President Clinton, a son of the segregated South, knows firsthand about what he calls “America’s curse"--its persistent racial divisions. In an uplifting use of his bully pulpit, he will focus on race in a commencement address Saturday at UC San Diego. As he tackles a problem that predates the Mayflower, Clinton should concentrate less on description and more on prescription.
To inspire a national dialogue on race, Clinton reportedly will announce a presidential advisory board that will include the noted black historian John Hope Franklin. The author of “From Slavery to Freedom,” the definitive history of African Americans, is not one to mince words. But this racial initiative must produce more than memorable phrases.
The president can promote racial equality by aggressively filling the alarming number of vacant federal judgeships--now hovering around 100--with jurists who strongly support the 14th Amendment’s guarantees of equal protection and equal rights under the law.
In California, filling the federal judicial vacancies would prevent a backlog of cases expected to result from implementation of Proposition 209, the state ballot initiative that bans affirmative action in government hiring, contracting and public university admissions. Federal law permits affirmative action, and a strong and uncompromising federal bench remains key to Clinton’s promise to mend rather than end it.
He can discourage bias by naming a strong legal expert to the vacant post of assistant attorney general for civil rights--someone who knows the law and will fight for a generous interpretation. The next civil rights chief will also need to build bridges to Asian Americans and Latinos; they increasingly are objects of hate crimes, although black Americans remain the most frequent targets. Federal laws promise protection, but wrongheaded judges and lax enforcement sometimes fail to deliver.
California leads the nation in recorded hate crimes--1,751 last year--partly due to better reporting in the state. Nationwide, there has been a significant increase. Clinton has ordered the Justice Department to review federal laws against crimes pertaining to race, religion, sexual orientation or ethnicity. The hate crimes being surveyed include murder, rape, assault, intimidation, destruction of property and arson. The review ought to lead to more arrests and prosecutions and harsher consequences.
Resources are also needed to assure the separation of surmise and fact. For instance, last year’s wave of arson at black churches, primarily in the South, first appeared to be the result of a hate conspiracy. The Clinton administration, prodded by DeVal Patrick, its first civil rights enforcement chief, succeeded in obtaining some individual convictions on federal civil rights violations. Later, a federal task force completed an investigation and last Sunday announced that there was no evidence of a national racist conspiracy in the arsons.
There is plenty of evidence, however, that discrimination continues to plague America. It can be found not just in hate crime statistics but in the backlog of 100,000 complaints at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and in the lawsuits filed by minorities who believe they have no other recourse to gain the rights accorded all citizens by the Constitution. And it is evident in a new Gallup poll that shows black Americans are much more pessimistic than whites in their view of race relations.
As this president seeks his place in history, he surely knows that comforting words are never enough. He must remain engaged in the complicated struggle for fairness and opportunity.