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Waiting to be checked through the White House security area on the afternoon of December 19, 1997, I thought about distances. Even though I am black and he is white, for instance, in many respects I felt quite close to the president I would soon be meeting. Both of us are from the South and from the generation that finally escaped the burdens of Southern history. Both of us are from painfully broken homes, and both were saved by powerful maternal figures who had, in their desperate struggles to keep from slipping further down in class, somehow managed to set us each on a course of achievement. And yet we were also very far apart, not because we were from different races, but because of our different views on race. And here the vast distance between us was filled with irony: Bill Clinton's views had led him to be praised by people such as novelist Toni Morrison as "our first black president," while mine had led people of Morrison's political outlook to attack me as "a white man with black skin."
I also had a sense of the distance we have traveled as a nation, of what a long and tortured road we have walked in our search for racial fairness and how, in recent times, we seemed to have doubled back again on our own tracks. A generation ago, when Martin Luther King, Jr. stood in roughly the same spot I was standing in, waiting to be ushered into the Oval Office, he brought with him a simple and eloquent plea for equal treatment under the law for all Americans, black and white. The presidents he spoke with—John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, men who until reaching high office never reallyquestioned the malicious racial myths of their day—agreed with him and committed the government to King's great cause. But now, after almost forty years of national introspection and determined civic and political action had made America a different country from what it had been, the situation was reversed. I had come to Washington to reaffirm King's message, but I knew I would be opposed by a president who, although he claimed that his views had been formed by the moral urgencies of the civil rights movement, nonetheless insisted that race mattered even more today than it did in the distant past, and that equality under the law was no longer enough.
I knew that I was here on this Friday afternoon, moreover, not because members of the Clinton administration had any particular enthusiasm for me or my ideas, but because I was potential political damage to be controlled. Indeed, if pushed, they probably would have agreed with black Florida Congresswoman Corinne Brown, who called me "a freak of nature," or with Jesse Jackson, who called me "strange fruit." They had certainly accepted the line being pushed by Jackson and other civil rights professionals—that in trying to destroy the legal and social monstrosity that went by the name of affirmative action, I was merely a black puppet representing the interests of reactionary whites. They wanted to believe that I was David Duke in black-face, and that in helping to pass California's Proposition 209 I had built a regressive and racist movement aiming to "resegregate" society.
I didn't think I could change their view of me, and I knew they couldn't change my view of the problem at hand. As I see it, the generation of black people before my own would do anything to get ahead—dig ditches, clean houses, whatever. No job was too small and no day too long. In a brief thirty years, programs such as welfare had changed all this, replacing these heroic efforts at self-betterment with a culture of dependency. And affirmative action was the kissing cousin of welfare, a seemingly humane social gesture that was actually quite diabolical in its consequences—not only causing racial conflict because of its inequities, but also validating blacks' fears of inferiority and reinforcing racial stereotypes. As the brilliant writer Shelby Steele once noted, affirmative action is a white man's notion of what a black man wants—at its best, a Tammany of grievances; at its worst, a form of racial racketeering.
Proposition 209 was anathema to the Clintonites precisely because it unmasked affirmative action for what it had become over the last quarter century: not a "subtle plus" that imperceptibly affirmed black ambition, but a regime of systematic race preferences that put the government back in the same discrimination business it had been in when Thurgood Marshall, as lead attorney in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, wrote, "Distinctions by race are so evil, so arbitrary and insidious that a state bound to defend the equal protection of the laws must not allow them in any public sphere."
By winning in California, we had shown that the people of this country now accepted these once-controversial sentiments as simple common sense; that they were right to say they smelled the rat of sophistry in formulations such as "we must take race into account to get beyond race"; and that they were ready once and for all to get beyond the numbers games and the obsession with group identity and make the vision once articulated by Martin Luther King and Thurgood Marshall and others a reality.
The Clintonites may have seen themselves as "progressives," but they were actually fighting a rearguard action. In an effort to placate the civil rights professionals who had staked their future on keeping this country color-conscious rather than color-blind, the president announced the formation of his Advisory Council on Race six months earlier, in June 1997, when he traveled to San Diego to give the graduation speech at the University of California campus there. The victory of Proposition 209 was still resonating in state and national politics at this time, and shortly before his trip was announced, I was informed that presidential aide Ann Lewis called the University of California to ask if I would be attending the ceremony in my capacity as a regent, and if so, where I would be sitting on the stage. Thinking of how often I'd been identified in the papers as the "black regent," I had to laugh: "Believe me, wherever it is, you won't have any trouble locating me." In fact, the president gave me a nod upon arriving at the ceremony, and just before he announced his new initiative—"a national dialogue on race"—he gave me a look that was either triumphant or conciliatory, I wasn't sure which.
