June 23, 1997 in Nation/World

Clinton’s Race Effort Can Help, If We Will Let It

Fred Davis Washington State Uni

We’ve gotten a good indication of how difficult it’s going to be for President Clinton’s racial harmony campaign to succeed.

All the renewed talk in recent days on Capitol Hill about quotas and affirmative action seems to have shifted the focus - from the president’s call for an improved racial climate to his critics’ accusation that he wants to allow one group an advantage over the other.

House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., likened the president’s race dialogue approach to skirting the real problems and not treating individuals for who they really are.

That’s a shame coming from the embattled speaker. The whole purpose of Clinton’s praiseworthy speech a few days ago in California was improving communication between the races. It had nothing to do with establishing some clandestine mechanism to use affirmative action or quotas to circumvent the nation’s laws.

“I want to lead the United States into a great and unprecedented conversation about race,” Clinton said, as if to mirror Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society stance a generation ago, prior to the enactment of the landmark 1964 and 1965 civil rights legislation.

If Clinton’s call for dialogue is going anywhere, the media must play a pivotal role. Not necessarily an advocacy role, but one focusing on reporting an issue that’s been dormant far too long. That’s why the Clinton administration deserves a lot of credit for finally bringing race to the forefront of discussion, despite its controversial and contentious nature. It may not result in documentary or newspaper specials, but it should serve as intriguing grist for one of the lingering ills of American society.

Some people don’t like it that it was Clinton who broached the subject. But love him or hate him, he exhibited presidential leadership in an area that, sadly, had been virtually ignored by that last two Republican administrations.

I couldn’t help but think about parallels between the Clinton administration approach and that of President Johnson during his tumultuous tenure. Clinton, like Johnson, is a product of the South. Both established high-profile panels to lay the cornerstone for important civil rights initiatives. The Clinton commission, with civil rights pioneer John Hope Franklin at the helm, is just getting off the ground. But the groundwork laid by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner in 1968 for reversing racial attitudes and opinions is forever etched in this country’s mind.

Historians have shown the Kerner Commission Report, which warned at the time of two separate Americas - one black, one white, and headed in vastly different directions - helped to bring minorities to the nation’s newsrooms. The country was adrift in riots and turmoil back then. The Kerner panel recommended putting blacks and other minorities in reporter and editor positions, to more accurately reflect communities’ racial composition.

Good thing the media were listening. My first journalism job 29 years ago in television was a result of the Kerner group’s findings, leaving my employer and me with no doubt that my diverse editorial perspective would be beneficial to an entire community. Similar rewards are apt to come from the president’s recently announced race dialogue campaign, if only it’s given a chance.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Fred Davis Washington State University

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