A time for Clinton to press civil rights; The president should use his post-White House years to put race at the center of the national debate. It would allow him to address the issue without having to calculate political gains and losses


Despite all the media speculation about Bill Clinton's life after the White House, all we know for sure is he'll have a house in New York, he'll be building his presidential library in Arkansas, and at age 54 when he leaves office, he'll be one of the youngest ex-presidents in history.

The normally glib White House has had little to say about his plans besides denying rumors about a Hollywood job and an Arkansas Senate campaign. President Clinton is a man with a restless mind, a large ego, and giant ambitions -- but he seems to have nowhere to go, no mission to follow, and little to do.

Fortunately for the president, inspiration can be found right on his desk. On it is a draft of a book he is writing that he hopes will be the capstone project of his now-dormant race initiative. The president has said he would like this book to be a parting statement of his presidency, a Lincoln-like call to "the better angels of our nature," a challenge to Americans to heal racial divisions and to complete the noble work of the civil rights movement.

But rather than see the book as a final act of his presidency, Clinton should make it the first act of his life after the White House. A man who has called racial reconciliation "a passion of my life" should make his "one America" vision the great mission of his post-presidential years.

A race initiative would meet all of Bill Clinton's apparent needs. It would keep him in the national spotlight, fulfill his hope to do something historic, nurture his uncertain presidential legacy, engage him emotionally and intellectually, and continue his admirable White House work on race. Of all the issues he has addressed during his presidency, race may be the one for which he has the most credibility -- even among his enemies. Given his legendary media and fund-raising skills, the president could marshal the resources to do what competing White House priorities have kept him from doing: put race relations at the center of the national debate.

Dedicating his life to America's unfinished business also would be a way for Bill Clinton to pay back the American people for the mess he made of his presidency. A man of such tremendous energy and talent has squandered much of his presidency on himself and his personal behavior. The president owes the American people, if for nothing more than our patience and forgiveness. What better way to give something back than to dedicate the rest of his life to the one issue that remains the major blight on our nation's history.

Perhaps most appealing about a post-presidential race initiative is it would free Clinton to address the tough issues without having to do what he has always done: calculate the political gain from this or that constituency. In fact, what's apparently keeping the president from completing his book is concern over which group -- whites, blacks, Hispanics, or Asians -- might resent its conclusions. More than anything else, our national conversation on race needs a large dose of candor and radical honesty.

A freed-up Bill Clinton might, for example, speak more frankly and less apologetically about affirmative action. He could say how affirmative action would be unnecessary in an integrated America where we see each other not as blacks and whites but as colleagues, neighbors, relatives and friends who freely refer each other for jobs and opportunities. But he would then show that we are far from color-blind and integrated -- blacks and whites don't live, learn, love, play, pray, or socialize together -- and therefore need government remedies to redress the balance.

He then might be willing to do what most liberals avoid: make the honest case for affirmative action, acknowledging that it discriminates, but arguing exactly as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did, that "discrimination in reverse" is morally justified and in our national interest.

He also might be willing to risk the ire of the diversity crowd by abandoning the trendy nostrum that minorities will outnumber whites sometime next century. What he would say instead is that Hispanics and Asians -- based on housing patterns, intermarriage rates, social interaction, English-language acquisition, and small-business development -- are assimilating much the way European immigrants assimilated earlier this century, and in a way society has never integrated blacks.

He would point out that an Asian or Latino with a grade school education is more likely to live in an integrated neighborhood than a black with a Ph.D., and he would note the 35 percent intermarriage rate for native-born Latinos, the 50 percent rate for native-born Asians, and compare them with the 6 percent rate for blacks. He then would ask what it means for America when these other minorities join the majority, leaving blacks on the outside looking in.

Clinton might even set an example for other elected officials to come clean about their political uses of race by acknowledging how his own 1992 campaign exploited racially-charged themes -- how he used the code words of crime, welfare, and personal responsibility to appeal to white voters, and how his platform was deafeningly silent on racial reconciliation, even in the aftermath of the Los Angeles riots, but loudly denounced "racial quotas."

Nor should his honesty stop there. He could say that he felt uncomfortable pushing these racially charged campaign buttons, but that he also felt he had no other choice because many whites would not support a candidate considered too close to blacks -- despite all the protestations of those who proclaim ours a color-blind nation.

He might then be emboldened to ask truly tough questions about the depth of prejudice in America. Why, he might ask, will whites often not buy houses owned by blacks, a phenomenon that causes black sellers in predominantly white neighborhoods to hide family photos and mementos from prospective buyers. Or he could ask whites why they move from neighborhoods when solidly middle-class blacks -- people who have done everything America has asked of them -- move in nearby.

He could take his campaign to a community like Matteson, Ill.,a well-appointed town of 12,800 near Chicago where the black population rose from 12 percent in 1980 to nearly 60 percent today. The blacks moving in are professionals, the town's median income rose by 73 percent in the 1980s, crime has not increased, schools have maintained the same standards, and home prices continue to rise -- if anything, the community is wealthier with its new black residents. But whites are moving out, saying they simply want "a nice place to raise their kids."

Just four decades ago blacks had no legal right to vote in the South, or to choose their neighborhoods, or to pursue their American Dream beyond the most menial of jobs. America has traveled a long way from those terrible days, and the rise of blacks in politics, education, the media and the economy is one of the great untold stories of the last generation. But the fact that we have made progress does not mean our work is done. Far from it. Unlocking doors to opportunity does not mean we are opening our hearts, homes, lives and loves to each other. What we need is for someone to remind us not only about how far we have come but how far we still have to go -- someone whose only agenda is to keep us hard at work perfecting our national experiment. Bill Clinton is a natural for this job.

What is most tragic about the Clinton presidency is that so much has been about him, his political calculations, and his scandals -- and not about us, the people he serves. Dedicating his life to racial reconciliation would reverse that equation. The president who always wanted to do something truly historic now has a chance -- after he leaves the White House.

Leonard Steinhorn is a professor of communication at the American University, co-author of the book "By the Color of Our Skin: The Illusion of Integration and The Reality of Race" (Dutton, 1999), and contributing editor to the new Internet magazine, TomPaine.com.

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