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Talking The Talk, But ...

Will Clinton's race-relations initiative go beyond rhetoric?

By Karen Tumulty/Washington

Time cover

(TIME, June 16) -- When it comes to talking about race relations in America, Bill Clinton may well be the most eloquent white politician since Lincoln. But his calls to action have often substituted for action itself. Which is why, as Clinton prepares to unveil his much trumpeted initiative on race relations this week, civil rights leaders are having no difficulty containing their enthusiasm.

"A certain amount of skepticism is well founded," Clinton conceded last week in an interview with TIME. "But I think we shouldn't put ourselves in the trap of saying you're either going to spend a whole lot of new money on some strategy that's now known, or you're just going to talk, and nothing in the middle counts." Yet his critics are worried that that may be precisely the problem. They say that in confronting the great racial divide three decades after the government outlawed most forms of discrimination, the President may have finally found an issue for which bold actions--such as championing the inner cities--are the minimum needed to make any progress at all.

So far, Clinton's goals are vague, and so are the means he proposes for reaching them. The President will appoint a high-profile, seven-member advisory panel whose findings will be the basis of a report to be issued by the President in the summer of 1998. Clinton insists it will look well beyond what is currently known about race and its traditional black-white focus. "We know now from the population trends what we will look like 30 years from now. What we need to decide is what we're going to be like," he said. "We are a truly multiethnic, multiracial society, and the most integrated big country in human history. What will this mean?" That is a question he will raise at a series of town-hall meetings throughout the country.

Race is indeed an area in which just talking can accomplish something. Civil rights leaders say Clinton's greatest achievement on race was the 1995 affirmative-action speech in which he vowed to "mend it, not end it," articulating a deft consensus where it seemed none was possible. But when toughness is called for, the President has more often than not disappointed them. "On this issue he does not come into the bully pulpit with much moral authority," complains black author and activist Roger Wilkins.

Last week, for example, the President said he hopes to "convince people that they should revisit some of the issues that were involved in Proposition 209," California's anti-affirmative action initiative; but when it was actually on the ballot and forceful opposition might have cost him some votes in the largest state, candidate Clinton rarely brought it up. And with the courts hacking away at preferential treatment of minority college applicants, critics say Clinton would do more to help them attain higher education if he were to pour money into improving urban elementary schools rather than giving tax breaks and scholarships to middle-class kids.

Nor has Clinton made the most of the tools he has in hand to remedy inequality. It has taken more than six months to find a new chief for the Justice Department's civil rights division, although an announcement may come this week. His Equal Employment Opportunity Commission is seriously backlogged, his Office of Federal Contract Compliance is considered ineffective, and he has not filled legions of vacancies on the federal bench. "The problem with his challenges to the country is that he doesn't do his job first," complains former White House counselor Bill Curry.

Instead, the past few months have seen Clinton in moment after moment of safe, albeit powerful, racial symbolism--appearing with Jackie Robinson's widow or formally apologizing to the black victims of the government's syphilis experiments of the 1930s. Says Clifford Alexander, who served as chairman of the EEOC during the Johnson Administration: "It is not a civil rights program to be in a golf cart with Vernon Jordan. It is not a civil rights program to go into a black church and cry. It is not a civil rights program to apologize to a group of people who were harmed 60 years ago."

But there is one reason to think this effort by a President who grew up in segregated Arkansas may help close the breach. Clinton says he chose to take on race relations "to get America to take advantage of the good times." Crime is down, the early headlines on welfare reform are promising, and prosperity has taken some of the resentment out of affirmative action. "He's now going into the bell lap of his presidency," says Henry Cisneros, Clinton's former Housing Secretary. "If he wastes this moment, he'll never get it back."

--With reporting by J.F.O. McAllister/Washington





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