Clinton warns of return to race segregation

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President Clinton hammered out a sobering message about the state of race relations in the United States twice over the weekend, warning of the danger of re-segregation along racial lines and defending the controversial policy of "affirmative action" in higher education.

Mr Clinton had to compete for attention with live transmission of a press conference by all 12 members of the jury that passed the death sentence on the Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh. And those Americans who were listening to the President were not universally delighted.

On Saturday, Mr Clinton ventured into what many American liberals regard as the "enemy territory" of California to launch his long-awaited initiative on race. Addressing the graduation ceremony at the University of California, at San Diego, Mr Clinton said: "We have torn down the barriers in our laws. Now we must break down the barriers in our lives, our minds and our hearts."

California voted in a referendum last year to abandon positive discrimination for ethnic minorities and had earlier voted to end welfare benefits for illegal immigrants and their children, a decision that was overturned as unconstitutional.

While the move to end "affirmative action" is still being challenged in the courts, its abandonment in California's state university system has already led to a sharp fall in the number of black and Hispanic students in graduate law schools. Attacking the decision and its results as "devastating", Mr Clinton said: "Call it what you will - but I call it re-segregation."

Repeating his points in an interview with the news channel CNN, broadcast yesterday, Mr Clinton spoke of the tendency for white Americans to buy houses barricaded in "gated communities" and to insulate themselves in a world where they see "only people like themselves".

While many praised his effort to start a national discussion on race relations, some black Democrats, including Jesse Jackson, criticised Mr Clinton for leaving the initiative until so late in his presidency. Some conservatives, meanwhile, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich, attacked an initiative that, they predicted, would solve nothing.