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Race in America

Round Two: Concluding Remarks


I'll focus on three areas. First, how can we overcome stereotypes, resentments, and clashes in values such as those displayed in this Roundtable? Progress depends on thoughtful people who are searching for good ways to do so. I assume there are effective strategies for connecting communities across lines of color and class, and that those strategies can be both researched and taught; those assumptions are built into the President's race initiative. For my money, Clinton's more important contribution will be to rigorously identify and spotlight "promising practices," which will separate examples of effective public relations from instances of effective action. And the most hopeful thing I see today is that there are countless people hungry for ideas.

I don't feel confident about answers yet, (but for early results on promising practices visit the Initiative's Web site.) In my most recent book, Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action, Race, and American Values, I suggested that it is actual experience that changes our sense of connection, or community -- by shaping values and perceptions in new ways. Discussion can lay the groundwork by promoting some level of understanding, but the challenge is to go further and seek joint endeavors, such as a multiracial school-reform movement or political coalition. Whatever the approach, which will vary by community and institution, the goal is to change one's sense of who is "us" and who is "them."

Second, given that there is clearly some role for talk, what will be constructive? We need diverse views, but there are a few prominent voices on the right and left that are too extreme or strident to be constructive. For instance, I have differences with some White House aides about the inclusion of Abigail Thernstrom at the President's Akron Town Hall meeting on December 3. Relatedly, many criticized the Advisory Board, chaired by Professor John Hope Franklin, because its November meeting did not include opponents of affirmative action. The meeting organizers obviously made a political mistake -- stories about ideological balance upstaged the important substantive presentations and obscured the Board's policy recommendations on enforcement of antidiscrimination laws and research on the incidence of discrimination.
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But did the Board and the White House make an intellectual mistake by not inviting, say, Ward Connerly? I don't think so, provided that over the course of their work there are plenty of opportunities for a full range of responsible voices to be heard and engaged. Balance is important overall but not in every panel or even every meeting. The focus of the November discussion, after all, was the goal of diversity in higher education, not the specific tool of affirmative action. The Board is trying to avoid having that single issue swallow the whole initiative. The crucial intellectual test -- for the Advisory Board and for the President -- is not some narrow accounting of ideological tokens, but whether there has been a rigorous effort to engage the tough issues that divide us and to help promote a broader understanding of what's at stake.

Leaders certainly prefer to emphasize what unites us, celebrating our shared values. Perhaps that's in the nature of politics. But progress on race requires that we also make painful investments in a better understanding of what divides us. For example, when the Board and the President discuss bilingual education, will we hear only platitudes about quality education for everyone? Or will we also hear the deeper debates about national identity, cultural autonomy, and contested evidence about what works and what doesn't? If the President and his Advisory Board can't "model" a constructive engagement on the issue, then there is no hope of a sensible debate in, say, California.

Third, since the problem of race relations in America predates the Declaration of Independence by some 150 years, the depth and difficulty are unsurprising. A forum on "Race" is unavoidably superficial. We could have focused narrowly on admissions in selective higher education, or whether discrimination remains socially and economically significant, or similarities and differences between the black-white paradigm and the other issues of racial and ethnic difference.

If readers take anything useful away from all these words, I hope it's the conclusion that wrestling long and hard with just one piece of this tragic controversy might be profitable.

Roundtable Overview

Introduction and opening questions by Nicholas Lemann

Round One -- posted on November 13, 1997

Round Two -- posted on November 26, 1997

Christopher Edley Jr., a professor of law and the co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, served as special counsel to President Clinton for the White House review of affirmative action and is currently a special advisor to the President for the White House Initiative on Race. He is the author of Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action, Race, and American Values (1996).

Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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