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DON'T LET CLINTON CRISIS DERAIL OUR RACIAL DIALOGUE.

Byline: Gary Phillips

LOCAL VIEW

BEYOND the fallout from the White House sex scandal that might hurt Democrats in highly contested seats this November, another matter related to the beleaguered President Clinton will also suffer. His initiative on race was to have been his legacy, the one bright and shining, untainted jewel in an otherwise dented and tarnished crown.

The recent consternation arising from the ``Million Youth March'' in Harlem, sponsored by the racist Khalid Muhammad, and the Labor Day racist float made by Queens volunteer firefighters - complete with a cruel parody of a black man being dragged behind the float's platform - say only too much about the continuing gulf of misunderstanding and intolerance among the races.

Clinton began the initiative in June 1997 with bold and farsighted words delivered at the University of California, San Diego. He wanted to engage this country in a yearlong conversation and journey about race and racism.

And more than that, he talked about identifying and developing policies and solutions in critical areas such as education, economic opportunity, housing, health care, crime and the administration of justice. As events from the slaying of Ennis Cosby in Los Angeles to the brutal killing in rural Jasper, Texas, have shown, this journey of discovery and resolution still needs to happen. America cannot afford to ignore it.

We must begin to give true meaning to terms like ``multiculturalism,'' ``working toward diversity'' and ``building bridges.'' Too many times, when you ask any average working person what these concepts mean to him or her, and if you are not laughed at, invariably the response is in a facile, superficial manner. These responses reflect the failure of us who believe in these ideas to successfully translate such notions in a real and tangible way.

Multiculturalism is about constructing projects that explicitly are designed to have people of various races and cultures come together to alter the relations of power, to organize for social and political change, not merely to have us hand-clapping and singing together. Multiculturalism is about having conversational Spanish-language classes for African-American residents in Washington Heights, and black history in Spanish for new immigrants in Idaho.

It is about integrating all our histories into the texts taught in schools, not merely relegating such facts to the intellectual ghettos of ethnic studies. Working toward diversity after Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action measure that passed in California and in a new form is being touted by its backers as Proposition 5 in Oregon for the fall ballot, doesn't mean that whites need to be made to feel guilty about the lingering effects of slavery.

Let's take those conservatives who say they want a colorblind society at their word. Let's use economic disadvantage as the factor for determining certain slots in the University of California system or in public hiring. But to do so would be to admit that class distinctions do exist in this country, and thus the conservative right always backtracks when attempts are made to account for creating economic equity in this society.

And if we build bridges, they must not be yellow-brick roads to an Emerald City where we pull back the curtain to reveal the sham. These bridges must lead us on a better path. People can and do come together around common issues such as making public school bureaucracies accountable or how do we not criminalize our youths yet institute true public safety measures. We must replicate these examples a thousandfold.

These are not tasks completed overnight. They require not only our commitment, but public and private institutions to support and nurture such efforts. And we must hold our politicians' feet to the fire to put resources toward this work on race relations and rightly reprimand them should they find it convenient to play the race card or provide mere lip service.

Clinton was right when he stated: ``Honest dialogue will not be easy at first. We'll all have to get past defensiveness and fear and political correctness and other barriers to honesty.''

It's just too bad he will not be remembered as an architect of bridge-building, but rather an architect of his own destruction.
COPYRIGHT 1998 Daily News
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 17, 1998
Words:690
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