The year of dialogue on race - Abdullah Ahmad




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My sometime boss Johnson, who had become President following the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas on Nov 22, 1963, signed the Civil Rights Act which ended the brutality of racism. I recall what he said then: "The purpose of the law is not to divide, but to end divisions."

The American society and government have changed tremendously, for good. However, much remains to be done and achieved before the US becomes a one-nation society, if that were possible. The murder of King in 1968 helped to advance even further the cause of civil rights to which he had selflessly dedicated his life, seeking equality for African-Americans.

What is the state of race relations 33 years after the enactment of the Civil Rights Act, following the recommendations of the Kerner Commission and the assassination of King?
The Kerner Commission has concluded that only with a vigorous commitment by the government to provide jobs, better housing and more educational opportunities for the minorities could racial violence and race relations improve in the future.

I will let President Bill Clinton answer this. Last week he launched in San Diego (in California, the state which is leading the movement against racial preferences for non-Whites) a year long effort against the lingering racial divide. It still exists and is growing; subtle but it is there. Nearly four decades since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the US is still a parallel of two or three universes: White, Black and the Light coloured, mainly the Asian-Americans. Perhaps four - the Hispanics.

I saw Clinton's live telecast to the nation last Saturday from my bed, recuperating following a minor surgery. I dare say I was impressed by his discourse: a combination of some straight talking rhetorics and no definite programmes of action. In any event, the presidential call soothed me a lot even if in the end what he sincerely desired for all Americans came to nothing much.
Of course, I hope Clinton's stirring appeal for "racial reconciliation" and his "year-long unprecedented conversation about race with the American people" will succeed in making the great American society greater, better, fairer and colour blind.

The New York Times (June 16, Monday) reacted: "In proposing a year long national 'conversation' about race, President Clinton put the nation's most important social problem where it belongs, at the top of the national agenda. His speech on Saturday at the commencement exercises of the University of California at San Diego was a sermon with little sanctimonious preaching. He went beyond the obvious need for racial justice to the practical and even economic reasons why the United States must nurture its increasingly diverse society.

"For a President with a reputation of trying hard to please, it took political audacity to stand up for affirmative action in the very state and university system that had begun dismantling this essential remedy against injustice. Reaching out to those on the other side of the issue, Mr Clinton said Californians were doing this "without any ill motives" and from a sincere conviction that racial discrimination is no longer a significant barrier to success. But the President rightly implored Americans not to follow that path, which would only turn their public universities and private workplaces into segregated islands of privilege.

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