Left, Right & Center
Jewish World Review / December 23, 1997 / 24 Kislev, 5758
Does Clinton's race panel listen to facts?
PRESIDENT CLINTON'S RACE PANEL came to Virginia last week. Former Education Secretary William Bennett was there to shed some light, but it became clear as the afternoon progressed that whatever else this dialogue is about, it isn't about listening.
In any discussion of race, the touchy matter of the black/white performance gap comes to the surface. On average, white students score significantly better than black students on every measure of academic achievement. This disparity is found in every region of the country and among all economic groups. Blacks usually cite the disparity as evidence of continuing white racism. Whites usually cite the difference as evidence of the need for education reform and family regeneration.
Some dyed-in-the-wool liberals cannot shake the idea that spending on education is the cause of the white/black differential. And here is where the "dialogue" on race broke down last week.
It would have been bracing to hear someone on Clinton's panel respond to the facts Bennett put on the table. He noted that spending on minority students actually tends to exceed spending on white students in the United States today. The National Center for Education Statistics studied spending patterns across the country in the 1989-1990 school year. As Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom report in their book America in Black and White, the NCES found that the higher the percentage of minority students in a school district, the higher the level of spending, even after differences in costs of living and other variables were held constant. Districts with a majority of minority students, far from being starved for funds, were actually spending about 15 percent more per student than districts that had fewer than 5 percent minority enrollment.
A few minutes later, John Hope Franklin, the panel's chairman, took the microphone. In a sonorous voice, he listed his reasons for pessimism about the future of American minorities. Then, as if Bennett had never spoken, Franklin asked (and I paraphrase), "Are we really prepared to devote the resources to these inner cities? Is America ready to pay that price?"
It's hard to have a dialogue when one's mind is so closed to the facts.
Bennett and other education reformers make this point not to argue that we should give up on minority students -- in fact, quite the opposite. Their argument is that spending has been tried and found wanting, and therefore, new reforms, like parental choice and higher standards, should be tried.
But is anyone listening? Clearly Franklin is not. What about the president?
To his credit, Clinton did meet at the White House last week with opponents of affirmative action and by all reports gave Ward Connerly, Linda Chavez and the others a respectful hearing. But he didn't meet with them or debate with them in public, which would have been a significant contribution to the national dialogue. Well, perhaps he will at some point.
Still, the president's contribution so far to this debate has not been particularly encouraging. He did invite Abigail Thernstrom to participate in a public town meeting, but the audience was hand-picked by the White House, she was overwhelmingly outnumbered by those who disagreed with her, and President Clinton himself badgered her by demanding "yes or no" answers to complex questions.
This national conversation has already degenerated, as so many things in America do these days, into an airing of "feelings." Facts have had trouble elbowing their way in. One more example: A young white man from Akron, Ohio, spoke affectionately about his black classmates but then added that he supposed he himself was not without racist sentiments since he was sometimes frightened of black strangers. No one spoke up to say that fear of young black males may be unfortunate but rational since blacks commit a disproportionate share of crime.
As Jesse Jackson said, "There is nothing more painful to me at this stage in my life than to walk down the street and hear footsteps and start thinking about robbery -- then look around and see somebody white and feel relieved."
There's a lot to say in a dialogue about race if anyone is willing to listen.