On the eve of what he has promised will be a major statement on America’s racial divisions, President Clinton said Friday that his goal is to prepare the nation for a time within a few decades when the country is so diverse that whites will no longer constitute a clear majority.
While Clinton met with his newly appointed advisory board on race and agonized over drafts of the speech he will deliver in San Diego Friday, House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., was already expressing skepticism over Clinton’s plans.
Gingrich said he wanted to meet with Clinton’s board but warned that unless it “has a dramatically different agenda, a dramatically different approach,” the group will perpetuate “the same tired, old, big-government liberalism.”
The speaker also scoffed at a proposal by a dozen white lawmakers for a congressional apology to black Americans whose ancestors were slaves. “Any American, I hope, feels badly about slavery,” Gingrich said. “We can go back and have all sorts of apologies. But will one more child read because of it? The emotional symbolism as an avoidance of problem-solving strikes me as a dead end.”
At the White House, Clinton said now is a good moment to begin a national discussion of racial issues - as he hopes to do today in a commencement address at the University of California, San Diego - precisely because the country is relatively calm.
“I think this is the right time to do this … because there is not a major crisis engulfing the nation that dominates the headlines every day, the economy is strong, crime is down, our position in the world is good,” he said.
“But if you look at where we are and where we’re going, we will soon be in the next few decades a multiracial society in which no racial group is in … a majority.”
Asked by a black reporter about his credibility in light of past actions, including his signing of a law revamping welfare, Clinton said he had devoted his public life to three things: economics, education and race.
“It is a part of who I am and what I have done,” he said. “I don’t feel the need to defend myself.”
White House Deputy Chief of Staff Sylvia D. Mathews on Wednesday cited demographic projections that by the year 2050, whites will make up 53 percent of the population, and the other 47 percent will be a mix of various ethnic groups.
The concept that America’s racial dilemma is no longer strictly a black vs. white issue will be a theme of Clinton’s San Diego address, aides said.
He left for San Diego on Friday night, accompanied by the seven-member advisory board that will be chaired by black historian John Hope Franklin.
“This is going to be an interesting adventure. It’s going to be a constructive adventure. It’s going to lay to rest the view of the cynics that nothing can be done in the area of race,” Franklin said.
Today’s speech, White House officials said, will inaugurate what Clinton intends to be a yearlong campaign to improve the nation’s racial climate through a combination of discussion and policies.
Among the policy areas Clinton plans to address, White House press secretary Michael McCurry said, are problems of insufficient economic, higher education and housing opportunities for minorities, their access to health care, and their treatment in the criminal justice system.
But McCurry said detailed remedies will not be part of the speech.
Some critics have questioned why it took Clinton more than four years to turn full force to racial problems. Others have questioned whether the effort will produce meaningful solutions.
Promising concrete results, McCurry said, “There will be things small and things consequential, large and policy-driven, that will be reflected in this initiative.”
He specifically mentioned the areas of economic and housing opportunities, crime, health care and the administration of justice.
McCurry dismissed Gingrich’s criticism of the advisory panel, saying members were “splendid thinkers” with impressive resumes. “By no means are these the only people the president is going to listen to,” McCurry added.
Still, he said there is no guarantee that Clinton will succeed.
“I think he thinks it’s important to try,” the spokesman said. “We undertake this initiative knowing that at the end of the day it may not work and we might not be able to change attitudes about race in America. That doesn’t make it any less important to make the effort.”
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: CHANGING FACE OF U.S. Projections indicate that by the year 2050, whites will make up 53 percent of the population, and the other 47 percent will be a mix of various ethnic groups.