WASHINGTON -- President Clinton wants a ''candid national dialogue'' about race, replete with ''town meetings,'' in order to come up with ''concrete solutions'' to make us ''one America,'' a nation no longer divided white and black but the ''world's first truly multiracial democracy.''
Not a bad idea at all. But so far it seems like an exercise in race-based, politicized, hypocritical Clintonesquery rooted in the view that a multiracial democracy comes about by getting Americans to check boxes about their race and by keeping score.
A public tip-off occurred just before Mr. Clinton's address at the University of California at San Diego. At a White House press briefing, the names of the president's ''advisory board'' were released. The board is commissioned ''to help bridge the racial divide and propose actions to address critical areas such as education, economic opportunity, housing, health care, crime and the administration of justice.'' Big stuff.
What could be wrong with a candid national dialogue about big issues? Well, it turns out that all seven of Mr. Clinton's board members, plus the official ''consultant,'' march in lock-step to the president's pro-preference view of affirmative action, which is the central issue of the debate.
A journalist asked White House briefer Sylvia Mathews (deputy chief of staff) this: ''Why bother having that board if you've already decided that you want these people to support what you already believe?'' After dithering, Ms. Mathews acknowledged the obvious: ''The people that are mainly against affirmative action are not a part of the advisory board.''
Who might these people be ''who are mainly against affirmative action?'' An ABC-Washington Post poll recently asked: ''Do you think blacks and other minorities should receive preference in college admissions to make up for past inequalities, or not?'' Almost three-quarters of the respondents said no, including 81 percent of whites and 48 percent of blacks.
So it will be Mr. Clinton's pro-preference commissioners vs. three-quarters of the American people. Hmm . . . Who will prevail when it comes to shaping the concrete solutions?
President Clinton began his speech by parading members of his administration, heavily weighted toward appointees who are Filipino-American, Puerto Rican-American, Mexican-American, African-American, Japanese-American and female American. Mr. Clinton likes to say his team ''looks like America.'' But do his appointees, taken as a totality, think like America?
Mr. Clinton, the box-checking diversity monger, repeatedly bragged about the great multiracial texture of the San Diego student audience. It turns out that 2 percent of the graduates were black, while California is 7 percent black; 34 percent were Asian in a state that is 10 percent Asian; 11 percent were Hispanic, vs. 28 percent of the state. That's diversity?
He condemned California's passage last year of Proposition 209 and noted that it might ''resegregate'' America, as evidenced by a decline in black and Latino admissions to UCLA, Berkeley and the University of Texas. ''Resegregation'' is a strange, mean and inflammatory word for a president to toss around while trying to bring us all together.
What he didn't mention was that if minority students have (probably temporary) difficulty in getting into the elite schools like Berkeley, they will end up one step down the university system at the still very fine schools such as San Diego, Riverside, Davis or Santa Barbara, or in the Cal State system at places like Fullerton, San Francisco or San Jose, or in California's junior-college system.
The president used the much-headlined projection that by the year 2050, whites would no longer be the majority in America. But that is a long way from locked-in, depending on the number and composition of immigrants coming to America in decades to come.
And so it went. Slippery stuff. As a professional chatterer, I generally approve of professional chattering. But a dialogue presupposes at least two points of view, which are obviously not going to come from the president. Might it have been better to hold the dialogue and let nature take its course? After all, as Mr. Clinton correctly noted, ''We are more integrated than ever. More of us share neighborhoods, work, school, social activities, religious life, even love and marriage across racial lines than ever before.''
But talk is what we'll get. What it yields remains to be seen. Mr. Clinton can control his box-checking side of the debate.
Ideally, a national dialogue would serve as a podium also for those of us who believe that a nondiscriminatory, nonpreference, color-blind policy is the way to go. Ward Connerly, a black businessman and a University of California regent who led the fight in favor of Prop 209, is starting a new organization called the American Civil Rights Institute (P.O. Box 188350, Sacramento, Calif., 95818).
Mr. Connerly would be wise to show up at every one of President Clinton's town meetings. He has a pretty solid line to purvey: ''Americans are tired of checking those silly little boxes.''
Ben Wattenberg is a syndicated columnist and the host of the weekly public television program, ''Think Tank.''
Pub Date: 6/19/97