Bill Clinton photo

Interview With Jodi Enda of Knight-Ridder Newspapers

December 01, 1997

President's Thanksgiving Holiday

The President. How are you doing?

Ms. Enda. Great. How are you?

The President. I'm great. I had a great weekend; I'm in good humor.

Ms. Enda. Got a lot of golf in, I see.

The President. I played twice, and I saw tons of movies. I had my whole, huge—my little extended family was there; both my nephews were there. We had lots of folks there. I liked it. We must have had 20 people at Thanksgiving dinner, and I liked it.

President's Initiative on Race

Ms. Enda. Oh, that's great. Well, I know we don't have a lot of time, so let's get to this race issue.

When we talked about race last, way back in February, you said you wanted to embark on a major initiative that would change the culture of America. Now we're halfway through your one-year program, and there's been a lot of criticism that things have been a little bit slow. And I was wondering what you intend to do in the next 6 months and how you feel about this criticism.

The President. I think some of it's justified. I think it took time to get the board—to get it organized, to get it staffed up, to get started. And that's why I always left open the possibility of having this thing take more than a year. I mean, I may want to do some things—I'm certain that I want to do some things after the year elapses, but we may be able to have the major report to the American people I want within a year's time. But I think some of that's justified.

On the other hand, I think the board now is working very hard. Judy Winston and our staff are working very hard. We're beginning to get some of our specific policy initiatives out. The announcement I made for the scholarship program for people to teach in inner-city areas, the work that Secretary Cuomo is doing on discrimination in housing and trying to find community-based solutions so you won't just be dealing with individual acts of discrimination but you'll be changing the environment—we'll have a lot more of those coming up in civil rights enforcement, in education, in the economy, a lot of other things like that. So I think you'll see a lot more policy initiatives coming out.

We will have—we'll be doing—the second thing we said we would do is to basically talk about what's working, put out—set the facts of racial life, if you will, in America today, put out promising practices, recruit leaders; I think you'll see a lot of that.

And the dialog will become increasingly more public and pitched to a wider national audience, beginning with this townhall meeting. We've been spending a lot of time, and we'll continue to do that, meeting with small groups of people—I have here in the White House and, of course, the board has. But I want to notch up the public dialog, and I think this is a good time to be doing that.

So, on balance, I'm quite pleased with the people that have been involved, with the efforts they're making, and with the number of people who want to be involved and who complain when they're not. I think that's a healthy thing, too. That shows that people are interested in talking about this and working on it and trying to get it right. So, on balance, I'm quite upbeat.

We got off to a little bit of a slow start, but that partly was my fault because I announced it, and then we had to put it together. I mean, we knew what we wanted to do, but we had—it just takes time to put something together. And now I think we're running well now, and I think it will get better.

Ms. Enda. What other kinds of policy initiatives are forthcoming?

The President. Well, I know we'll have one on civil rights enforcement, for example. We're looking at what we can do not only to adequately fund and beef up the EEOC but what we can do to use the EEOC and perhaps much better coordination with all the other civil rights agencies in Government to find alternative ways of resolving these disputes, so that you not only remedy a specific act of discrimination but you change the climate, the environment. You get people to working together and talking together, and you change the dynamics of workplaces all across America.

We will have some more initiatives in the area of the education and economic opportunity. We've got this ongoing effort now, which I'm very proud of because I think it's going to make a difference, in the economic area to get more of these community development banks out there that will make more loans to minorities to start businesses or to expand small businesses. Because I have always believed that the central thing that our society needed—let me back up and say, I've always believed that ultimately the answer to building one America was to give people the chance to do constructive, positive work or, if you're younger or between jobs, learning as you work—learning and work in a positive environment that was free of racial discrimination. So I think there has got to be an economic and an educational component to all this that we keep uppermost in our minds. So we'll do that.

Affirmative Action

Ms. Enda. In terms of both economics and education, one of the most divisive issues right now in this country is affirmative action. You said earlier this year that you were going to look for an alternative to affirmative action that would accomplish the same goal of diversity without running into problems in the courts and among voters. Have you come up with an idea on that?

The President. Well, I think there are some things that can be done, although—you know, my position on affirmative action is that we should, as I said when I spoke at the National Archives, we should mend it, not end it. That's what the Court in Adarand required us to do. The Court imposed some limits on affirmative action in the economic sphere.

Ms. Enda. Right, but a lot of voters seem to want to end it.

