When President Clinton went to San Diego early this summer and announced a "great and unprecedented conversation about race," it was no secret that he hoped to address historians as much as the graduating college seniors seated before him. For months, Clinton had searched for a defining crusade to mark his presidency. He settled on America's most agonizing and enduring dilemma, and it was a good choice. Although many Americans have stopped rooting for this president, most of us would like him to succeed on this issue. But we're deeply skeptical. A survey taken immediately following Clinton's speech showed that almost 60 percent of Americans believe racial problems are beyond the president's control.
Why the pessimism? One trouble is that, in some sense, we converse about race enough already. But we converse dishonestly, or at least disingenuously. There is a chasm between our public and private discussions of race, between the way we talk about other people when we are in classrooms and how we talk about them in our living rooms. In public, most Americans praise the benefits of a diverse and multicultural society. But when the doors are closed, the same Americans retreat into their own ethnic and racial tribes and voice deeper and darker emotions: resentment and guilt, rage and fear.
Though American society is more diverse than ever before, a charged division persists: the line between blacks and whites. Both blacks and whites want racial comity and both believe racial discrimination still exists in America. But when the discussion turns to specific causes and solutions, the consensus fractures. Here's one reason: affirmative action.
Of course, affirmative action didn't cause America's fundamental racial problems -- slavery and segregation did. But affirmative action has eroded liberals' moral credibility as reformers and driven away many natural allies. So progressives need to reassess their commitment to affirmative action and find better alternatives that can re-establish racial healing as a national priority.
It seems safe -- if not completely comforting -- to say that affirmative action's political defeat is imminent. Blacks and whites have irreconcilable differences on this issue. Only 17 percent of whites believe blacks and other minorities should receive preferences in admissions to college. A majority of blacks think the opposite. According to the most recent Gallup poll, almost 60 percent of African-Americans believe the government should make every effort to improve conditions of blacks and other minorities. Only 34 percent of white Americans agree.
Like welfare reform, the dissolution of affirmative action without the proposition of real alternatives could prove shamefully destructive. Even during its dismantling, affirmative action has allowed us to talk about race euphemistically: Both its supporters and detractors could appeal to principle, each claiming to be the champions of equality. This let everyone off the hook. To date, we have avoided the emotional rawness that lies below the surface of racial civility.