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Race Panel's Lost Chance

In issuing a report more descriptive than prescriptive, the Clinton panel squandered an opportunity to repeat the success of the 1968 Kerner Commission.

September 21, 1998

President Clinton's race initiative, buried by the avalanche of news on his personal and political problems, represents a missed opportunity to frankly address America's unceasing dilemma with race, ethnicity and color. Good intentions notwithstanding, the legacy of his advisory board is likely to be a mere footnote in the second term of a troubled presidency.

The advisory board, headed by the venerable scholar John Hope Franklin, falls far short of the challenge issued by Clinton at the 1997 UC San Diego commencement: "Can we fulfill the promise of America by embracing all our citizens of all races?" Not with the too-obvious solutions proposed in the panel's final report, such as creation of a new presidential council, stronger civil rights enforcement and laws against hate crime, expanding job training and encouraging individuals to think, talk and do more about race.

In issuing a report that was more descriptive than prescriptive, the panel squandered an opportunity to repeat the success of the 1968 Kerner Commission report, with its bold indictments of racial problems, findings that helped to spur major change. In fairness to Clinton's panel, it was easier 30 years ago to define the problems. The conflict then was seen mainly in black and white terms; while this model still holds for many regions, that was never the case in California and the rest of the West, which has long had more Latinos and Asians than other parts of the country. Racial and ethnic tensions today are complicated.

The most heated '90s version of racial conflict, affirmative action, is something whose definition can no longer even be agreed on. An attempt to open the doors wider to qualified women and minorities, to give opportunity to those who had not had it in college admissions and hiring, became known as "preferences," as if no system of preferences had existed before.

But all is not frustration in racial matters. A compelling new book succeeds where the advisory panel does not: It demonstrates why affirmative action programs can be good for the country. That argument is made persuasively by two former Ivy League university presidents, William G. Bowen of Princeton and Derek Bok of Harvard, in "The Shape of the River: Long-Term Consequences of Considering Race in College and University Admissions." Their study of 28 elite colleges documented the success of race-conscious policies that admitted black students with lower grades and SAT scores than their white classmates.

Black students graduated from the prestigious colleges at a rate higher than black students with similar test scores who attended less competitive schools, according to the study. Black graduates of elite universities also earned advanced degrees in professions such as law, medicine and business at the same rate as white graduates. Twenty years after graduation, the study found, black graduates were more likely to be active in community service and civic affairs than their white classmates. Affirmative action also benefited whites who learned the value of diversity. They gained from exposure to classmates with different backgrounds, experiences and points of view.

Bowen and Bok based their findings on an exhaustive statistical analysis of a database called College and Beyond, built by the Mellon Foundation with the academic records and life experiences of more than 45,000 black or white men and women who enrolled at highly competitive universities in 1976 and 1989. The authors prove with facts, not anecdotes, that affirmative action works, although they also found black students did not graduate at the same rate as whites, a gap that still needs addressing.

With the presidential commission having fallen flat in trying to advance the national discussion on race, it may be the smaller-scale efforts, like the Bowen and Bok book, that better lay the groundwork for long-term change.

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