December 16, 1997

By Lani Guinier

Law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, she is the author of "Lift Every Voice: Turning a Civil Rights Setback Into a New Vision of Social Justice" a memoir on racial justice.

Imagine the following. It is August 1996. The anti-affirmative action initiative Proposition 209 is before California's voters, and the President is up for re-election. In one of numerous campaign events devoted to his commitment to racial justice, the President confronts a well-known backer of Proposition 209. "Yes or no," Mr. Clinton demands, "do you favor the Army abolishing the affirmative action program that produced Colin Powell?"

Such an exchange could have influenced the fate of Proposition 209, which passed with 54 percent of the vote, yet the President was strangely silent. His advisers declined to run commercials, raise money or schedule forums. That was the real 1996.

The imagined encounter, of course, did take place, in Akron, Ohio, two weeks ago at a "town hall" forum intended to give life to Mr. Clinton's call for a "national conversation" on race. But what may have been missing from the President's campaign in 1996 cannot be redeemed by campaign-style scripts a year later. Indeed, a conversation that could have been infinitely richer was cheapened by sloganeering on both sides.

A recent New York Times/CBS News Poll confirms what was obvious from the Akron forum: questions on affirmative action do not lend themselves to simple yes or no answers. The poll also tells us that Americans talk meaningfully about racial justice when the conversation is rooted in specifics. By reducing the dialogue to a battle of sound bites, neither side in Akron gave Americans what the poll says they hunger for: alternatives that simultaneously value diversity and offer meaningful opportunity to working-class white men as well as to people of color and to women.

The example of the Army is a good place to start a conversation about affirmative action. Long before it was fashionable, the Army was re-examining traditional standards. Its experience shows that white men benefit from affirmative action when it helps them rethink conventional assumptions about fairness and function.

Witness the tale recalled recently by Lieut. Gen. Julius W. Becton Jr., a retired black soldier who rose through the ranks after starting in a segregated Army. General Becton, speaking in Washington, noted that by the 1970's women had begun to be actively recruited. Some military leaders, trained to believe that sheer strength was the only measure of performance, resisted the influx of women, who could not carry heavy toolboxes.

General Becton and others responded, "Why not give them hand trucks?" Not only did that make it easier for women to do their jobs, but men started using hand trucks as well, to ease repeated lifting. Disability claims went down for everyone.

A small success, perhaps, but one that shows the level we should be working on. The President's initiative could be an important beginning, even belatedly, as could his appointment yesterday of Bill Lann Lee to be acting head of the civil rights division of the Justice Department. But what is thus far missing from Mr. Clinton's approach is a mutually respectful format for problem-solving that is neither conducted in campaign mode nor politician-centered. Missing, too, is an ability to use the issue of affirmative action to highlight the inequality experienced by many Americans, of all colors.

While a scripted confrontation may have made a difference in 1996, in the long term a race initiative is not about winning votes, campaign style. It is a chance to engage Americans to brainstorm about new ways of moving forward on concrete problems. This is not easy, but when it happens, a good conversation becomes a prologue to community action, not just a showcasing or confirming of preconceived ideas.

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