The President. Well, some voters do and some voters don't. We just won a big fight in Houston, and the mayor did a superb job, and they asked me to do a radio ad for it—and I did—for their position, to keep the program. And the Supreme Court—what I read from the Supreme Court's declining to take the California case is they basically said, look, we've put the limits, the constitutional limits on affirmative action in Adarand. By declining to take this case, they seem to be saying that there is no constitutional duty to have an affirmative action program, so we're going to leave it in the political sphere. It's now going to be up to the people and their elected representatives. That's the way I read the two cases. I think that's a fair reading of it.

And so what I think ought to be done is, number one, we ought to continue to make sure that if we have the programs, they're carefully targeted and they don't amount to quotas and nobody is getting anything they're not qualified for. When they're under attack, I think they ought to be vigorously defended. And then I think we have to look for other ways to increase the access of minorities to educational, housing, and economic opportunities.

But after all, that's what the empowerment zones, that's what the community development financial banks were all about; that's what our Community Reinvestment Act enforcement is all about. Over 70 percent of all the loans made to minorities in the history of the Community Reinvestment Act have been made since I've been President. So we have always looked for alternatives to affirmative action to work.

Now, I noticed Glenn Loury—I don't know if you saw Glenn Loury's column recently about how he had now been excoriated by some of the right because he wasn't simon-pure on all these issues. He made a point about affirmative action that I don't have an answer for. I think that if you look at what we've done in education, we'll soon be at a point where we can tell everybody, if you stay in school and behave yourself and get your grades, you can go to college. But we don't want to have all the public institutions of higher education segregated, I don't think. I know I don't. And Glenn Loury made a point that I have not found a substitute for. I do think we can do more to bring economic opportunity to people; I do think we can do more to bring educational opportunity to people. And I think that will help to create more of an integrated environment.

Loury's point in his article of why he's supported some continuing affirmative action was that networking is important; if you want to build an African-American middle class, if you want Hispanic-Americans to develop a culture where it's unacceptable to drop out of school and they stay in school, and they not only have a good work ethic, they have a good education achievement ethic, and then you want them to be rewarded, you have to develop these networks.

And one of the things that affirmative action does, both in terms of giving people a chance to participate in business, that governments do with private businesses, and in terms of getting into certain institutions of higher education, is to build a networking, the patterns of contact that then help their children, their relatives, their associates on both sides to begin to meld into a more integrated environment. And I don't think—so far I have not seen anything that I thought would fully compensate for that.

Now, in education, there are—Texas has passed and California is looking at this so-called 10 percent rule, or 8 percent rule—that is, 8 percent of the—the top 8 percent of this graduating class can go to any State institution they want to. But that is clearly a way of—another way of achieving the same goal.

Ms. Enda. Do you support those plans?

The President. Well, I think in the case of Texas, since they have gotten rid of direct affirmative action, it's sort of an indirect affirmative action, I think it's all right and it will at least keep them from—it will keep the State from having more segregated institutions of higher education and more segregated professional schools, which I think is a good goal.

And I think most Americans can accept it because there's, by definition, evidence there that people have achieved academically in an environment and therefore are likely to be able to achieve in another and therefore likely to be considered worthy.

Racial Stereotypes and the Media

Ms. Enda. One of the big problems that I've talked to Judy Winston about, and others involved in your initiative, is stereotypes, that stereotypes are so widespread now and this is not something that you can wipe away by passing a law. Do you have some ideas on how to change stereotypes and also how to—do you intend to take the media on in terms of how the media promulgates stereotypes?

The President. Let me answer the question separately. First of all, yes, we do. I think what we want to do to take on stereotypes is get the facts out there. Most stereotypes are wrong, I mean, by definition. And so we need to get the facts out. The American people need to know what the facts of life are about people of different backgrounds and races than themselves. Then we need to get these promising practices out so people can see that there are ways to overcome problems that do exist.

And then what I hope to do by having these televised dialogs is to get people to have them on their own, by families, by communities, by schools, by workplaces, everyplace where they don't now exist, because I think that ultimately that having any positive personal experience with someone of a different race, and having more than one, breaks down the stereotypes that exist, because then you start treating everybody based on how you find him or her. And I think that's a very, very important part of this.

