Bill Clinton photo

Remarks in an Outreach Meeting on the President's Initiative on Race

January 12, 1998

The President. Well, welcome. I'm glad to see all of you, and I thank you for coming in, some of you from a very great distance. I will be very brief. We're about 6 months into this effort, and I think we've gotten quite a bit done, and we've certainly generated a fair amount of controversy. And we're hoping for a good next 6 months. We've got a very ambitious schedule laid out. But we thought it would be quite helpful to bring a group in and just listen to you talk about where you think we are with the issue, what you think still needs to be done, what this Advisory Board and our project can and cannot reasonably expect to do within this year. And maybe we can talk about some of the things that we expect to be in the budget and some other issues.

But I'll say more as we go along through the meeting, but I'd rather take the maximum amount of time to be listening to you. And maybe we could just start with Wade.

Wade Henderson. Thank you, Mr. President.

The President. Nice tie.

[Wade Henderson, executive director, Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, thanked the President for his initiative, noted that a challenge to affirmative action may appear on the November ballot in the State of Washington, and asked for the President's leadership to oppose it. He then urged a commitment to vigorous enforcement of existing civil rights laws, including a Federal zero-tolerance policy on discrimination and increased funding; suggested that the President direct the attention of business leaders toward addressing the growing gap in terms of the benefits of the Nation's robust economy between the haves and the have-nots; and suggested the creation of incentives to attract bright, committed, dedicated professionals to the teaching profession in order to ensure that more highquality instruction is made available in both inner-city and rural school systems.]

The President. I agree with that. Let me say on the first, on the discrimination, just very, very briefly, we're working on that. We have a good budget and a good plan. And I think we ought to go hard toward the people who say they are against discrimination but they oppose affirmative action in the Republican majority, and say, "Well, if you are, why won't you fund the EEOC? Give us the tools to do the job."

On the economy, we'll have a very aggressive set of proposals that go right at what you're suggesting and also in education. Of course, we've already suggested that we—and have offered a program of loan forgiveness for people who will go into educationally underperforming school districts to teach. But we have some other things to offer in that regard.

I think all these are important because we have to find ways to unify the American people around this agenda in ways that actually change the future outcomes for people. And so I appreciate that. I think that's very good.

Who wants to go next? Go ahead.

[Alfred Rotondaro, executive director, National Italian-American Foundation, stated that it would be a tragedy if the work of the racial commission stops this year and suggested it should enlist the Nation's opinion leaders, including white ethnic organizations, in an effort to continue the fight against social injustice and racism. He also stated that the problem involved elements of class and stressed the importance of changing the attitudes of urban minority children toward academic excellence. Nan Rich, president, National Council of Jewish Women, stated that her suggestions should be advanced in the context of public-private-nonprofit partnerships. She then emphasized increasing economic opportunity for women and minority groups and corporate training to increase cultural diversity awareness. She also suggested that early childhood programs focus on diversity. Mayor Joseph Serna, Jr., of Sacramento, CA, stated that California faced the dilemma of scapegoating immigrants and cited California's Proposition 187 and Proposition 209 as wedge issues which divide people along racial lines. He suggested encouraging citizenship in the Latino and Asian communities and directing the Immigration and Naturalization Service to move more quickly in the process of naturalization.]

The President. You know, when I came here, it was taking an unconscionably long time for people to get through the system, and we tried to accelerate it. And the Congress had such a negative reaction to it, the Republican majority did, they tried to investigate the whole INS because we took the position that you shouldn't have to wait years and years and years, after you had already been here 5 years, to have the Government decide whether you could become a citizen or not. I still think that's the right thing to do. I think it's entirely too bureaucratic, and I think we should do better.

Karen Narasaki. Mr. President, I'm very glad to hear you say that, because the backlog persists. It's already 2 million individuals, and it's 2 years long. That's how many would-be citizens we would have——

The President. But we were taking it down— to be fair—until we were viciously and unfairly attacked for making the law work the way it's supposed to.

