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Clinton Calls for New Approach to 'Affirmative Action'

Race: President, in debate with panelists, attaches incendiary label to programs succeeding in helping at-risk youths in some cities.

July 09, 1998|ELIZABETH SHOGREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ARLINGTON, Va. — In President Clinton's third and probably last public dialogue in his yearlong race initiative, he called Wednesday for a new breed of "affirmative action" programs aimed at saving the "kids who are being lost altogether."

The practical solutions to the nation's race problems most urgently needed, Clinton said, are the kinds of effective educational and crime-prevention programs that already are transforming lives for poor, predominantly minority children in some American cities.

"We need at least to adopt those strategies that will invest money in keeping these kids out of trouble in the first place to try to keep them out of jail and give them a chance to have a good life," Clinton said.

In applying the phrase "affirmative action" to such efforts, Clinton appeared to be trying to defang the controversial term, which traditionally refers to offering preferential school admission and employment opportunities to minorities.

Clinton made his comments during an hourlong discussion with eight panelists, mostly journalists and analysts, that was taped by PBS for broadcast tonight. The session was marked by lively exchanges on the merits of affirmative action and other race issues.

The guests included representatives of groups that have most actively criticized the president's much maligned race initiative: conservatives and a Native American. Conservatives have attacked Clinton for not appointing a foe of affirmative action to his race relations advisory board, and Native Americans have protested that no representative of their group was included.

One of the panelists, conservative policy analyst Elaine Chao, was so intent on getting the last word that she interrupted the president to reiterate her opposition to traditional affirmative action programs.

Increasing political and legal attacks on such programs were part of the reason Clinton created his advisory panel. One of the most obvious signs of the backlash was the passage in California of Proposition 209 two year ago, which barred use of affirmative action by state government.

Another panel member, California essayist and editor Richard Rodriguez, told Clinton that he quit academia in protest of affirmative action, which he said caused him to be treated like the token "brown man."

But the most direct criticism of Clinton came from a fellow supporter of affirmative action--Clarence Page, a Chicago Tribune columnist. Page, who is black, accused Clinton of "tiptoeing around the really tough issues of race," particularly affirmative action.

Clinton failed to take the bait. Instead, he reiterated his belief that affirmative action is good because society has a vested interest in diversity.

"We have to understand that this is one of the hard questions, and it is best worked out by people sitting around a table trying to work out the specifics," he said.

Earlier, panelist Roger Rosenblatt of Time magazine challenged Clinton to "remind us that integration is the goal." But the president dodged that too.

Apparently sensing that no consensus could be reached on traditional affirmative action programs, Clinton tried to steer the group to focusing on his new variation of the term.

Clinton said that "the most disturbing thing in the world" is the "disproportionate presence of racial minorities" in the group of U.S. children who grow up without proper education and guidance, and end up in jail or chronically unemployed.

"I think it is imperative that we somehow develop a bipartisan consensus in this country that we will do these things which we know will stop another generation of these kids from getting in that kind of trouble."

He cited a few of his favorite programs as examples of approaches that work:

* The effort to overhaul the Chicago school system by Mayor Richard M. Daley, who installed handpicked associates to ensure that students pass standard tests and meet agreed-upon standards before being promoted to the next grade.

* The hands-on campaign to combat youth violence in Boston by providing troubled youths with counseling, mentoring and after-school jobs. The multipronged program has been widely credited for a 29-month period in which no one younger than 17 was slain in the city.

Clinton's attempt at consensus drew on the elements of the arguments advanced by several panelists.

Chao, from the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, argued against affirmative action for college admissions, saying: "Our schools are falling apart. How do we fix our schools? How do we slash crime in our neighborhoods?"

Rodriguez urged that the right way to approach the problem is to "start at the bottom of the social ladder."

He added: "You would make sure America had a system of education that saved children in first grade, because we are losing them."

The Native American member of the panel was Sherman Alexie, an author and poet who co-produced the critically acclaimed film "Smoke Signals."

In his usual style, Clinton tried to establish a bond with Alexie, telling him: "My grandmother was one-quarter Cherokee."

Later, Alexie had a laugh at the president's expense. Answering a question about whether others engage him in discussions about race, Alexie said the conversations often start when people walk up to him "and tell me they're Cherokee."

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