San Francisco. -- President Clinton is a Southerner. That fact alone may explain why, given the opportunity to rethink the logic and effect of affirmative action, he failed. In his speech this week at the National Archives before a largely black audience, the president floated old platitudes.
On the other hand, several weeks ago, I was talking to a roomful of black teen-agers, most of them street kids or kids from the projects. Only one of them in a room of 13 had ever heard of anything called affirmative action.
First in line to shake hands with the president after his speech were members of the Congressional Black Caucus. Who among those distinguished congressmen could tell Mr. Clinton why, after three decades, affirmative action has had so little effect on the lives of the black poor? Why, despite affirmative action, are black teen-agers killing each other a few blocks from the capitol?
Forty or 50 years ago, in the segregationist South, the strategy of the civil-rights movement was clear and it was noble. Where segregation was legally enforced against the entire race, as at Central High School in Little Rock, one black child could walk through the school door and change things for her entire race.
Future historians, I think, will find it significant that affirmative action began during the administration of a Southern president (Lyndon Johnson). Affirmative action will unravel during the administration of our current president, from Little Rock, Arkansas. For affirmative action has depended on an understanding of racism and integration appropriate to the American South.
In the late 1960s, when the civil-rights movement turned north, the strategy was unchanged, despite the fact that northern racism was de facto and, consequently, very different from the legally enforced racism of the South. In the North, however, one merely heard the familiar call for "integrating" Harvard and Berkeley.
And then one saw the odd parade which continues today, the parade of middle-class Americans demanding to be included among "minorities." White women became minorities. And Asians. And Hispanics -- who are an ethnic group -- began to impersonate a racial group, a new brown race.
Who was a minority? It was easy for any bureaucrat to tell you. If your group was numerically under-represented, then you qualified. Which meant, in the end, that the only group that didn't qualify was the white male heterosexual.
In the South, in the 1950s and '60s, one black child could change the predicament of an entire race. But in the North, how did Harvard's 300 or 400 undergraduates change conditions for black kids in Bedford Stuyvesant?
In the early years of affirmative action at Harvard or Berkeley, one heard mumbo jumbo about "role models" and "returning to help your people." The embarrassing fact was that the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action were mainly middle-class. And worse: Those on the inside gained their label of "minority" because of their supposed relationship to a larger number of people on the outside. Which led to a guilt. Middle-class undergraduates knew that they were gaining on the backs of the poor.
The political left is in disarray today. The old ideals have turned to soggy cake. The left in America used to be centered on the concern for economic disparity. When race became the sole metaphor for social division, American leftists forgot all about the poor. The white poor, especially, got written out of the liberal agenda.
Now the left is preoccupied with power -- its own -- and with visions of social change that run from the top down. Lyndon Johnson is notorious for his "domino theory" in Vietnam. But many leftists today have their own domino theory. They insist that by creating a female or a non-white leadership class at Harvard or Citibank, people at the bottom will be changed.
Dear President Clinton: If I were a member of the Congressional Black Caucus and had your ear, I would urge you to declare the year 1996 the "Year of the First Grade." Forget Harvard! Forget Citibank! Reform education from the bottom up. Save poor children in those first years of school, when so many otherwise get lost. Reform our public schools -- or else support school vouchers. And save poor whites along with poor blacks.
Jesse Jackson is in San Francisco this week comparing the effort to salvage affirmative action at the University of California to the "racial struggles of the 1960s." Mr. Jackson, alas, remains in a time warp. California in the 1990s in no way resembles Alabama in the 1960s. Already, California presents a linguistic nightmare to affirmative-action bureaucrats because a majority of us can now claim to be minorities.
Like Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton is often described as a novice in international affairs -- "more interested in domestic issues." I disagree. President Clinton strikes me as a novice in domestic matters. Despite his years at Yale and Georgetown, or perhaps because of them, he has never been able to see America in terms larger than those he first gleaned as a boy in the segregationist South. He has nothing new to tell us about affirmative action.
Richard Rodriguez is author of "Days of Obligation" and "Hunger of Memory." He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.