[Ms. Narasaki, executive director, National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, thanked the President for including more funding for food stamps in the budget, saying it would help the most vulnerable in society. She also thanked him for appointing Acting Assistant Attorney General Bill Lann Lee and thereby putting a face on the affirmative action debate. She urged the President to help narrow the race discussion by homing in on such topics as bilingual education and affirmative action. She advocated challenging religious leaders, including the Christian Coalition, and the entertainment and housing industries to participate in the discussion. Representative John Lewis of Georgia stated that the President should address the question of race in his State of the Union Address, making it a moral issue, and that he should not back off on the affirmative action debate. Stewart Kwoh, president and executive director, Asia Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California, said that the appointment of Acting Assistant Attorney General Lee built the best multiracial coalition in decades. He then suggested the President request direct action from local leaders to improve race relations, as well as incorporating race relations improvement into Federal programs at the local level, such as AmeriCorps.]

The President. That's interesting because I've been just—sort of in support of what you said, we have—one of the most clearly successful things we've done, even though it's not—we don't have it on prime-time television in ads or anything, because we don't have that kind of money, but we put up this Internet homepage with promising practices in communities around the country. And substantial numbers of people have tapped into it to see what's being done someplace else, and can they apply it in their own community, and is there some way to build on it? It's been very, very impressive.

The other thing you said about recruiting leadership I think is—the one thing that we did was we wrote several thousand young people and asked them to take some initiative, and hundreds of them wrote us back with very specific things, saying what they were going to do. So that's some indication that if we identify a given list of people, whether they're mayors, city council people, county officials, you name it, and ask them to do something specific, that they'll do that.


[Hugh B. Price, president and chief executive officer, National Urban League, underscored the need to close the gap between young people who are achieving in school and those who aren't, advocated an almost warlike mobilization on that issue, and urged attention to those inner-city neighborhoods still unaffected by downtown revitalization efforts. He also raised the issue of police interaction with civilians, including attitudes of minorities toward police authority as well as problems in police practices.]

The President. The profiling, I think, is a serious problem. We've talked a lot about it. I think I've seen—the three most glaring examples that I've seen since I've been President are the repeated examples black Americans have given of being stopped by police for no apparent reason—we had a black journalists group in here not very long ago, and every African-American male in the room had been stopped within the last few years for no apparent reason; the stopping of Hispanics for no apparent reason near the border—as part of drug—and the immediate assumption, after the Oklahoma City bombing, that some Arab-American had been involved. You know that I was able to sort of put a puncture in that within 24 hours, but it was—when I cautioned the American people not to do that. But we just—it's still a part of how we related to each other that we have to deal with.

Eleanor, go ahead. I'm sorry.

[Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton of the District of Columbia praised the President for confronting race without a crisis situation, noting that there was more communication across racial lines during the era of the civil rights movement than today and that people comfortable in their separate racial niches tended to reinforce their own views. She emphasized the importance of filling the chairmanship of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, as well as adequately funding it. She also said that the State of the Union Address should present a call for action to the Nation and a call for Congress to avoid making affirmative action a wedge issue, and suggested that the President have a private conversation with Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Roger Wilkins, professor of history and American culture, George Mason University, thanked the President and described a similar meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson, noting that John Hope Franklin had not been present because he was in jail.]

The President. That's why he looks so young; he had all those resting days. [Laughter]

[Mr. Wilkins stated that the conversation was important and that the effort should not end in a year. He urged the President to use his office as a teaching lectern to remind the Nation of its history of denying opportunity to blacks. He also suggested establishing a Presidential medal to honor teachers, making teachers' pay a major issue, and focusing on joblessness as a detriment to good parenting.]

The President. Let me say, one of the—just a couple of things real quick. Is it—one of the big entertainment organizations sponsors every year a big event honoring teachers. Is it Disney? Disney. Maybe we should see if we should do something with them.

On this unemployment, one of you mentioned this earlier—I think it was Hugh that mentioned it—but we announced today, it was in the paper, that we're going to spend a ton of money to try to focus on just training people to take jobs in technology companies. And the reason—how that happened was I read two things at the same time several weeks ago.

I get—a month after the unemployment rates comes out, the people who do the unemployment rates give you the State-by-State for that month, so like every month you're getting this month's national unemployment rate and last month's State-by-State. So I don't have the December State-by-States, but I do have it for November. In November, two States, North Dakota and one other—Nebraska, I think—had 1.9 percent unemployment. Now, that is essentially negative unemployment because any economist will tell you there's somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of the people walking around all the time. I mean, they're moving; they're getting married; they change States; they do something; something is always happening to a couple percent of the people that are just—in the way we measure unemployment.

