In his commencement speech at the University of California- San Diego last Saturday, President Clinton revealed his plan to improve race relations in the United States. He professed his continued support for affirmative action, and called for a national dialogue on the issue of race. Although skeptics have dismissed the president’s initiative as mere rhetoric, it is actually a crucial move toward developing racial equality and harmony. By joining nationwide debates as Clinton recommends, Americans can participate in the government’s ongoing fight against racism.
According to Clinton, the first step in closing the racial divide is to develop educational and economic opportunities for all Americans. He argued that affirmative action, which mandates public schools and government employers to consider race in admissions and hiring processes, must be kept to provide equal opportunities for African-Americans and other minorities. Under affirmative action, the number of engineers, lawyers, executives and other professionals of non-white descent has risen remarkably. Without the policy, minorities may cease to maintain important opportunities for social and economic advancement. For instance, after Texas and California dispensed with affirmative action, the number of African-Americans and Hispanics admitted to law schools at the University of Texas, the University of California, Berkeley and UCLA plunged to 1963 levels.
The president also appealed to Congress to allocate the money needed for administering civil rights laws. Legislative support is critical because agencies short on funds such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are plagued by a backlog of discrimination cases. Clinton also announced that his administration has established a seven-member advisory board to study and recommend potential solutions to racial problems. During the next year, the board will guide and promote national town meetings on race, as well as educate citizens on racial issues, and recruit political and community leaders to the effort.
The problems that confound race relations have no doubt evolved since the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But few would deny that prejudice against African-Americans and other minorities continues to this day. And now, demands for equal opportunities are being heard from other racial groups such as Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Native Americans. More than three decades ago, the Kerner Commission warned that Americans were becoming a nation of two separate and unequal entities; one black, the other white. Since then, American society has granted more recognition to its multiracial composition, but the nation continues to be divided along color lines. Earlier commissions such as Kerner focused on relations between blacks and whites, but today the nation faces the more complex task of dealing with multiple races.
The president’s critics argue that commissions and town meetings are worn-out, superficial solutions for dealing with the nation’s racial problems. But Clinton is the first president to advocate a national discussion specifically on race relations. Dialogue that encourages Americans to confront and resolve their prejudices isn’t a panacea for racism, but it is an important step in eradicating the problem.