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RACE: Promise Unrealized

On Jan. 20, 1993, hours before being sworn in as the 42nd President of the
United States, Bill Clinton went to Washington's Metropolitan African
Methodist Episcopal Church. It was the first time a President-elect had
attended an Inauguration Day prayer service in a historically black
church. For two hours, he sat, swayed, sang, and wept, as ministers from
many faiths chanted and preached unity to the multidenominational,
interracial crowd.

The setting was appropriate for the new President, a white Southerner, who had made racial reconciliation-particularly between blacks and whites-part of his personal life and political career, and who hoped to make his leadership on race a hallmark of his tenure in the White House. Minority groups across the board had high expectations for a Clinton presidency. But the black community was particularly excited because of its close ties to him. Most black leaders were looking forward to a President who pledged to be a champion of civil rights. Even moderate and conservative blacks were hopeful, because Clinton appeared so secure in his relationship with blacks that he was comfortable abandoning the often-stale liberal rhetoric on race. In June of 1992, in a speech to Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition, Clinton took aim at the organization for associating with rap artist Sister Souljah, who had said that it would be "wise" for black gang members to take a week off from killing each other and instead kill white people. And, before the Democratic Convention that summer, Clinton told Bill Moyers in a PBS interview that "racial justice" was the one principle he would never compromise as President.

Eight years later, most Latino and Asian-American leaders give Clinton high marks for his record on race. Blacks, on the other hand, have mixed feelings-perhaps because of their higher expectations. Many say that having a President who has close personal relationships with blacks, such as Vernon Jordan, and who appointed an unprecedented number of minorities to judgeships and Cabinet posts was groundbreaking for the presidency. They were also pleased to see him launch a race initiative and make numerous ceremonial tributes to the civil rights struggle. However, most also have grievances, which include complaints about his conservative stance on criminal justice issues and welfare reform. What is certain is that, as his time in the White House comes to a close, Clinton's record on race is far from black-and-white.

The Ceremonial and Symbolic

That Bill Clinton became more and more popular among minority voters is evident. The clear majority of Hispanic voters supported Clinton in 1992 and 1996, according to Election Day exit polls. Sixty-two percent of Hispanics voted for Clinton in 1992, and 72 percent for him in 1996. Support from Asian-Americans, traditionally a more conservative voting bloc, increased during his time in office, too. In 1992, Clinton won only 29 percent of Asian-American votes. In 1996, he captured 43 percent. His popularity continued in his second Administration and helped Al Gore win the majority of Asian-American votes this year.

Those numbers underscore what is, for the most part, a strong sense of satisfaction with Clinton on the part of minorities. Although the Administration's handling of the Wen Ho Lee trial has been a flash point of anger for Asian-Americans, most praise Clinton's record. Many were happy to see Clinton appoint a high number of Asian-Americans to important positions in the Administration. They were thrilled when Clinton appointed as Commerce Secretary Norman Mineta, the first Asian-American to land a Cabinet position, and Bill Lan Lee as deputy attorney general for the Civil Rights Division at the Justice Department. They were also heartened to see the President launch a White House Initiative on Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders last year. Out of it came a commission that is examining how well federal agencies meet the economic, social, and health needs of the Asian-American community. "His appointments and the commission have made it known that our interests are being heard," said Daphne Kwok, executive director of the Organization of Chinese Americans. "We feel like there are more policies being written in this Administration that are truly sensitive to the needs of Asian-Americans."

Hispanics have also maintained an overall positive impression of Clinton during his eight years in office. Latino leaders hail Clinton for, among other things, pushing for and receiving increases in funding for Latino communities, fighting on behalf of immigrants to restore their benefits that were eliminated as a result of welfare reform, and battling Republicans in Congress to get the Latino and Immigrant Fairness Act included in appropriations legislation this year. That bill would allow illegal immigrants from Central American and Caribbean countries to live and work in the United States while applying for citizenship. Hispanics also say they feel they have better access to the Administration since Clinton appointed Maria Echaveste as White House deputy chief of staff.

Yet most striking is Clinton's overwhelming political support from blacks. Eighty-two percent of black voters supported Clinton in 1992, and 84 percent supported him in 1996. The Clinton Administration's popularity spilled over into this year's election, in which 90 percent of blacks voted for Al Gore.

The strong sense of allegiance blacks feel toward Clinton crystallized during his impeachment trial. His approval ratings then were close to 30 percentage points higher among blacks than whites. All 39 members of the Congressional Black Caucus voted against the impeachment inquiry. Many made a point of speaking out on his behalf. "Black communities around the country want us to protect this President," said Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y. Other prominent blacks came to his defense as well.