And Washington, DC, had 7.8, or whatever it was. And at the same time—this was this month. Anyway, the month before when this happened, the same day I pick up this article in the Washington Post which says that in all these suburban counties around Washington, DC, there's this huge shortage of high-technology workers. Well, if Washington, DC, had an unemployment rate of 2 percent instead of nearly 8 percent, we'd have about a quarter of the problems we've got here, maybe a tenth.

And so it occurred to me that a lot of— but a lot of these jobs in high-technology areas do not require 4-year college degrees. They do require technology training; they do require advanced skills over what you would get just coming out of high school. But they do not require a 4-year college degree. So what this announcement in the paper is about—it's Alexis Herman and some others, we've been working on this— we're trying to figure out whether, not just in DC but anywhere around the country where you've got this suburban ring of job demand and a high unemployment core, whether we can go in there and do profiles on people and see who is capable of getting these skills. And we're going to try and do it in some of the less urbanized areas, too. One of the problems—a lot of our Native Americans without jobs, without good jobs, live in highly dispersed areas where it's not as easy to get there.

But anyway, if this works—that is, if 4 months from now we can show you that we did "X" amount of training and the people that formerly would have gone into minimum wage jobs are now going into jobs that pay above-average wages, where they actually get retirement and health insurance and other things, because they got this—it will rather dramatically change the nature of job training and the whole strategy that the Federal Government has generally followed.

So, anyway—but I appreciate what you're saying about it.

Bob, you were next, I think.

[Representative Robert T. Matsui commended the President for the diversity within his administration. He stated that affirmative action was a critical issue because its elimination would have a profound negative impact on the Nation. He also stressed the need to address inner-city poverty by involving the private sector in longterm planning, as well as technology and empowerment zone initiatives.]

The President. Thank you. Go ahead.

[Asifa Quraishi, president, Karamahi Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, described the diversity within the American Muslim community and its problem of harassment as a response to international political events. She stated that the American public must separate those events from individual minority citizens and see American Muslims as being American citizens first.]

The President. You know, when I was—I made a big point to try to make that exact same point, interestingly enough, when I spoke in the Jordanian Parliament when we went to sign the peace agreement between Israel and Jordan, and how the United States had no quarrel with Islam. And it was amazing the impact it had when I went back to the place where I was—I didn't stay in this hotel, but I went back to this hotel and this public crowd there. It was amazing the impact that it had on the young people that were there. And then I got to Jerusalem, and I had an Arab Palestinian employee in one of the hotels where I was— came up to me and mentioned it to me. So even abroad it's a big deal.

And here at home, there was a very kind of troubling story here in our local press in the last week about a Muslim school that had 50 students, and they were trying to expand it, and they were looking for a new home. And people in the various places where they were looking were afraid that this would be funded by people who would be preaching terrorism and all that.

And I think it's exceedingly important that we disassociate religious conviction, and particularly being of Middle Eastern or South Asian heritage, from some iron connection to all the problems we're having there. And we're going to have to work on it more because the Muslim population is growing so substantially in this country.

[Raul Yzaguirre, president, National Council of La Raza, suggested using the Advisory Board as a teaching tool for the long term to help the Nation build a national identity based on respect for all its constituent groups, including victims of conquest and colonialism. John Echohawk, executive director, Native American Rights Fund, advocated an effort to teach the American public about the legal and political status of tribal governments in the Federal system and their role in combating such problems as unemployment and low educational attainment in the Native American community.]

The President. Let me just say very briefly on this one subject, I think it's also quite important—and we've been working at this steadily for 5 years, and I thank Senator Daschle, particularly—I want to thank him because he knows a lot about these issues. But the Native American tribes have a—I don't want to tie the analogy too tight, but they have experienced in the last several decades a situation in dealing with the United States that is not unlike that experienced by the District of Columbia.

I always tell people, the problem that DC's had—one problem that DC has is sort of the "not quite" place. It's not quite independent, and it's not quite dependent. It's not quite a State, but it's not quite a city that we treat like a city. It's sort of "not quite." And we've had a policy that, if it had an honest label— an honest label—toward Native American tribes, would be something like sovereign dependence, or dependent sovereignty.

