President Clinton challenged the nation Saturday to confront ingrained prejudices and stereotypes and join him in a conversation to mend relations among all racial, ethnic and religious groups.
Thirty years after the United States was rocked by racial riots and assassinations, Clinton declared that lifting the “burden of race” was “the unfinished work of our time.”
“We have torn down the barriers in our laws,” he told the graduating class of the University of California, San Diego. “Now we must break down the barriers in our lives, our minds and our hearts.”
Clinton’s appeal for racial unity marked the start of what he promises will be a yearlong initiative to determine how best to heal the historic rifts between blacks and whites and newer ones involving Hispanics, Asians and other ethnic groups. Earlier in the week, he appointed a seven-member board to advise him on potential policy changes and pledged to lead four town-hall meetings to help the country confront the vestiges of discrimination.
Though his speech lacked specifics - with the exception of a request to Congress for more money to enforce civil rights laws - the president did not shy away from controversy as he reiterated his support for affirmative action in the state that has led a movement to ban it.
The result, he said, has been that minority enrollments in graduate programs are “plummeting.” Indeed, the enrollment of minority students has dropped significantly since the University of California regents voted to end affirmative action for admissions in 1995.
“We must not resegregate higher education or leave it to the private universities to do the public’s work,” he said during a breezy outdoor ceremony. “To those who oppose affirmative action, I ask you to come up with an alternative. I would embrace it if I could find a better way.”
Behind Clinton on the podium sat Ward Connerly, a University of California regent and leader of the state’s effort to do away with affirmative action. After the speech, Connerly said that while he supports Clinton’s attempt to open a dialogue on race, he is concerned the administration’s remedy will be the very programs Californians have voted to end.
“We have concluded in this state that this whole business of government sorting out jobs and contracts and college admissions to achieve diversity is idiocy,” Connerly said, with particular emphasis on the last word. “And that seems to be the way the president wants to take us. And with all due respect, I think he’s wrong.”
Civil rights advocates and graduates alike voiced support for Clinton’s efforts, though several said they are eager for the president to put substance behind his rhetoric.
“I think he correctly pointed out that this is an area where dialogue is important, but we’ve got to come up with policies that promote inclusion,” said Hugh B. Price, president of the National Urban League. “He’s got a lot of work to do, and the American people have a lot of work ahead. But I think he set the right tone.”
Raul Yzaguirre, president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, said he was encouraged that Clinton drew attention to the difficulties Hispanics have had staying in school. Clinton said that, during the current economic boom, Hispanics are the only group to experience a drop in income, a problem caused in part by a high dropout rate.
Clinton, who hopes to make improving race relations a hallmark of his presidency, said he realizes that money, power and technology can’t compel the nation to come together in the future in a way it has not in the past.
“This is something that can only come from the spirit,” he said.
Noting that, in a half century, no ethnic group will comprise a majority in America, Clinton said, “Now, we know what we will look like, but what will we be like?”
The president decried what he called a “disturbing tendency” to attribute to entire groups - including whites - the bad acts of a few. With examples of commonly held perceptions, he began what aides have said will be a concerted effort to wipe out stereotypes.
“If a black American commits a crime, condemn the act, but remember that most African Americans are hard-working, law-abiding citizens,” he said. “If a Latino gang member deals drugs, condemn the act, but remember the vast majority of Hispanics are responsible citizens who also deplore the scourge of drugs in our life.
“If white teenagers beat a young African American boy almost to death just because of his race, for God’s sake condemn the act,” Clinton said, his voice dropping. “But remember the overwhelming majority of white people will find it just as hateful.”
Clinton said minorities deserve the respect of a system that does not always work in their favor.
Clinton, the first president since Lyndon Johnson to make race relations a cornerstone of his administration, acknowledged that many whites might feel excluded or threatened by his initiative. “That must not be so,” he said, adding that whites, too, can benefit from a society that judges its people on what Martin Luther King Jr. called the “content of their character.”