President Clinton gave them the job of finding the path to his vision of “one America.” But as they got down to business Monday, members of his new advisory board on race relations ran into the sort of thorny issue that has made that route so hard to spot.
Opening their first formal meeting, the seven board members outlined in grand terms their hopes of redefining a society that often still judges people by the color of their skin.
Yet, in short order, they found themselves disagreeing over how much to focus on relations between blacks and whites in an age when Asian and Latino Americans have redrawn the U.S. demographic map.
Angela E. Oh, an Asian American attorney from Los Angeles, triggered the discussion when she urged her colleagues to move beyond the “black-white paradigm.” While well-aware of the history of slavery, she said, “We can’t undo this part of our heritage. … Where we can affect is where we’re going from here.”
That drew a response from the two African American members who said no one should forget that racism in America was born out of slavery and bias against blacks. “There is a black-white dialogue that cannot be overlooked,” said Rev. Susan Johnson Cook, a pastor from New York.
“This country cut its eyeteeth on racism with black-white relations,” added board chairman John Hope Franklin. A historian, Franklin recalled how differently black and white indentured servants were treated in America as far back as 1640. “They learned to do this to other people at other times because they’d already become experts,” he said, referring to later discrimination against Jews, Asians and Hispanics. “This is the way we started this.”
The distinct points of view underscored the complex task confront ing the board as it seeks to lead a year-long national dialogue on race and produce recommendations for actions by Clinton by next summer.
Most of the daylong meeting consisted of loosely structured discussion with few concrete decisions. The board did agree to focus on education and economic opportunity as its first topics and announced the appointment of Judith A. Winston, general counsel at the Education Department, as its executive director. The board plans to meet again in a month, but has not put in place a formal schedule.
Several members offered suggestions that could provoke lively debate down the road. Oh, for example, proposed the creation of a federal department that would be charged with fostering racial harmony, comparing it to “ministries of unity” in countries like Indonesia. Former New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean, a moderate Republican, decried criticism of the Clinton initiative by the “far right,” but implored the board to include “thoughtful Republicans” in the deliberations.