Dialogue on race Town hall meeting: Clinton's idea, while instructive, revealed shortcomings of project.

December 05, 1997

THE ENORMITY of the race problem in America is reflected in the aimlessness of President Clinton's initiative to talk about it. Six months after appointing an advisory commission on race that has mostly spun its wheels, Mr. Clinton held the effort's first town hall meeting Wednesday in Akron, Ohio. While the president cannot be faulted for wanting to mark the significance of the event by participating in the forum, perhaps it would have been better had he stayed home.

The panel of 67 college students, clergymen, community leaders and authors of books on racism never seemed completely at ease in the presence of the president of the United States. They also knew millions might be watching the televised event via C-SPAN. Panelists chose their words very carefully, not wanting to exhibit any of the bias that must come out and be dealt with if racial progress is to be made. In most cases, Mr. Clinton was preaching to the choir. There was very little dissent.

Aware of earlier criticism that his national conversation on race was more like a monologue, Mr. Clinton baited panelist Abigail Thernstrom into a brief argument over affirmative action. The way he caught her off guard hardly counts as a genuine effort to let the other side be heard. But what she said illustrated why the Clinton initiative must include such views so they can be openly discussed.

In saying a "racial skills gap" was more of a problem than racism, Ms. Thernstrom voiced a conservative belief that must be addressed. Clearly they are not getting the message from minority members of the middle class who have said again and again that education and wealth have not shielded them from racism. High school senior Erika Sanders told Ms. Thernstrom, "There's not a racial skills gap. There's an opportunity gap." Actually there's both, and one has a lot to do with the other.

Mr. Clinton has reached the right conclusion that Americans have to talk to each other about racism to defeat it. His initiative correctly recognizes that individual acts of humanity can have more impact on racism than any new law. To this point, though, the national conversation has led to few individual acts. Maybe repeats of the town hall meeting, without the glare and hoopla that came with Mr. Clinton's participation, will bring better results.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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