The Sound of One Hand Talking

How Clinton’s panel on racial reconciliation turned into a joke.

Last week, John Hope Franklin, the venerable Duke University historian and chair of the president’s advisory board on race, told reporters that his panel would refuse to hear from opponents of affirmative action in higher education. This policy seems both wrong in principle and politically foolish. Why on earth have a panel dedicated to racial reconciliation and exclude one of the two views that need to be reconciled on the most divisive racial issue? What harm could come from letting critics have their say, compared with the harm of seeming to censor them? Franklin’s only explanation was an imperious, “I’m not certain what [California affirmative-action critic Ward] Connerly could contribute to this discussion.”

A senior official working with the panel is a bit less opaque. “The point of the committee is to help formulate White House policy. So why should we appoint people who disagree with the President? Why hear testimony from people who vehemently disagree with him?” Another member of the panel’s staff said, “This is not the Kerner Commission,” referring to the panel appointed by President Johnson after the urban riots of the 1960s.

President Clinton said the panel’s mission was to be “a great and unprecedented conversation about race.” But apparently the main purpose of convening the committee’s monthly meetings is to provide an occasion for the administration to unveil installments of the President’s Race Initiative–a yearlong parade of minipolicies. Last week, for instance, the White House announced that $15 million would be divided among 67 different nonprofit groups so they can bring more housing-discrimination cases.

The White House concocts these policies, without say from committee members. Behind the inflated rhetoric, the Franklin panel has only a slim mandate and little power. It is not legally allowed to meet in private and cannot even write its own final report–prerequisites for any self-respecting commission.

Another bit of the explanation concerns the people running the panel. In theory, John Hope Franklin is the perfect chair for an anodyne exercise in racial reconciliation. His public image is that of an avuncular Southern gentleman. Franklin is the Jackie Robinson of historians: the first black chair of an integrated history department and the first black president of the major American history associations. His most important books rewrote 90 years of wrongheaded, often racist, historiography of Reconstruction. (The black carpetbaggers, who ruled parts of the South following the Civil War, were sincere democrats, he proved, not venal dictators.)

But over the last decade, Franklin’s lectures and essays on race have acquired a pessimistic, angry edge. He laments the permanence of racism, which he feels is now deeply entrenched in almost every American institution. Franklin, who researched briefs for Brown vs. Board and marched in Selma, expected the civil-rights revolution to remake society. Instead of dramatic change, he sees only marginal improvement and enduring black urban poverty, job discrimination, and even Jim Crow attitudes. And he says those who ignore the extent of this racism are not only mistaken but also racist. They “have no interest in achieving a color-blind society and would be horrified if we even approached it.”

Franklin is old. The real power in the panel rests with Harvard law Professor Christopher Edley Jr. Edley plans the committee strategy and will write the final report on race relations. As a White House aide in Clinton’s first term, Edley was author of the administration’s characteristically nuanced (or, if you prefer, mushy and having-it-both-ways) “mend it, don’t end it” policy for affirmative action. But since leaving the government, Edley has become more shrill. In a round-table debate on the Atlantic Monthly’s Web site, he repeatedly calls opponents of affirmative action “counterrevolutionaries.” He says, “Though their opposition to these measures is framed as principle, certainly their real goal is to protect the current distribution of privilege and opportunity that has produced white-male elites in virtually every sector.” Most recently, Edley has called America in Black and White, Abigail and Stephan Thernstrom’s anti-affirmative-action tome, a “crime against humanity.”

Edley and Franklin are entitled to their views, which may even be correct. But should people with such strident opinions be responsible for a panel on racial reconciliation? It seems especially stupid for the administration to spew platitudes about the panel’s mission of healing if its intention was to push one side of a contentious debate.