Now, the second thing, on the media, I don't think that it's—there are some portrayals of African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans and Asian-Americans and white southern Americans and others in the media that reinforce preexisting stereotypes. But to be fair, there have also been any number of remarkable portrayals of minorities in ways that shattered stereotypes and allowed people to see each other in terms of their shared values and experiences and perceptions. So I don't think that the media can be fairly singled out for unilateral condemnation. I think that what I'd like to see done in the media is more—first of all, more portrayals of people who go against stereotypes; and secondly, more effort to show people in environments that are working across racial lines to solve real problems and give people what they need, which is a safe environment, a good education, a good job, and then how people can work together in those positive situations to have good lives.

So rather than take—what I'd like to do is to point out maybe some stereotyping that can be destructive, some things that go against stereotypes and be completely enlightening, and then talk about what we can do to actually get people in their personal lives to shatter stereotypes so they're not using the media as a substitute for real-life experience one way or the other.

Interracial Marriage

Ms. Enda. One thing that has happened in people's personal life that a lot of polls show is that there is a lot more interracial dating going on than there used to be, interracial marriages. Do you think that's one way to help resolve this racial problem? How do you feel about that issue?

The President. Oh, absolutely. I think there's no question about it. When people are together as people, they relate to each other as people. Sometimes people who are passionately liberal on racial issues find that they meet people of different races and they don't like them very much. [Laughter] They treat them as people— that's good. That's the absence of discrimination, in a funny way. And then sometimes they like each other very much, and sometimes they fall in love. And when they do, they ought to get married. I mean, that's—I think it's a good thing. And I don't think there's any question that it helps to break down stereotypes and build bridges.

I know in the military—and I've spent—obviously, because of my position, I've spent a lot of time with our people in uniform. I've visited a lot of bases; I'm on a lot of ships. But on the bases in particular, or when I go to Camp David on the weekend, I'm with military families a lot. And there are a not unsubstantial number of interracial families. And I was with a couple yesterday in church at Camp David and I saw those beautiful children that were the products of their union, and I thought to myself that everybody people come in contact with, whoever had a problem about race will have less of a problem. I don't think people should get married to make a statement; they ought to get married for the right reasons. But I think that it is a positive thing.

Affirmative Action

Ms. Enda. How do you feel about the Piscataway case being settled out of court?

The President. Well, I think it was—we had, we in the Justice Department and the White House, did not think it was the right case for the Supreme Court to come to grips with the larger issues of affirmative action. The facts were not good. And so I think, on balance, it was a good thing that the Court will not be called upon to make sweeping generalizations about affirmative action on constitutional grounds on a set of facts which are, to put it mildly, atypical.

Because, I mean, that was—I would not have favored some attempt just to keep the Supreme Court from deciding on the case. They've already decided on affirmative action in the context of Government contracts in Adarand. But the facts were not—it was an atypical set of facts. And the Supreme Court—it's hard enough for the Supreme Court to make momentous decisions that elicit from, in a general area, the larger principles of the Constitution and how they'll be applied if the facts are unquestionably representative of the class of cases involved— it's hard enough—or if there's just a few variations. Here's a case where the facts were quite different from the normal class of cases involved and therefore the risk of almost unintentional error, I think, was quite great. So I think on balance it was a good thing.

Discrimination in Police Conduct

Ms. Enda. One of the areas where a lot of people agree that there's huge amounts of discrimination remaining is in police—the way police treat people in terms of arrests and the way the courts treat them. Do you intend as part of your race initiative——

The President. Absolutely, yes. One of the things that I think we have to do, first of all, is try to get this out on the table in a way that is both forthright but not threatening.

I had a group of African-American journalists in here a few months ago, and virtually everybody in the room said they had been stopped by a police officer for no apparent reason. I mean, it was chilling to me. And now I just sort of—every time I'm in a room now with a number of African-Americans and Hispanics I'll cite this just to see how many people will speak up and say, "Well, that's exactly what happened to me; it's happened to me a lot." Just today I was meeting with a guy who said, "Oh, yeah," he said, "I got stopped once just waiting for a taxicab, like there was something I was doing wrong, standing there waiting for a taxicab, in my suit."

Ms. Enda. So what do you intend to do about it?

The President. Well, I think one of the things we need to do is to find a—we need to find, I think, a highly visible public forum to try to air this, as I said, in a nonthreatening way, where we just really get people to get the facts out and talk about it. Because it is something— in some ways I think it eats at some communities in America as much as anything in terms of continuing evidence that discrimination exists, even though we've made a lot of progress. And I just think it's very important to deal with.