But the so-called "race panel" that the President named to coordinate this dialogue represented only one view: that America was racially more divided than it had ever been. American heroes like Michael Jordan, Colin Powell, and Oprah Winfrey might have almost iconic stature in our nation, and blacks might feel, as Newsweek recently pointed out after a massive sampling of black opinion, more confident and better positioned to succeed in America than ever before, but the president's men and women on the panel wouldn't take yes for an answer. They were still looking for—perhaps at some unconscious level hoping for—the fire next time.
Leaks that surfaced from the race panel's closed-door meetings in 1997 suggested that its deliberations had sometimes broken down into the bickering that might be expected from people who believe that group identification is everything. The eminent black historian John Hope Franklin, chairman of the panel, said that the group's work should focus exclusively on race, for instance, while Asian representative Angela Oh insisted that the issue wasn't just race, but ethnicity as well, an opinion seconded by Latino and American Indian groups. There was also the fate of affirmative action, of course, looming portentously in the background. Some members wanted to keep this inflammatory issue quiet because they knew that the majority of Americans opposed preferences, while others said that heading off the movement to kill affirmative action was exactly the reason the commission had been set up in the first place.
But the panel had become a problem for the administration less because of reports of infighting than because what was supposed to be a "national dialogue" when Clinton announced it in San Diego had never been more than a monologue, as the media had begun to point out with increasing insistence. Presidential Press Secretary Mike McCurry had inadvertently stoked the fires by saying that alternative points of view had not been represented because they would merely "frustrate" the panel's work. Then, during one of the panel's carefully choreographed town hall meetings in November, John Hope Franklin was asked if I was going to be invited to join the discussion. He responded unequivocally that I would have nothing to contribute.
Comments such as these had increased the murmuring in the press about whether the race cards this panel was dealing came from a stacked deck. This was no doubt why I was here, waiting to be ushered into the Oval Office. A couple of weeks earlier, I received a call from Deputy White House Chief of Staff Maria Echaveste, asking if I'd be willing to meet with the president, along with others who had "different points of view" about race. I immediately said I would. I didn't know all the other participants, but those I did know were distinguished figures, as distinguished certainly as most of those appointed to the official race panel. Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom had recently published an important book, America in Black and White, which argued that despite the trendy gloom among some black intellectuals and activists, the prospects for black people had improved dramatically in the last thirty years and that the upswing had been caused by the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the opening of opportunity, not the later creation of a preference regime. Linda Chavez had served as one of the nation's first female Hispanic cabinet officers during the Reagan administration. Congressman Charles Canady had co-authored the Dole-Canady bill, an effort to ban race preferences on a national level that fell victim to Presidential politics in 1996. Lynn Martin had served in the Bush administration, and Elaine Chao had been an outspoken critic of the way affirmative action programs penalized high-achieving Asian students. Thaddeus Garrett, former Chairman of the Howard University Board of Trustees, had made a reputation for himself as a "black Republican." Former New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean was attending as a representative of the race panel.
Jack Kemp and Congressman J.C. Watts had been invited but declined. Kemp, I was told, felt that being submerged in a group would diminish his reputation as a racial "healer," a reputation he believed had survived the electoral debacle of 1996. Watts was genuinely conflicted about affirmative action, which he knew would be the central theme of the meeting with the president. I'd had long talks with J.C. and knew that his ambivalence about the issue came from negative personal experiences, which, he readily admitted, all the affirmative action in the world couldn't have prevented. For example, shortly after winning his first election to the Congress, J.C. was pulled over for "driving while black." On another occasion, one of his best white friends, in the course of a disturbingly candid discussion about race, blurted out that he doubted he would want a child of his to marry a child of J.C's. In Watts's fuzzy logic, the personal was political. "You're right morally," he had told me during one of our discussions, "but we're just not there yet."
* * *
When we had all gathered at the security kiosk, a White House aide came out at precisely one o'clock to guide us to the Oval Office. On the way, Communications Director Ann Lewis popped out of an office to shake our hands. She was bubbly and pleasant, and seeing her for the first time in person, I was surprised by how much she resembled her brother, Congressman Barney Frank.