And what I have tried to do is not only to recognize the sovereignty of the tribes when it came to national resource and environmental issues and even issues where I maybe didn't always agree because it wasn't my place to decide—some of the gaming issues and other things that the law gives it to the tribes to decide. I think there is this whole other sort of superstructure of the way the Federal Government dealt with Native Americans relating mostly to their economic needs and their educational needs, which in my view was not focused enough toward economic and educational and health care and other empowerment issues, where I think we could—we'll never have the right sort of sovereignty relationship until the tools for success are there.

And I really—we've worked at this for 5 years. We haven't quite got it down yet exactly right, but I think we're making a lot of progress. And I appreciate the help you've given us.

Tom, and John—go ahead, John.

[Historian John Hope Franklin, Chairman, President's Advisory Board on Race, noted that affirmative action favoring whites operated in the Nation for a much longer time than that favoring minorities. He also suggested that the President strongly publicize actions and events relating to the race initiative because that had not attracted much media attention thus far.]

The President. Thank you very much. I also want to thank you for the extraordinary amount of time and energy you've put into this. It's been humbling to the rest of us.


[Senator Thomas A. Daschle stated that the Democrats in Congress need to amplify the President's leadership. He noted the extremely negative statistics on reservations throughout the Midwest, citing an 85 percent unemployment rate on reservations in North Dakota, as opposed to a 1.9 percent rate off reservations, as an example of the great need.]

The President. Before we go I'd like to just leave you with this thought, just sort of food for thought to keep you churning on this. First, I'll make a request. I would like anything you can do to help us get more things that work in to the commission staff, so we can put it on the Internet and get it out, let people see that there are—people always write or they Email us and they say, "What can we do?" We'd like to say, here's something that's working somewhere; why don't you do it? That's important. Anything you can do to help us recruit any kind of new leadership to enlist in this cause, we'd like to have your help on that.

But anyway, let me finish. Here's the thing I'd like to leave you with, just sort of as food for thought, to continue this discussion and try to narrow it further. And I may be unfairly summarizing someone else's work, so I'll try not to—I hope I'm not being unfair. Bill Raspberry had an interesting column the other day in which he said this race effort is a big deal, and there's three things involved in it, and maybe nobody could ever deal with all three things. He said, first of all, there's the feeling of racial prejudice, how people feel about each other. And secondly, he said, there is the existence of illegal discrimination that our laws prohibit. And thirdly, there is the existence of outcomes which are dramatically different by race; your life chances and education, income, employment, and ownership and health care, among other things, are dramatically different based on your race.

He said, "I once thought we could fight all three of them in the sixties because we had an enemy, the Southern white people, and everybody else was on the same side." Now, at least when it comes to—maybe everybody feels some discrimination towards somebody else or— he says now the problem is if we're all responsible for all this, it's hard to get enough allies to work on what really counts, which is changing the life experiences of the people, in terms of their outcomes. Most leaders of any group would give anything just to end whatever the disparities are in education, in health care, and in employment, income, and ownership. And I'm sort of amplifying, but I think this is a fair representation of what he said.

So he made the suggestion—he said what we need to do is get everybody on the same side, start out, and then see if we can work back to—so the logical extension—this was not in there, but the logical extension of the argument was if you could get everybody working on the same side on what to do about job outcomes, maybe you would come back and have a broader consensus on an affirmative action program than you think, or at least the people who are against it would then recognize their moral responsibility to put something credible in its place.

I thought that was an interesting argument, when you deal with—if you just deal with the three things I mentioned. It doesn't get you out of the primary obligation to enforce the laws against discrimination adequately, but it was an interesting way to think about it. If you ask everybody—for example, if you ask everybody who is on both sides of this English-asa-second-language issue in California to start with the disparate educational outcomes and work back, you might get to a different place.

One of the things that always bothers me about all these litmus test issues—and I'm not innocent in this, so I'm not casting a stone— is that depending on which side of the litmus test you're on, once you figure out your crowd's winning, then you go on and worry about something else. Then when you figure out—when you realize your side's losing, you can't worry about anything else; but you can't have an honest conversation, because you're trying too hard to keep from getting killed in the next referendum or whatever.

