Talking Race With The President
Arguing over old issues, but with a heartening sense of goodwill
By Roger Rosenblatt
At first I thought I ought to prepare--to read articles on school vouchers and interview experts. Joining last week's NewsHour panel discussion on race with President Clinton was, after all, a big deal. We were about to traipse around the soul of America. And any time you meet with a President, if you say you're not nervous, you're lying or legally dead.
But by the weekend before the taping, I decided not to study up, or even brood very much. After a lifetime of normal U.S. citizenship, if I did not know my feelings on this matter, too bad for me. My fellow panelists--Cynthia Tucker, Elaine Chao, Sherman Alexie, Clarence Page, Richard Rodriguez, Kay James and Roberto Suro--clearly had decided the same thing. Jim Lehrer, our moderator, encouraged us to let our feelings rise to the occasion.
Feelings have been missing from recent discussions of race--real feelings, I mean, not the verbal position papers of professional ranters. Since the days of "black and white together" (who sings that anymore?), race talk has descended to bloviations of theories, bigotries and blame, especially blame. Once we thought it would be simple. Thurgood Marshall predicted the end to all school segregation within five years of Brown v. Board of Education. Now we live with thwarted expectations and the sort of intellectual meanness that goes with disappointed hopes. Integration, the best idea this country ever had, dares not speak its name.
That said, the moral atmosphere of the country is a brave new world compared with the one I grew up in. The murder in Jasper, Texas, of a black man who was dragged to his death by three white subhumans: 40 years ago, that town of 8,000--30% black--would have rallied round the subhumans. Today the mayor declared that the established bond between black and white would hold. And the dead man's family told opportunist politicians that he was not a national symbol.
On the panel, my friend Page, attempting to prove racism was still rampant, told of black teenagers being hassled by white cops in his Chicago suburb. Had I thought to say it then, I would have suggested that 40 years ago, Page's family would not have been living in that suburb.
I did talk about progress made and urged Clinton directly to reaffirm the goal of integration. On TV it looked as if he were agreeing with me. In the interests of defending affirmative action, however, he has been more concerned with diversity, and the word integration is a code attack on identity politics and separatisms (I intended it as such). So he deftly changed the subject, only to be hit between the eyes by Chao, who was steaming about preferences in California, and by Rodriguez, who said he did not want to be a quota-system beneficiary.
The buried business of the panel was the unending fight between those of us who are for equal opportunity and those who are for equal outcomes. And the President, though he favors both, inevitably winds up on the side of preferences. He talked about a diverse student body being educational in itself, but that sort of wishful thinking supports the notion that self-esteem is more important than physics. Better to try to achieve equal outcomes from the bottom up. A President can't do much about race relations, but if Clinton got off the affirmative-action barricades and on to programs that ensured equal education opportunities for kids, we might get closer to where Martin Luther King Jr. originally dreamed us.
Yet it was less important, at least to me, that this old argument got nowhere on the panel than that the feeling created among the President and the other panelists, largely strangers to one another, was familial. At a time when similar meetings have ended either in donnybrooks or in savage politeness, this was unusual. People always call a debate civil when they mean useless. But there was more than civility on the panel. There was active goodwill. It was clear that we wished one another well. We wished the President well.
As for him, he could have gone on talking well beyond the hour, and in fact he stayed 45 minutes after the taping, going back and forth with us. He was in his element as Schmoozer
in Chief, of course, but there was no doubt that he was genuinely committed to this problem; at some level, it is where he lives. My own taste would have him talk less like a policy wonk and more like a preacher, but as the panel demonstrated in a confused and awkward way, most of us are on the same side.
In a televised group discussion, you have to pay rapt attention lest the moderator call on you. I was rapt, all right, but I also found myself observing the plain good-heartedness at the table. I wondered with pleasure: Are we getting there, though we don't yet know it? Here were 10 people of all colors gathered around the well-being of America. The country mattered to us. We mattered to us. Nothing else was won, but for now I'll take it.