We waited in the outer office for a short time. Then, as we were about to go in, I saw the daughter of George Skelton, one of the Los Angeles Times' chief political writers. She told me she was now a White House employee, and I stopped to exchange a few words with her, which put me a few steps behind the others entering the Oval Office.
Al Gore greeted me impassively as I entered. The president was so genial, by contrast, that it occurred to me that they might be doing a bad cop/good cop act. "Ward, it's good to see you," he said, shaking my hand and clapping me on the shoulder at the same time. He eyed my tie, a new one with Christmas lights which my wife Ilene had bought for the occasion. "And I like your tie."
Clinton was a larger man than I expected. I was also struck by how at ease he was in the face of what could have been seen as an adversarial situation. He seemed to be quite happy, as if he were hosting a pleasant afternoon get-together of close friends. (His relaxation seemed all the more amazing to me months later when I found out that it was earlier on this very day that Vernon Jordan called with the news that almost unraveled his presidency—that Monica Lewinsky was going to be deposed by Paula Jones's lawyers.)
Clinton introduced Christopher Edley, the black legal scholar from Harvard who'd been assigned the task of writing the report eventually to be issued by the race panel, and Judith Winston, former White House aide now serving as executive director of the panel, who was seated with Edley near the rear wall. Members of our group sat on two facing sofas. At the head of this formation, the president and vice president sat next to each other in a pair of armchairs. Before I could choose a spot, the president patted the sofa and said, "Ward, sit right here next to me."
For the next hour I watched him out of the corner of my eye. He was like an accomplished actor, every gesture both entirely spontaneous and at the same time entirely artful. For example, when one or another of our group tangled with Al Gore, he chuckled and held his hands up like a friendly traffic cop, as if to say: Hold it now, let's remember we're just baying a friendly little discussion here. Or on another occasion, he leaned forward, propped his elbows on his knees and rested his chin in his hands to concentrate on a new twist in the conversation, making his body language into a declarative sentence: What you all are saying is so interesting that it has caused me to become pensive.
The president didn't tell us that the meeting was being taped, or that the tape would later be transcribed into a rambling text filled with incomplete sentences and lost words marked as "inaudible." He started the meeting in his best town hall manner by saying that he looked forward to hearing from us on the question of whether race still mattered and was "still a problem." Then he looked my way and said, "And if you want to talk about affirmative action, I'm happy to do that," leaving the implication that this policy which his administration had pursued so fiercely was somehow a small issue I had chosen to make into a big deal.
I saw this posture for what it was: an almost mischievous challenge on the part of someone who, when he was helping found the Democratic Leadership Council, the centrist group that carried him to the White House, had strongly opposed quotas, and then, once in office, had embraced the affirmative action bureaucracy with the absolute seamlessness that marked his other radical shifts in opinion.
"We can't get to the problem of moving this nation forward," I replied, "unless we deal with the perception that there are preferences being given to people simply because they check a box and that benefits are being conferred on the basis of checking that box.... You said in June of this year that we need to have an honest dialogue. Well, up to this point, frankly, many of us think that the dialogue has been less than honest."
Then I stepped into an area I knew the President regarded as not open to discussion. "I think that choice, school choice, is one way to respond to it." I spoke about the desperate need for changes in testing, class size, and teacher quality, and about how those factors could affect minority students who are presently not qualifying for college and often not even finishing high school. "But even if we don't make these changes," I summed up, "there is never, in my view, a rationale for discriminating against someone on the basis of skin color, regardless of what we want the outcome to be. That's my perspective and I think it's a perspective that our nation has to hold true to."
Thaddeus Garrett spoke up immediately, trying to disagree without appearing to be contentious. Noting that he had worked "in this house under three Republican presidents," Garrett insisted that race still mattered greatly in America because of white "attitudes" and that we should ignore the subject of affirmative action and concentrate on prejudice. It was clear, less from what he said than from how he said it, that Garrett had been invited to the meeting as a sign that even black "conservatives" disagreed with my position.
Linda Chavez tried to bring the discussion back to the central question. "Affirmative action preferences," she told the president after Garrett had finished, "are part of this debate because there's a whole world of people out there who believe that they're wrong and that they send the wrong signal from government."
Clinton heard her out and then launched into a rambling speech about how the U.S. was now a multi-ethnic country that would have a "non-European" majority in the next fifty years. He ended by tenuously defending the "economic side" of affirmative action as a "sort of networking thing."
