Clinton grasps the nettle on US race divide

President takes on issue that has damaged many leaders
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The Independent Online
President Bill Clinton travels to southern California today to give a speech that is intended to set the tone and the theme for his second term as president and even stake his claim to a place in history. The occasion is the commencement - graduation - ceremony at the University of California at San Diego, and the highly sensitive subject on which Mr Clinton will speak is race.

The importance and the delicacy of this theme can be gauged from the fact that, while successfully wooing black voters, Mr Clinton none the less steered away from the issue of race relations throughout his first term and it is only now, almost six months into his second term, that he feels finally ready to tackle it. Even then there have been delays. The initiative has been billed several times in recent months, only to dissolve in reports of disagreements among advisers.

In the general atmosphere of sleaze and questionable morality that has pervaded the Clinton presidency, race relations is an issue on which Mr Clinton emerges entirely "clean", without a shred of bigotry or ambivalence. He has spoken on several occasions about his distaste for the racial segregation that he experienced in his childhood in Arkansas, his support for the federal government when it enforced the desegregation of schools in the state capital, Little Rock, and his horror that such violence ensued.

The ground for today's initiative has been laid carefully, but not always smoothly. In April, Mr Clinton attended a baseball match in New York to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's debut for the Dodgers, the first time a black player had been admitted to a major league baseball team. Last month, Mr Clinton delivered an apology, in the presence of some of the survivors, for the notorious Tuskegee experiment, when several hundred black men in Alabama were denied treatment for syphilis in the cause of medical research.

Two days before going to San Diego, Mr Clinton announced the formation of a panel, chaired by an eminent historian of race relations, 82-year- old John Hope Franklin, to advise him on and contribute to policy proposals over the coming year.

A difference in perception between blacks and whites in America is one of the biggest problems he faces. An opinion poll conducted by Gallup and published earlier this week showed a majority of whites believe race relations had improved greatly in the last decade and obstacles to black advancement were minimal.

A majority of blacks, however, while recognising that their economic conditions might have improved, felt there were still many impediments to blacks and that it was up to the government to do something about it. Whites tended to think the time for government intervention was past and blacks should rely on themselves.

This division along racial lines makes any presidential initiative on race that entails spending taxpayers' money contentious and potentially divisive in its own right. Nor have Mr Clinton's preparations for today's initiative been plain sailing.

At the Jackie Robinson anniversary baseball game, the stadium was far from full, and derisory whistles could be heard from the crowd as Mr Clinton accompanied Robinson's widow on to the baseball diamond.

Even the response to the victory of the young mixed-race golfer, Tiger Woods, in the US Masters Golf tournament two months ago was not unalloyed. Many hailed his victory in the predominantly white sport of golf as a harbinger of things to come - the eventual melding of a harmonious, multi- coloured nation.

Before Woods had even had time to savour his victory, however, fellow golfer Fuzzy Zoeller was cracking a joke to a television interviewer that had racial overtones, saying that he hoped Woods would not order "fried chicken and collard greens" - typical black, southern food - for next year's tournament dinner.

That public pressure demanded from Zoeller a series of abject public apologies was greeted as progress in race relations. But his remarks illustrated as clearly as last week's Gallup poll what Mr Clinton will be up against.