In an attempt to explain blacks' support, Toni Morrison, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Beloved, writing in an October 1998 issue of The New Yorker, said it was because "white skin not withstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who ever could be elected in our children's lifetime, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas."

Critics labeled Morrison's argument excessive. In fact, some accused her of racism. But beneath her writing lies a kernel of truth: Many blacks do feel as if Clinton is one of them, and that sense of connection has shaped perceptions of his presidency.

Clinton's Southern upbringing has made him more comfortable with black culture than any previous President, even Jimmy Carter, who came from a similar background. "Because he grew up in close proximity to African-Americans, Clinton is comfortable with the issues, the culture, the churches, and the rhythms of black life," said Christopher Foreman Jr., senior fellow in the Brookings Institution's Governmental Studies Program. "The whole package looks very good, compared to recent Presidents."

Clinton's ease and comfort with African-Americans has shone through in the various ceremonies he has attended and speeches he has made promoting racial healing. Perhaps no President has raised the topic of race as often as Clinton has. His second inaugural address was steeped in racial references. In 1997, he apologized to the survivors and families of deceased victims of the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment and awarded the Medal of Honor to seven black heroes of World War II. Also that year, on the 40th anniversary of the desegregation of the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., Clinton attended a ceremony at the school, during which he held open the front doors for the Little Rock Nine and delivered a speech on the ongoing separation of races. In March of this year, he traveled to Selma, Ala., to take part in the 35th anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when white state troopers and sheriff's deputies used tear gas, nightsticks, and whips to break up an attempt by hundreds of black and white activists to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge on their way to the state Capitol in Montgomery to protest the denial of voting rights for blacks.

He has also used the power of appointments to create the most diverse Administration in history. Three African-Americans currently serve in Clinton's Cabinet: Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater; Veterans Affairs Secretary Togo West Jr.; and Labor Secretary Alexis Herman. Blacks also hold many sub-Cabinet positions. Overall, 13 percent of Clinton Administration appointees are African-American. They include, among others, Bob Nash, an assistant to the President and director of presidential personnel; Terry Edmonds, director of speechwriting; and Cheryl Mills, the lawyer who argued Clinton's case against impeachment conviction on the Senate floor and was deputy assistant to the President and deputy counsel. In addition, Clinton has nominated 57 blacks to the federal bench and named 14 blacks as U.S. attorneys and 12 blacks as U.S. marshals.

Many blacks think Clinton's appointments and staffing are his most significant contribution. "Clinton's appointments breathed fresh air into a lot of corners of the decision-making process where there hadn't been openness before," said Hugh Price, president of the National Urban League. "People like Rodney Slater, who presides over close to one-seventh of the country's jobs, brought with them to their positions the sense that they weren't going to be running closed shops."

Yet many of Clinton's judicial and administrative appointments have provoked controversy, and he had to back down on some in the face of Republican opposition. Many blacks are still bitter that Clinton withdrew his nomination of Lani Guinier, his classmate and friend from Yale Law School, who was his first choice to head the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division. When Guinier was nominated, in late April of 1993, conservatives lashed out against the University of Pennsylvania Law School professor. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, former Reagan Administration official Clint Bolick accused Guinier of being an ideologue, who favored a "complex racial spoils system." A Wall Street Journal headline writer dubbed her a Quota Queen, and the label stuck. So strong were the voices of opposition that moderate Democrats counseled Clinton against the nomination. Clinton caved in to pressure and withdrew her nomination without allowing her a chance to explain her views at a Senate hearing. He said that since nominating her, he had read her writings and had become newly aware of some of her more radical views.

That defense didn't satisfy many major black leaders. "Clinton takes second place only to Lyndon Johnson as far as advancing principles of a unified America and moving beyond America's legacy of racism," said Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Council on Civil Rights. "But his record is complicated, beginning with Lani Guinier. Withdrawing her nomination spoke volumes about his integrity and commitment to the principles of civil rights. It was one of the incidents early on that tested the Clinton Administration's commitment to civil rights, and it was found wanting."

Conservatives, on the other hand, both black and white, say that Clinton's civil rights record is all show and no go. Appointments of minorities to visible government positions do little good for the black community, the critics say. And some say that such appointments are downright harmful.

"The race problem today isn't solved by having a splattering of successful blacks in high offices," says Abigail Thernstrom, author of America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative New York think tank. "There are already blacks in positions of power across the national landscape. The major problems today are the major gaps in academic skills between blacks and whites and the continuing high rate of out-of-wedlock births in the black community. Appointing a Ron Brown does little to impact those problems."