Then Abigail Thernstrom spoke up to disagree with Garrett's notion that white "attitudes" were causing a host of new racial problems. "A generation ago," she pointed out, "only one-fifth of white people said they had any black friends, and today 87 percent do ... The rate of interracial dating has gone up spectacularly. The rate of interracial marriage, though low, has gone up dramatically. So I do think there is much more positive change than is generally thought." Abigail's calm demeanor was particularly impressive given the fact that Clinton had personally bushwhacked her with an unfair question on affirmative action when they appeared together in Akron at one of the race panel's town hall meetings earlier in the month.
As members of our group spoke in turn, the president continued to act as moderator, keeping the meeting going, smoothing the edges of potentially sharp points of contention. In his own commentary, he kept talking about race as if it were the perdurable fact of American life, the universal solvent that made all other important elements in our social life disappear. I had to check myself to keep from interrupting to tell him that if racism—however he chose to define it—were to disappear tomorrow, black students would still be getting poor test scores and black families would still be in crisis. I wanted to say that all his facile talk about "racism" was really less a description of a pathology than a form of sign language letting everyone know that he, like all right thinking individuals, felt bad about black misfortune. And that while this show-guilt might make people like him feel good about themselves, it always involved a bad bargain for black people. Whites who express such sentiments get to let themselves off the hook by tossing blacks a bone in the form of some entitlement—welfare, affirmative action, etc.—that blacks embrace not because it changes their lives for the better but because it symbolizes the righteousness of their suffering. But, as Shelby Steele and others have argued, nothing has really changed after this deal has been struck: blacks are still subordinate, their success determined not by their own independence and autonomy, but by their ability to manipulate white guilt. And these guilty whites are still the keepers of the souls of black folk.
As the meeting progressed, I tried to be alert for details, knowing that my wife Ilene, my kids, and others back home would be interested in hearing what had happened. One thing I noticed immediately was that the president seemed to be a Diet Coke junkie. Every few minutes an orderly would come in with a fresh can, taking away the previous one, which he had hardly touched. I also saw that Clinton genuinely relished intellectual combat and liked tossing abstractions around.
While the president seemed to be enjoying himself, Vice President Gore had sat stiff as his stereotype, his mouth compressed into a disapproving slit and his eyes boring holes into those of us whose ideas he found most distasteful. After remaining silent during the first part of the meeting, he finally spoke up, posing a loaded question to Congressman Canady about whether a community that was half black but with an all white police force wasn't in clear need of affirmative action in hiring.
Canady gave a thoughtful answer about how a community with a problem of this nature probably needed to consider a more creative solution than simply counting by numbers—community policing, for instance, or a requirement that police officers live where they worked.
Gore shook his head and made it clear that he strongly disagreed: "To say that there's nothing to the idea that a police force with black representatives would have an easier time relating to the black community is to deny the obvious."
Canady answered that hiring policemen of a certain race to appeal to the racial sensibilities of a part of the citizenry reminded him of the South during Jim Crow. Stephan Thernstrom added that the community he lived in outside Boston was almost all white. Did this mean that the city government should tell qualified blacks applying for the police force to "go back to Roxbury" and police their own? To Gore's assertion that affirmative action should be credited for much of the progress in integrating big city police forces, Lynn Martin countered that it was actually the end of formal and informal policies of discrimination in the 1960s that had accomplished this.
As Clinton continued to preside over the meandering discussion, it seemed to me that while he took pleasure in the words and in the personalities, it was the vice president who was more invested in the subject of race. I got the impression that Gore was waiting for another opening so that he could testify in the manner of so many liberals, and assert a vision of moral purity in front of those of us whose opinions he regarded as benighted. It always amazes me how easily well meaning liberals like the vice president work themselves into a lather defending a morally incoherent policy like affirmative action that benefits a handful of middle class blacks, but draw a blank when it comes to addressing the real racial problem in America: the underclass seething helplessly in the inner cities. This is a group of real people confronting real daily tragedies that won't be helped by rigging the entrance requirements at a few elite universities.
I was about ready to ask Gore about this when he suddenly kicked up the rhetoric another notch. Referring to my earlier statement, he said that he believed it was "naïve in the extreme to assert I that there is no persistent vulnerability to prejudice rooted in human nature, prejudice based on race and ethnicity and other characteristics as well." When others in the room began to disagree, he demanded that they let him finish, and then he made it clear what he was driving at when he said, "I think that evil lies coiled in the human soul." The implication was clear: It is the solemn duty of government to root out that evil.
