Commentary: Going Beyond Rhetoric On Race Relations

Few Presidents have been as eloquent about race relations as Bill Clinton. He often describes his embarrassment when federal troops had to be called in to integrate Little Rock schools. And when public opinion swung against affirmative action, he came up with a "mend it, don't end it" approach that helped defuse the issue.

On June 14, Clinton is expected to announce his next effort: a seven-member advisory council to report back next year with new ideas for easing racial strife. There's no question that a high-profile exploration of this troubling issue is a good idea. A new Gallup Poll shows that most blacks and whites believe race will always be a problem in the U.S.

BACKLOGS. It's easy to be skeptical about Clinton's new initiative, though. Where has he been for 4 1/2 years? In pursuing the centrist course that won him a second term, he has soft-peddled programs that benefit minorities. These include not only legal remedies such as civil rights enforcement but other federal programs that could have produced the most progress in race relations--those that help move poor minorities into the economic mainstream. "You can only have meaningful racial reconciliation when people of roughly equal socioeconomic status can reach across the divide of race," says University of Maryland political scientist Ronald W. Walters.

True, it would have been hard to get new antipoverty programs through Congress in recent years. Still, Clinton has made little of the power he does have. For instance, he left vacant the top Justice Dept. civil rights job for nearly six months. The White House is set to nominate Bill Lee, a litigator from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's Los Angeles office. Although civil rights activists praise Lee, they say Clinton's delay has hurt his credibility and hampered probes, from fair lending to hate crimes.

The White House staff remains almost bereft of black policy advisers who could prick his conscience. And he has expended no effort to seek more funding for civil rights enforcement. The result: severe case backlogs. The Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, which oversees affirmative action among contractors, is virtually moribund.

Meanwhile, gaps between whites and blacks, the educated and the unskilled have grown--despite the robust Clinton economy. Since 1990, the gulf between median weekly wages of black and white men has widened. So, too, have unemployment rates, with black high school graduates at 12% and whites at 4.9%. For college graduates, the gap narrows, with blacks at 3.7% and whites at 2.2.%. "There is an opportunity gap that requires an investment strategy," says the Reverend Jesse Jackson.

Clinton's first budget included investment in education, training, and infrastructure building, but Administration budget hawks persuaded him to focus on deficit reduction. Now, the deal he made with Hill Republicans to balance the budget gives him no way to fund programs that could help poor minorities. He pulled back on a 1996 campaign vow to spend $5 billion to repair schools in low-income communities. And his college-tuition tax credits won't help the poor who don't pay taxes.

If the President wants to be remembered for reducing racism and improving the lot of America's minorities, he still has time. At the very least, he can ensure that the money is there for aggressive enforcement of anti-discrimination laws regarding housing, employment, and education. And with all his rhetorical skills, he can make the case that providing poor minorities with good schools, drug-free neighborhoods, and job skills actually makes good economic sense. Spending the money to do that may not be politically popular, but it could be the best race policy of all.

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