Clinton fights to keep race relations drive on track

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The Independent Online
Bill Clinton travels to Ohio today to preside at a discussion of race relations that will be televised across America. Mary Dejevsky says the first big follow-up to his national dialogue on race may not be enough to save an initiative that is already floundering.

The town of Akron, barely 30 miles from the industrial city of Cleveland, was chosen by the White House for its model policies on race. They include the "Coming Together Fellowship", which pairs black and white individuals who are members of existing clubs and groups and sets them the challenge of getting to know each other one on one - the principle being that race relations will improve only when contacts are people to people, not "race to race".

The programme was started four years ago after the local newspaper ran a series of articles on the widening gap between the city's blacks and whites. For the purposes of today's conference, the city has the added advantage that it is 75 per cent white, increasing the likelihood that a respectable number of white people will attend a forum on what is seen as a largely black issue.

Whatever the credentials of Akron, today's conference, denoted a town- hall style meeting in the manner of the largely unscripted gatherings at which Mr Clinton excelled during his presidential campaigns, has had almost as chequered a history as the President's race relations initiative as a whole.

Its agenda was adapted, if not thoroughly rewritten, after the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, objected that proceedings would merely defend the President's known enthusiasm for "affirmative action" - positive discrimination on ethnic grounds.

Mr Gingrich complained that it would give no platform to the increasingly vocal section of opinion in the United States that rejects "reverse" discrimination as contrary to the principle of equal opportunities. Now a number of opponents of affirmative action are expected to attend and address the meeting; the importance of affirmative action has also been scaled down.

A White House aide appeared to make a virtue out of necessity, saying: "Real life discussions about race are often contentious and emotional. There's no reason why this shouldn't be, too." But to many, including, it is said, Mr Clinton, the greater risk is that the conference gets bogged down in the same bland cliches and do-goodery that have characterised the initiative so far.

In fact, Mr Clinton might well wonder whether his "national dialogue" on race really needed the President's imprimatur. Outside the hothouse of Washington politics, a feverish dialogue on race is already in progress, the like of which may not have been seen in the US since the civil rights movement of the Sixties.

The debate has been joined in courts, on radio talk shows, in the columns of newspapers and journals, and in a crop of new books. Several are scholarly rebuttals, four years on, of The Bell-Curve, the book that argued a correlation between race and intelligence. Others analyse current racial divisions in the US and forecast, more optimistically than not, their eventual resolution in a demographic melting-pot.

Recent polls have suggested that racial hatred and suspicion in America are at least disapproved of, if not in decline. Another survey suggested teenagers were increasingly "colour blind".

On the ground, the evidence is conflicting. Housing and schooling is de facto segregated in much of the US. While the hometown of the Ku Klux Klan founder recently elected its first black mayor, an outbreak of racial attacks by skinheads in the mid-Western city of Denver has highlighted new friction. And in Texas, the growing Hispanic minority is challenging black control of councils and school boards, suggesting further conflict when whites cease to be an overall majority in a multi-coloured, if still not integrated, US.