Shelby Steele, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University, faults Clinton for practicing affirmative action in his court appointments. "I think an honest examination of their credentials would show that the minority judges he put forward were incompetent," Steele said.

Yet symbolism, appointments, and speechmaking are the least controversial aspects of Clinton's record on race. The debate on Clinton becomes more contentious when it comes to issues such as affirmative action, criminal justice policy, and full economic participation for blacks.

The Economy

In almost all his speeches these days, Clinton makes a point of highlighting the fact that black unemployment rates are at historic lows and that the median household income for blacks increased more than $6,000-from $21,700 to $28,000-between 1993 and 1999. He also points to the fact that from 1994-99, the black homeownership rate increased from 42 percent to 47 percent.

Indeed, these economic gains have not gone unnoticed in the black community. In fact, polls suggest that the economy is one of the main reasons blacks overwhelmingly support Clinton. He is more popular today than prominent black leaders such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson or retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, according to a survey of black voters conducted in October by professors at the University of Chicago and Harvard University. Seventy-five percent of those surveyed said they had an extremely favorable opinion of Clinton, while the extremely favorable rating for Jackson was 70 percent, for Colin Powell, 54 percent. More than half the black voters polled said they were better off than they were a year ago, an unusually high number, and that blacks were getting along fairly well economically.

"The Clinton White House is getting extremely high marks for the expanding economy from African-Americans," said Michael Dawson, chairman of the political science department at the University of Chicago, director of its Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, and co-author of the survey. "Their perceptions of their place in the economy are higher than they have been since the 1970s."

Yet most people know that Clinton's contribution to the economic boom is difficult to assess and will be better measured long after he is gone. When it comes to the Administration's economic policies, the black leadership says the President did too little to address poverty. "African-Americans represent core Democrats in the U.S.," Dawson said. "Their policy positions are like those of the Social Democrats in Sweden, the British Labor Party, or other mainstream liberal parties. Initially there was a lot of excitement among African-Americans that there was going to be a New Deal presidency. There wasn't."

Welfare reform is perhaps the sorest spot for many blacks. When Clinton signed the 1996 welfare reform legislation that eliminated cash entitlements and put in place five-year time limits, black leaders accused the President of signing away a safety net for poor women. They predicted increases in child poverty that would take a drastic toll on the disproportionately high numbers of minorities in the welfare system.

In the short term, his critics have been proven wrong. Welfare rolls have been cut by more than half, and millions of women have made the transition to private-sector jobs. Many black leaders, however, still fear negative long-term impacts. "In the case of welfare reform, a rising tide did lift more boats than is normally the case," Wade Henderson said. "But having said that, there are structural problems that have perhaps been obscured by an economy that can't be sustained. What happens to the poorest of the poor when there's a downturn in the economy remains to be seen."

"Clinton believes that welfare reform is a civil rights issue and that he did the right thing," said Taylor Branch, a close friend of the President and the author of several books on the civil rights movement. "He didn't want to support a system of patronage. Because he's secure enough in his view of race relations, he wasn't afraid of people who said that if you tamper with welfare, you're doing a disservice to blacks."

Clinton's defenders are quick to point to other policies he has supported that help poor working families. They highlight the expansion of the Earned-Income Tax Credit for the working poor in the President's 1993 budget bill, for which he vigorously fought. They also emphasize his backing for an increase in the minimum wage and his advocacy of the Children's Health Insurance Program, which was included in the Balanced Budget Act of 1997. CHIP provides $24 billion over five years for health care coverage to children in families with incomes of up to 200 percent of the poverty level.

Crime and Punishment

The nation's criminal justice system is the hottest civil rights arena today. The prison population has grown dramatically in the past eight years; close to 2 million people are currently behind bars. Most are serving long mandatory sentences, often for drug-related crimes. Blacks make up 62 percent of the prison population incarcerated for drug offenses, even though they account for only 13 percent of the nation's population.

From arrest to sentencing, minorities undergo unfair targeting and treatment, according to a growing number of reports from the civil rights community. Racial profiling-the police practice of stopping individuals primarily because of their race-has proved to be rampant in certain areas of the country. And 74 percent of the 183 defendants for whom U.S. attorneys recommended the death penalty between 1995 and the present were minorities, according to a Justice Department report.

Clinton has acknowledged the problems of inequality in the criminal justice system. He has issued an executive order calling for a collection of data on racial profiling and has had the Justice Department study whether racial groups are disproportionately receiving death sentences for federal crimes. True to his Democratic Leadership Council roots, however, Clinton has maintained a conservative line on crime.