Ms. Enda. Is there something that you, as President, can do about it? Is this something that you're going to take on publicly?

The President. Yes, I want to be involved in this. I want this talked about. Of course, there are laws about this. If somebody is actually— this kind of conduct can reach a point where it amounts to a violation of Federal civil rights laws. But what we really want to do is to find a way for police, in good faith, to enforce the law and to prevent crimes, but to do it in a way that doesn't stereotype—to go back to your word—stereotype minorities just because they are minorities in certain places at certain times of the day.

Ms. Enda. So what would you tell police officers, then? Do you have a message for them?

The President. Well, first of all, I would say that the community policing law—if every major area, and even smaller areas, has communitybased policing, this is far less likely to occur, because then people are more likely to be stopped or at least questioned in passing because they're strangers in the neighborhoods, rather than because of the color of their skin.

And if the policeman happens to be white and the person stopped and questioned happens to be black or Hispanic or Asian—or the other way around, some variation of that—if there is a real community-based, connected law enforcement program, then people will not all automatically assume it was a race-based deal. They'll say, no, no, this person was stopped because the policeman didn't know him, because he was a stranger to the neighborhood, because there's been a crime down the street in the last 5 minutes, and this is the only person they saw that they didn't know.

This is the flip side of the marriage issue and the dating issue. There will always be— as long as you've got some policemen who are of one race and they work in a neighborhood where some people are of another race, there will always be times when people of different races are in law enforcement and in contact with each other. What you want to do is create an attitude on the part of the law enforcement officer that they don't stop people just because they're black or brown or whatever; and in the community, that people aren't stopped just because of their race, that there is another reason there.

So I think the way policing is done, as well as the attitudes of the people in law enforcement, are both important to getting rid of this problem. I've talked to enough police officers to know that a lot of people have done this and not intentionally done it, not thought they were doing it. Some people have done it and known exactly what they were doing. But this is a complex problem, but it deserves, in my view, a public and honest airing. And I think this race commission can do a lot of good by providing a supportive way for people to come forward and say whatever is on their mind about this.

Ms. Enda. So is that something that you expect them to take on?

The President. Yes. But I expect that I'll be involved in it, too. I really care a lot about it, and I've been quite affected by what people have told me about it.

Capital Punishment

Ms. Enda. It sounds like it. You support the death penalty, but a lot of people claim that in its implementation it's racist. That seems to be sort of a contradiction because you care so much about racial differences.

The President. Yes, but you know, the only— actually, the evidence that troubles me most— first of all, I think the death penalty should be opposed or supported based on whether you believe, A, it's ever appropriate to do it and, B, whether you think it can be done with almost no chance of error if it's done seldom enough and with enough proof.

But the real racial disparity in the death penalty which bothers me a lot that's never talked about—there's only one Supreme Court case on it, came out of Georgia—is that if you look at jury decisions and prosecutorial decisions, the evidence is that there's not so much racial disparity tied to the defendant but, instead, tied to the race of the victim. That's what all the research shows. And that's a subject for another day. But I still support the death penalty, but it really disturbed me.

I never will forget, once in my home State a black teacher was horribly, horribly brutalized and then killed by two students. And the prosecutor—the death penalty was not sought. And I thought to myself, if the positions were reversed, it would have been. And it wasn't because the boys were white, although they happened to be; if they were black, it would have been the same decision. That's what I believe. I think that all over the country, if you look at the real research, the research shows it's not so much the race of the criminal defendant as it is the race of the victim that determines a lot of decisions.

Ms. Enda. And is there something you can do about that?

The President. I don't know about that. I don't know about that. But since the Supreme Court ruled on it, there hasn't been much done. But that was a close case, even in this Court.

It was about 8 or 9 years ago. Do you remember the case?

Ms. Enda. Which case was that?

The President. It was a Georgia case. And I think it was only a 5-4 decision. I think it was. But it's been a long time. It could have been—the years run together too easy, but it was several years ago.

NOTE: The interview began at 6:42 p.m. in the Oval Office. In his remarks, the President referred to Judith A. Winston, Executive Director, President's Advisory Board on Race; Mayor Bob Lanier of Houston, TX; and Glenn C. Loury, professor, Boston University. A tape was not available for verification of the content of this interview.

William J. Clinton, Interview With Jodi Enda of Knight-Ridder Newspapers Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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