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President’s Commission on Race a Failure

by Theodore Kornweibel on Sep 30, 1998

President Clinton’s commission on race relations is dead on arrival.

Most Americans had wished it success. They had hoped that commission members’ resolve and wisdom would move attention away from white and black bigots on the lunatic fringes. Americans dared to believe that the commission would offer solutions and policy recommendations for a “Third Reconstruction,” which would complete the unfinished tasks left over from the civil rights era of the 1960s. The president who wanted racial progress to be his crowning legacy hoped that the commission’s work would strengthen his claim to be a great healer of our racial wounds.

But the commission became paralyzed, and its efforts failed. It got stuck on whether racial issues in America meant more than the differences between black and white. Its public discussions remained polite and politically correct; candor was not its most notable characteristic.

No one should be more disappointed about the commission’s work than the panel’s chairman, John Hope Franklin, the nation’s most distinguished African-American historian. Even he became trapped in old black/white formulas, seemingly fearful of broadening debate about race to include issues concerning Hispanics and Asians. The result was, as a Los Angeles Times headline put it: “Panel on race urges nothing but more talk.”

The cynics ask: What did you expect? They have a point. Previous commissions — and we have had many over the years — did not catalyze society to embrace real reform. The 1968 Kerner Commission Report was useful in legitimizing what all blacks and some whites already knew — that the plague of racism had created two separate and unequal societies, one black, one white. But within a short time the money pledged to rebuild ghettos and employ the underclass dried up, with few long-lasting results for those it was intended to benefit.

Commissions have often been created in the wake of race riots. Yet those profiting most from such upheavals have been those social scientists who made careers out of studying race. So why was there even a need for Clinton’s panel? Perhaps it was his hope that it could marshal public support for important new policy concepts, such as black sociologist William J. Wilson’s proposal to base affirmative action on need, not race.

The most significant racial progress in the last half century has come, not from commissions, but from other sources: the federal judiciary, during the era of the Warren Court; and Congress, pushed hard by groundswells of public opinion and arm-wrestled by the president. Arguably the two most important laws enacted since the New Deal have been the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in hiring and segregation in public accommodations, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which finally unlocked the franchise for blacks.

In both cases, the conscience of the nation had already been aroused by an escalation of racial violence in the South. And in both cases a strong president, committed to racial reform, used the moral authority of his office to demand that Congress act. Of course it helped that Lyndon Johnson knew how to twist congressional arms and could construe the imperative for change as fulfilling the legacy of his martyred predecessor.

History thus suggests why the Franklin commission’s report is likely to have little impact. There is no national urgency to confront issues of race, at least on the part of whites. The nation and Congress would rather “reform welfare” than deal with structural inequalities reflected in such indicators as disparities in educational attainment and longevity.

Many would argue that race isn’t a handicap in our seemingly robust economy when even fast-food places are begging for workers. Much of the public believes that the poor simply don’t want to work. About the only thing most whites get outraged about are egregious public purveyors of racial poison and anti-Semitism such as Louis Farrakhan.

And what about the authority of the presidency? Bill Clinton has no moral capital to lead the nation to a more noble or principled level on any front. Assuming he avoids impeachment and conviction by the Senate, he will have been reduced to a caretaker president, merely oiling the wheels of government. Once again, an opportunity to address race — the nation’s number-one domestic problem — has been lost.

Theodore Kornweibel is a professor of African American history at San Diego State University. His most recent book is "Seeing Red: Federal Campaigns Against Black Militancy, 1919-1925."