The majority of black political and civil rights leaders say the Clinton Administration has done more harm than good for minorities in the criminal justice system. They were dismayed when Clinton pushed for passage of the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which was supported by the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill but was opposed by many members of the Congressional Black Caucus. The bill expanded application of the federal death penalty, mandated life imprisonment for federal criminals convicted of three violent offenses, and authorized $8 billion to hire 100,000 more police officers and $8 billion to build prisons for state offenders. In 1995, they were let down a second time when the Clinton Administration rejected a recommendation to Congress made by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that sentencing guidelines be altered to eliminate the 100-1 disparity between average prison sentences for offenses involving the crack form of cocaine and for those involving ordinary cocaine.

"Clinton has been so eager to position himself as tough on crime that law and order have superseded anything else, civil liberties and racial justice included," said Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union. "I'd give his Administration a C-minus. One out of three African-American men between the ages of 20 and 30 is in prison, on probation, or on parole. They're being permanently disenfranchised when they get out, because they lose their right to vote. The consequences in the minority community have been devastating."

Still, serious crime rates have dropped substantially-by more than 15 percent since 1995. Twenty percent fewer violent crimes were reported in 1999 than in 1995. The number of property crimes dropped 19 percent during that time. Property and violent crime victimization rates are at their lowest levels since 1973, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics' National Victimization Survey. Those drops have benefited all races and income groups.

Affirmative Action

Affirmative action was the one civil rights policy over which the President had almost complete control. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Adarand Constructors Inc. vs. Pena, Secretary of Transportation in 1995, it weakened affirmative action by stating that racial preferences in contracting are constitutional only if they are narrowly tailored and further a compelling governmental interest. Clinton then ordered a broad review and restructuring of federal agency policies. At the same time, affirmative action was under attack by many Republicans in Congress, who argued that in order to guarantee equal rights for all citizens, it was time to do away with a policy that favored members of one group over another. Even certain Democrats, such as Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., had begun taking an anti-preferences stand.

Congressional liberals, minority and civil rights groups, organized labor, and other traditional Democratic organizations, meanwhile, lobbied Clinton hard to keep affirmative action. Five months after the White House review was launched, much to the disappointment of conservative blacks and moderate Democrats who had encouraged him to embrace an affirmative action policy based on economic need rather than race, Clinton announced his decision to "mend federal affirmative action, not end it"-which essentially kept the current system intact.

Presidential assistant Christopher Edley, who worked on the new policy and is now a professor of law at Harvard, said the President's decision was shaped by principle rather than politics. "The political advisers and pollsters were banished from the process. In meeting after meeting, Clinton, often with Gore, wrestled with issues of law, philosophy, and social science. The coherence and firmness with which Clinton reiterated his defense of affirmative action [prove] that he was driven by the right factors rather than the classic inside-the-Beltway cynicism."

The majority of blacks were relieved by Clinton's choice. Many view it as one of his strongest demonstrations of leadership on race. "It would have been easy for him to say, `The game is over, let's move on to a race-neutral world,' " said Price. " `Mend it, don't end it' has kept many of the affirmative action tools and the philosophy of inclusion alive. Even where it has been toppled by a governor's executive order or a ballot initiative, in the next breath states are coming up with race-neutral steps that are attempting to accomplish the same goal. His refusal to roll over has made a significant difference."

Still, conservatives-black and white alike-viewed his move as political and backward. "As far as race preferences go, he preserved the dinosaur for another President to deal with," said Ward Connerly, author of Creating Equal: My Fight Against Race Preferences. "I would have liked to have seen the President say that for all the right reasons, we have these series of programs called affirmative action, but time is passing us by and we have to make changes. I have heard him say that he knows affirmative action is outdated. He needed to say to blacks, `You can't go on seeing yourself removed from mainstream society.' Instead, he made the political move. He was so intent on making himself look good for black people that he disserved the country with regard to the national black problem of race."

Race Initiative

In June 1997, Clinton stuck his neck out a second time on race. In a speech at the University of California (San Diego), he announced the President's Initiative on Race, a yearlong effort to concentrate on race relations, which posed these questions to the country: "Can we fulfill the promise of America by embracing all our citizens of all races, not just at a university, where people have the benefit of enlightened teachers and the time to think and grow and get to know each other, but in the daily life of every American community? In short, can we become one America in the 21st century?"

Through an executive order, he assembled a seven-member advisory board of prominent Americans and assigned it the task of overseeing a national dialogue on race issues, compiling data, and developing public policy recommendations. It quickly began the task of orchestrating town hall meetings and assessing various communities' attempts at racial reconciliation.

