Clinton calls for measures to reduce inequality

Some rights leaders ask why the president didn't act earlier in his term


WASHINGTON - Laying down a marker for the incoming administration and the new Congress in his final days in office, President Clinton called yesterday for enactment of a sweeping set of proposals aimed at racial reconciliation and reducing disparities between whites and minorities.

In a report to Congress, he urged adoption of several policies long championed by civil rights organizations.

But neither the Republican-led Congress nor President-elect George W. Bush has shown much inclination to move in the direction Clinton recommended.

Clinton's recommendations include:

Outlawing racial profiling by law enforcement agencies.

Immediately shrinking the disparity in sentencing between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

Enactment of laws providing for greater access to DNA testing for criminals and for competent legal counsel for defendants in capital cases.

The appointment of a nonpartisan presidential commission on electoral changes that will recommend to Congress ways to increase voter participation and prevent voter suppression and intimidation.

"People of color have more opportunity than ever before," Clinton wrote in an Op-Ed piece in yesterday's New York Times. "Still, we see evidence of inequality in the long list of disparities in employment and wealth, education, criminal justice and health that still so often break down along the color line."

The 11th-hour recommendations placed leaders of civil rights groups in an awkward position.

Many cheered Clinton for pressing for enactment of laws and policies for which they have fought for years.

But some civil rights figures noted derisively that Clinton never publicly embraced many of the recommendations earlier in his term, never mentioned ideas such as outlawing racial profiling in any State of the Union address and never pressed Congress for passage of many of the proposals.

"Why didn't he do more on these things during his own administration?" said Laura W. Murphy, director of the Washington office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Rights leader the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said: "These gaps existed in 1992. He had eight years to work on them, but they required some heavy lifting."

In private, some civil rights leaders were even more scathing. After listening to Clinton's last-minute recommendations, one civil rights leader said: "I'm glad you called. I needed some comic relief."

Throughout his presidency, Clinton has had a tortured relationship with traditional civil rights groups, in part because of his ambivalence toward issues they have promoted. While the president's philosophical leanings were often in sync with those of civil rights advocates, his administration, fearful of alienating white, middle-class voters, often kept those leaders and their issues at arm's length.

During his two terms, Clinton often raised several of the issues he advocated in his report. In a radio address in March 1999, he said he was "deeply disturbed" by law enforcement agencies that engaged in racial profiling. But he never suggested it be outlawed and did not ban its use by federal law enforcement agencies.

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