is the latest evidence of America's black-white distrust
By James Carney/Washington
(TIME, December 22) -- To get some insight into the state of race relations in America, take a look at the state of the President's Initiative on Race. Led by historian John Hope Franklin, the seven-member advisory board has been denounced for political correctness (every member generally favors affirmative action) and censured for not wanting to listen to dissenters (Franklin declined to hear from affirmative action's leading opponent, Ward Connerly). At a recent community gathering in Dallas, which was sanctioned by the panel and led by Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, the doors were shut and whites kept away. And on the board itself, some members are so frustrated that they've stopped attending meetings regularly. "The President would probably like to start this thing over," says a White House official. "The problem is, it's too late."
For one thing, Clinton has said too often that the initiative's work is a top priority of his second term. But, more concretely, it has turned into the Initiative That Ate the Executive Branch. There are 30 people assigned to it, more than work on the entire White House domestic-policy operation. And that's not counting White House officials, like deputy chief of staff Sylvia Mathews, who spend long hours managing it, or the Cabinet secretaries and federal employees who have been ordered to come up with projects that deal with race.
In the White House, the effort to promote diversity has actually divided the President's staff along racial and gender lines. Several top Clinton aides gave up on the initiative months ago, complaining that it had been "co-opted" by women and minorities on the staff who wanted it to be more of a feel-good outreach program than a launching pad for specific policy proposals. Tensions have been exacerbated by resentment over the fact that for all of Clinton's rhetoric about a multicultural White House, his decision makers have almost always been white males. "The white boys don't like not being in charge, so they took their marbles and went home," says a female staff member. Admits a top Clinton adviser: "You could say the initiative is a microcosm of the problems of race in America. But the President didn't get into this thinking it would be easy."
Actually, he got into it partly by looking at polls. Pollster Mark Penn discovered that Americans were moved by the sections on race contained in Clinton's second Inaugural Address and this year's State of the Union speech. And, Penn also found, they were "quite open to taking another look at race in America." So he suggested creating a second Kerner Commission, the quasi-independent body appointed by President Johnson to investigate the ghetto riots of the late 1960s. It produced the oft-quoted line about America's being "two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal." But it also called for creating 2 million jobs and building 6 million housing units, not the kind of direction the fiscally conservative Clinton was likely to embrace. The White House instead chose to begin conversations on race, led by an advisory board kept under its tight control. It is so tight that the board won't even have the last word: its report will be drawn up by a Clinton adviser, Christopher Edley Jr., who wrote the President's famous "mend it, don't end it" answer to critics of affirmative action.
The board is hamstrung in other ways. By federal statute, meetings attended by even two board members must be open to the public, effectively making it illegal for individual members to consult privately. "We can't sit down and brainstorm," says Robert Thomas, executive vice president of Republic Industries and one of two Republicans appointed by Clinton to the board. But if board members could talk to one another, they might not come close to reaching a consensus. When Franklin declined last month to hear from Connerly, his decision not only enraged conservatives but also caused grumbling among otherwise sympathetic board members. And Angela Oh, a Korean-American attorney, had wanted to broaden the board's discussions to talk about all races, but Franklin declared that the main issue was still black and white. "Some members have very strong views that reject all others," complains another member. "This is dead wrong."
Now Clinton is trying to salvage the situation. White boys like senior policy advisers Gene Sperling, Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed have been brought back into the process to link the initiative to specific policy. And the President hopes to placate critics by meeting with conservatives this week. But of the seven board members, only one, a Republican, plans to be there to hear what they have to say.
--With reporting by Sally B. Donnelly/Washington
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Cover Date Dec. 22, 1997
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