SAN DIEGO -- President Clinton, launching what he called an unprecedented, year-long national conversation on race relations in America, yesterday told the multiethnic, multiracial senior class at the University of California, San Diego, that it represents the best hope for the nation to be united, instead of divided, in the 21st century.
"Class of 1997, I grew up in the shadows of a divided America, but I have seen glimpses of one America," Clinton said at the conclusion of his 36-minute commencement address. "You have shown me one today. That is the America you must make. It begins with your dreams -- so dream large. Live your dreams, challenge your parents and teach your children well."
Clinton's much-heralded speech, which did not offer specific remedies, was delivered on a glorious June morning under a sky that was alternately cloudy and sunny. It was well received by the students, who, in interviews afterward, conveyed a keen understanding of the themes and larger backdrop of the president's speech.
The most important underlying issue -- especially to the school's minority students -- is that many of the Latino and African-American students who graduated yesterday were admitted under affirmative action policies that have since been scrapped by the board of regents of the UC system. And last year, that policy was codified in law by California voters in a referendum known as Proposition 209.
"I know affirmative action has not been perfect in America -- that's why two years ago we began an effort to fix the things that are wrong with it," Clinton said. "But when used in the right way, it has worked."
The audience applauded exuberantly.
Noting that minority enrollment in law schools and medical schools in the UC system is already declining, Clinton said that those opposed to affirmative action had a responsibility to offer something in its place to ensure that decades of progress for Latinos and African-Americans will not be undone.
"We must not resegregate higher education or leave it to the private universities to do the public's work," the president said.
Sitting on the dais while Clinton spoke was UC Regent Ward Connerly, a high-profile critic of race preferences -- and one of the architects of the legislation dismantling them in California.
Remarking that Californians had already voted on the question Clinton was raising, Connerly quipped in an interview later that -- because the UC Regents weren't telling Americans to reconsider their re-election of Clinton last November, then the president shouldn't be telling Californians they voted wrong on Proposition 209 on the same day.
"Where he's coming into the debate, we've been there, done that," said Connerly, who is black. "I don't think he should involve himself in second-guessing the people of California and tell us we did something wrong. We've had the debate. We voted. We won. Leave us alone."
Connerly also expressed a dim view of the president's assertion that those opposed to affirmative action are under any responsibility to offer another system that accomplishes the same goals.
"Discrimination is wrong," he said. "Using race as the basis for achieving diversity is wrong. We don't need any alternative to justify stopping something that is wrong."
Inside the White House, however, Clinton's speech yesterday wasn't envisioned as the final word on race relations.
Rather, it is seen as the opening gambit in what the president said he hopes will be the beginning of "a great national effort" to bridge the gulfs of misunderstanding that persist among Americans of different racial and ethnic groups.
To that end, Clinton's newly appointed, seven-member advisory panel on race accompanied the president on Air Force One, and the members were introduced by the president during his speech.
Before, in a briefing on this scenic campus on bluffs high above the Pacific Ocean, the members of that commission took turns explaining they weren't sure where their dialogue would lead.
But they insisted that their task -- facilitating a discussion on race -- is crucial to the nation's future.
"I think that we have the greatest opportunity that any generation has ever had," said former Mississippi Gov. William F. Winter, one of the members.
Another, Los Angeles attorney Angela E. Oh, said she hoped the commission would help do away with various "mythologies" about race.
"The reality is that this is going to be a difficult and painful dialogue," Oh said. "For those who think this is a feel-good experience, you need to understand that in the last 24 hours we all met each other for the very first time."
As if to underscore that point, during his own address, Clinton referred to one of the seven members, Nissan U.S.A. President Robert Thomas, as Robert "Thompson."
But except for that glitch, the president was well prepared for this speech, which he has contemplated since February.
He had uttered most of the sentiments and anecdotes before and drew on events of his own life in discussing the need for tolerance and diversity to a student body receptive to this message.
"I went to segregated schools, swam in segregated pools, sat in all-white sections at the movies and traveled through small towns in my state that still marked restrooms and water fountains 'white' and 'colored,' " the president said.
"But by the grace of God," he added, "I had a grandfather with just a grade-school education but the heart of a true American who taught me that it was wrong."
Save for a single, minor policy prescription -- expanding the budget of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission so it can clear up its backlog of cases -- the president's speech did not offer concrete proposals.
But its goal, White House officials stressed, was, if anything, even more ambitious: Nothing less than beginning a process -- starting with town hall meetings later this summer -- that alters human hearts.
'Break down the barriers'
"For two centuries, wave upon wave of immigrants have come to our shores to build a new life, drawn by the promise of freedom and a fair chance," Clinton said. "Whatever else they found -- even bigotry and violence -- most of them never gave up on America. Even African-Americans, the first of whom were brought here in chains, never gave up on America."
"It is up to you to prove that their abiding faith was well placed," he said. "We have torn down the barriers in our laws. Now we must break down the barriers in our lives, minds and hearts."
This was the theme of the day -- and the students did their part.
"We now represent a privileged class of people," student body President Colleen S. Sabatini told the graduates as she urged them to go out into the world and give a hand up to minorities, immigrants and those less fortunate.
A multiracial and multiethnic choir that represented the vast ethnic diversity of UCSD -- and of California itself -- sang a hymn with the refrain, "We're from every color, sisters and brothers. We were divided, now we are one."
Speech found 'encouraging'
After Clinton spoke, the students sang "America the Beautiful."
In the middle of the crowd, three female graduates from different ethnic backgrounds put their arms around each other and swayed to the music.
"As a minority, he spoke a lot of truth to me," said Sang Bae, a 23-year-old biochemistry major born in Korea.
"What I liked about his speech is that it was encouraging," added Renee Moisa, a 24-year-old Mexican American graduate who underscored, as many of the students did, a Gallup Poll finding earlier in the week that young people are more optimistic than their elders about race relations.
But at least one student wondered if the good will of the president's speech will carry out into the rest of the world.
"UCSD has a history of rejecting racism and embracing diversity, and the president really spoke to our hearts," said 25-year-old Sunhil Plaha, a computer science major from India. "But we're just a speck in a big sea."
Pub Date: 6/15/97