I found this view of human nature, of American human nature, truly shocking. After Lynn Martin and Congressman Canady finished disagreeing with Gore, I told him I found his comment "frightening." I looked at him squarely and said, "The presumption of our nation is that we're good people, that we can be fair, and that we will do the right thing."
Gore gave me a cold smile that didn't involve the eyes. I got the impression that he pitied me.
I noticed that staffers Christopher Edley and Judith Winston, both of whom had listened to Clinton with a polite but somewhat bored look on their faces, had snapped to attention when Gore spoke and were giving each other surreptitious looks of triumph. I half-expected them to pump their fists in a gesture of solidarity with the vice president as he spoke.
At this point, the president glanced at his watch and began to wrap things up by recounting some of his own political accomplishments, both in Arkansas and in Washington D.C. It was one of those squaring-the-circle semantic exercises with something for everybody for which Bill Clinton is justly famous. ("The reason I have consistently supported affirmative action programs—but I really have tried to change them and make them work—is not because—I basically think all that stuff you said is right. I am sick and tired of people telling me poor minority kids who live in desperate circumstances, they can't make it.")
After that, Thomas Kean spoke up to defend the work of the race panel and to assure all of us that our opinions would always be valued in its deliberations. The president then slowly rose, a signal that the meeting was finally over, although he gave the impression that if not for a heavy schedule he'd like to continue talking for hours. As the rest of us stood too, he said to me in a lowered voice: "Ward, you seem to be a student of public policy. I'd appreciate it if you would write me a memo about how you think we can keep the whole spectrum of opinion included in our race dialogue."
He seemed so absolutely sincere that I thought that maybe, just maybe, we had made a breakthrough after all—Abby Thernstrom had expressed such a hope at the end of the meeting—and that now there might actually be a genuine conversation about race after all. The president held my arm warmly with his left hand as we shook. Then, as I was going out the door, the strangest moment of the entire meeting occurred. Al Gore grabbed my hand too, but instead of shaking it, he ground my palm and fingers in his grip as hard as he could. I felt the cartilage compress and almost cried out in pain. I looked at the vice president and he stared back at me with a slight smile as we walked out.
When I got home, I immediately wrote the president the memo he'd asked for. I told him that if he could get past the divisive politics of affirmative action and put America on the road to color blindness instead of color consciousness, this would stand as his great legacy. I sent this memo to the White House by Federal Express. In the weeks to come, I waited for an answer. But I never heard from Bill Clinton again.
Posted April 15, 2000
Once you start reading this book, you can't put it down--you just keep turning the pages to read more. I finished it in a little over three hours, in one sitting, and I am not the world's fastest reader. I am somewhat ambivalent about affirmative action, although this book makes a very compelling case for its termination. What strikes me as most persuasive was Connerly's argument that affirmative action perpetuates the stereotype that black people are not as competent as other groups in areas where merit or competence is a factor. Whether we like it or not, to be candid with ourselves, our society still harbors this view. As an African American, I sense this attitude all the time. I think Connerly may be right that the price all black people are paying for this stereotype is too high for the small benefit that is realized by a handful of people. Regardless, the book is a fascinating one. I am glad I bought it, even if I wasn't a fan of Connerly's to begin with.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 12, 2000
I was surprised and delighted to learn that this was not merely a political book, but a book about the life of a truly remarkable man. Whether you agree with Connerly's philosophy or not, you have to be interested in what makes him tick. 'Creating Equal' provides the answer. This book will be in the Christmas stockings of all my friends this year. It is one of the most interesting and enjoyable books that I have read in years. I was particularly touched by the scene in which Connerly confronts his estranged father after not seeing or hearing from him in over 50 years. 'Did you ever wonder how I was doing?' he asked. After receiving no response, Connerly concludes that 'it is not the life we're given, but the life we make of the life we're given that counts.' Although I am white and female, the lessons of life that are shared in this book are worth being passed along to all Americans by those of us who are concerned about family values.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 2, 2000
There is no subject that commands more of our attention, at present, than that of 'race.' In fact, most of have what might be called 'race fatigue.' For those who want to know how we might get the subject of race behind us, this book is an outstanding road map. This is one of best books that I have ever read. It is beautifully-written, informative, and, at times, heart-wrenching. Whether you agree with this author's philosophy about affirmative action or 'race preferences' or not, you will love this book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 4, 2008
No text was provided for this review.