Renew effort to make us one

January 15, 2003|By Ben Johnson and Terry Edmonds

WASHINGTON - Three years into the new millennium and two years into the Bush administration, America is faced with the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of rhetorical skirmishes on the issue of race.

Every year, it seems, some leading political or business or sports figure commits "an unfortunate choice of words" to feed the still-festering wounds of racial division and negative stereotypes that have been the great hypocritical curse of our democracy.

The problem with this pattern is it never seems to lead to lasting, positive change. In fact, as this latest outbreak makes clear, politics, and more precisely the politics of race, have once again triumphed over a serious discussion of the problem of race in America.

At the beginning of Sen. Trent Lott's last two weeks as Republican leader, we had the specter of an aging white Southerner praising the presidential aspirations of an ancient white Southerner who, if he had been elected president in 1948, would have done all he could to keep America racially separate and unequal. By the end of those two weeks, we had office workers and pundits casting lots about the day and hour Mr. Lott would be gone.

What should and could have been the re-igniting of a national conversation about race quickly degenerated into a national obsession over who would be Senate majority leader.

For millions of Americans of conscience, facing up to the nation's most intractable and vexing social problem is not a game of chance or rhetoric or empty apologies or musical (Senate) chairs. It is about high unemployment for parents and low expectations for their children. It is about looks of suspicion when we go shopping and unequal treatment by the law. Those issues were front and center in the Bill Clinton White House and formed the heart of the president's final report to the nation on race, which he delivered to Congress on Jan. 15, 2001, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday.

For black America, the question is not so much who will preside in the Senate but rather what admissions policies will preside at places like the University of Michigan and what judges will preside over a judicial system in which the jury, for many, is still out on the question of fairness.

As Mr. Clinton noted to Congress: "There is perhaps no area today in which perceptions of fairness differ so greatly based on race than in the administration of criminal justice. ... This is true at all levels - from what happens on the police beat to what happens when the sentencing gavel is pounded."

And as America grapples with how to balance its growing diversity with new immigration safeguards in the wake of 9/11, this conversation needs to move beyond black and white to involve our Hispanic and Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian brothers and sisters, too.

That is why Mr. Clinton established the first White House office in history devoted to racial reconciliation. The White House Office on One America, though not perfect, was beginning to change the tone of talk on race from one of belligerence and denial to one of open dialogue and a search for common ground.

In forums across the country, some involving Mr. Clinton, we were encountering a growing cadre of Americans who seemed eager to let go of the old and try something new. One of the recommendations in Mr. Clinton's message to Congress was that the White House Office on One America be maintained to give the issue of racial reconciliation the kind of presidential leadership it deserved.

Unfortunately, the Bush administration did not take up that challenge and closed it. We ask it to reconsider.

As our young people of all races prepare to once again put their lives on the line for this country, there should be no ambiguity in their minds about what kind of America they are fighting for. It is not the America of Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats of 1948 or the America of Trent Lott and his apologists of 2002. It is time for the Bush administration and every American to put as much effort into ending the war within as we seem to be willing to expend in fighting a war abroad.

Ben Johnson, founder and president of the One America Foundation, was assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of One America during the Clinton administration. Terry Edmonds, a Baltimore native, was assistant to the president and director of speechwriting for President Bill Clinton.

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