In terms of the affirmative action referendum, all I can tell you is that I made a couple of statements in California in 209, and maybe I could have done more, and I think if the thing had gone on 3 more weeks, it would have come out differently on 209. I'm glad I was asked to be a part of the effort against the repeal in Houston, and it succeeded; it's the only one that has. But the real issue is if you left it alone and no one ever debated it again, we've had enough experience to know that it is insufficient to change the disparate outcomes. So what if we started on trying to figure out how we could close the gaps and work back; we might find that we had a lot more agreement than we thought.

Now, in the initial polling—I think this will change a lot, as the referendum is debated. And I confess, I have not read exactly what—the initial polling in California, on the English, the bilingual education initiative, is deeply troubling to defenders of bilingual education because the initial polling has 70 percent of Hispanic voters voting for the initiative.

Now, what does that mean? That doesn't necessarily mean that they understand the implications of this initiative and they want to vote for it. But what it does mean is that Hispanic parents are concerned about whether their children stay in the programs for too long, or whether the programs are sufficiently effective to let them learn everything else as well as they need to learn.

So instead of getting into the fight, could we at least start with dealing with what people's perception of the problem is, and then work back to the solution; then if you do that, you've got some alternative to put in place if you want to fight the initiative. In other words, you don't have to play their game; you don't have to let it be a wedge issue if you decide to articulate it in a way that forces everybody else to come talk to you about what the real issue is—which is, you want all these children whose first language is not English to be able to learn everything they need to learn, on time as much as possible, and to be English-proficient, if they're going to live in this country, as quickly as they can be.

But there are—depending on what age you come here and what your situation is and what your native language is and how difficult it is and what the subject is, it is more or less difficult to learn certain things in English within certain time periods. In other words, it's a complicated issue. But there is a broad perception that the bilingual services have become, if you will, institutionalized in a way that carry kids with them longer than they should be and may make them too dependent on it.

So why don't we analyze the facts and find out what they are, and then try to work back to that, instead of immediately joining the issue; but do it quickly enough so that the people of California have some chance of having an honest debate. It isn't just history that people are deprived of; very often they are deprived of what the facts are on the issues they're debating. So all they can do is go on what they think their basic values are and their basic instincts.

And we get so caught up—and, believe me, I share the frustration that Dr. Franklin said about what the voters don't know. It's very hard to pierce through the public consciousness and to do a sustained public education campaign in the absence of some great conflict.

I'll never forget, 10 days before our congressional debacle in 1994, a man I didn't know very well who was a pollster just spontaneously sent me this survey he did—or at least I wasn't working with him at the time—and I was shocked. He said, "Here are 10 things that, if all the voters knew them, would change the outcome of this congressional election, which is about to be terrible for you, if they just knew"—maybe there were eight things on the list. But anyway, there were more than five things that we had done that absolutely nobody knew about. So this is a generic problem in a society as big and complex as ours, being bombarded from all edges.

But I just ask you to think about that. Suppose we did that with health care. Suppose we did that with education. For example, on the education issue, some people say, well, maybe this 10 percent solution that Texas adopted would work on the affirmative action. Well, the answer is it might well work in most States for admission to college, but it wouldn't do anything on the graduate school front. So what's your answer on graduate school?

There are a lot of these things that I'd just like to see—I'd like to see more, instead of just throwing barricades over the wall at one another, if we could start with what the problem is and work back, I really believe we can make an enormous amount of progress in this country, because most Americans who get caught in the middle on these referendums, where their values are pulling them one way and you're trying to— and the rhetoric is pulling them one way, and you're trying to cram information in as quick as you can before election time comes and all that kind of stuff. Most Americans really don't like the fact that we have disparate outcomes, and most Americans think anybody that's working hard and needs a hand up ought to get it, to have a fair chance.

So I think, to go back to what you said about talking to the Speaker on this issue, I think I'm going to try to follow this tack in dealing with our friends who disagree with us on so much. Let's see if we can't start with that and work back and see how much agreement we can make. I think we may do better than people think.

Thank you. This was great.

NOTE: The President spoke at 5:45 p.m. in the Cabinet Room at the White House. The meeting was part of "One America: The President's Initiative on Race."

William J. Clinton, Remarks in an Outreach Meeting on the President's Initiative on Race Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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