From the beginning, the initiative was the target of attacks. The press and many black leaders voiced frustration with the initiative's lack of policy objectives. Conservatives took aim at the advisory board's lack of ideological diversity (all of its members favored affirmative action). Hispanic leaders felt that it focused too narrowly on the problems between blacks and whites.

The architects of the initiative responded to criticism from the Right by inviting Thernstrom, of the Manhattan Institute, to Clinton's town hall meeting in Akron, Ohio, in December 1997. Later that month, the President invited more than a dozen conservatives to the White House to discuss affirmative action.

Behind the scenes, the board was struggling with the White House bureaucracy.

"The race initiative was in trouble from the beginning because the White House was divided," says Edley. "There has always been White House staff who would prefer to not talk about race at all, because they did not share the President's sense of commitment. That meant that there was no well-defined charter for the advisory board. The members of the board were thoughtful, committed people who, with some exceptions, were not thoroughly steeped in the wide range of public policy issues involved in racial justice and equal opportunity. Their learning curve was steep. Plus, it was always a struggle for them to get time on the President's calendar to schedule events or make policy choices that would advance the initiative. In the end, the results were disappointing."

That's the verdict from many black leaders, as well as the press. "Go somewhere and try to find a trace of that initiative, and it's like yesterday's sandcastles after a long, overnight rain," said Roger Wilkins, a history professor at George Mason University and a longtime civil rights activist.

After 15 months of meetings that probed issues such as race in health care and in the workplace, and two town hall meetings with the President that were broadcast nationwide, the advisory board issued its report to Clinton on the state of race relations in America. Instead of making a few large, substantive proposals, the board presented a long list of general recommendations covering a wide range of topics. For instance, it suggested enhancing early-childhood learning, raising the minimum wage, supporting community-development corporations, and diversifying law enforcement.

The Administration has done scant follow-up. The President did announce an initiative to end racial and ethnic disparities in health care through a five-step plan-led by David Satcher, the surgeon general and assistant secretary for health. It involves mobilizing the resources and expertise of the federal government, the private sector, and local communities. He also established an Office on the President's Initiative for One America, which was supposed to build on the initiative's work and educate the public on racial issues. However, the office has only three members, and it has accomplished very little since its launch.

Clinton has held some follow-up conferences to address race. In 1999, he invited members of the legal community to the White House to discuss issues of race in the justice system. The lawyers left pledging to dedicate a small percentage of their time to pro bono work for the underserved. Last spring, he also brought together leaders in the faith community to discuss race.

The advisory board had expected to see a formal response from the President, but that has never materialized. There was also talk of a book about Clinton's thoughts on race. In fact, Edley and White House speechwriter Terry Edmonds spent six months drafting a version for him, but the project fizzled out and was abandoned last spring. The reasons are unclear, but Edley confesses that he might have been too ambitious.

"Producing the President's report in book form was a difficult undertaking from the beginning," Edley said. The advisory board "made matters worse by inviting me to help. I think that on this matter, I don't get high marks for playing well with others. But there was also limited substantive back-and-forth with the White House and limited guidance from the President. Some of his staff wanted the book to recite the Administration's accomplishments. Others wanted nothing to be written that implied criticism of [Administration] proposals as half-measures. At the end of the day, I think the President was unable to take our product and rewrite it into something that he could be proud of. Ironically, if this were a topic that was unfamiliar or less important to him, the book would be done."

Nevertheless, the initiative has come to symbolize both blacks' and conservatives' frustrations with Clinton's approach to race. "The race initiative was a big missed opportunity," Thernstrom said. "He had a chance to move the conversation down the road away from the rhetoric of the 1950s and `60s, when everyone screamed white racism, and he chickened out. His gaze was fixed in the rearview mirror. He needed to move beyond victimization and talk about the complicated problems, like the fact that we'll never have racial equality in this country unless we close the black and white academic achievement gap."

Lani Guinier, who's now a professor at Harvard Law School, says the initiative was more of a gesture than a sign of leadership. She compares it to his decision to talk about racial profiling instead of addressing larger race problems in the criminal justice system. "It's a classic example of how Clinton is an underachiever," she said. "He could have been a great President, but he opted to become a great politician. A leader would have reframed the criminal justice issues and moved the country in the right direction. Clinton chose the short-term victories and ignored the long-term struggles."

Clinton's record on race will become clearer after he leaves office. Critics and supporters agree that the next President's appointments and his handling of affirmative action, poverty, and criminal justice will provide a context by which history can judge Clinton's accomplishments on race. All agree that private citizen Bill Clinton is likely to continue taking steps to promote racial reconciliation. But minorities, whether on the Left or Right, feel that as President, he cashed in on their support without fulfilling his promise.

Megan Twohey National Journal
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