BILL CLINTON is big on symbolism. He of the generation of the raised fist of fury and two fingers of peace knows the importance of images. His presidency has included some powerful visuals of healed race relations -- hugging the Tuskegee syphilis study survivors, opening the schoolhouse door for the Little Rock Nine, chatting with his advisory board on race.
But most Americans remain pessimistic. The racial divisions that plagued us 40 years ago are different today, but they haven't gone away.
In frustration, people and organizations that marched just so blacks could eat a sandwich at the same lunch counter with whites now deny integration was ever their goal. Like Nixon quitting Vietnam, they have decided to settle for less than victory and bug out of an unwinnable war.
Acknowledging the upper hand provided them, those who used to keep their prejudiced views in the closet wear them for everyone to see. They adorn their rhetoric with calls for equality that eschew preferences. And are quick to apologize if anyone (heaven forbid!) misconstrues their insensitive remarks to mean they don't care about righting past wrongs.
In recent weeks, a University of Texas law professor has said blacks and Mexicans don't do as well in school as whites because their cultures don't care about academic success, and a University of North Texas professor has said all minority students have poor class attendance habits. Both later apologized, saying they were wrong to generalize. But they only said what others believe.
The apologies make clearer how inadequate an "I'm sorry" can be. It was great symbolically for Mr. Clinton to apologize to the unwitting participants of the syphilis study. But did it improve race relations in America? What would be the impact of a presidential apology for slavery? African-American historian John Hope Franklin, who chairs Mr. Clinton's race advisory board, says it would be meaningless without an accompanying apology for segregation.
He's right, in that it is what happened after slavery that has greater impact on how blacks and whites feel about each other today. Affirmative-action critics are quick to say they shouldn't have to pay for the sins of their great-granddaddies who fought to protect a system that espoused slavery. But segregation occurred within the memories of most adult Americans. And its vestiges have not been erased.
Mr. Clinton doesn't know what to do. Aware that his symbolic acts haven't had any lasting effect on the root problem, he read a list Monday of the economic gains experienced by blacks and Hispanics since he has been in office. The median household income for blacks rose 11 percent to $23,482 between 1993 and 1996. During the same time, the median household income for Hispanics rose 5.8 percent to $24,906.
But so what, Mr. President? Those income levels are still far below the $37,000-plus median income for white families. And anyway, when it comes to race relations, how much money a person makes is beside the point. There's an old joke among African Americans about what a racist calls a poor black man and what he calls a rich black man. That's right, the word never changes.
People won't treat each other better until they get to know each other better. But with America's schools mirroring migration patterns -- urban schools mostly black and suburban ones largely white -- that simply is not happening. The workplace is more integrated than ever, but people don't like to bring home what happens on the job, apparently including their interracial friendships.
President Clinton suggested to his advisory board Tuesday that it concentrate on how children at diverse schools get along. It's called familiarity, Mr. Clinton. Familiarity may breed contempt, but it can also breed understanding, respect and trust. People fear what they don't know. And blacks and whites in America, as the Texas professors have shown, simply don't know enough about each other. No apology is going to change that.
Harold Jackson writes editorials for The Sun.
Pub Date: 10/02/97