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Clinton's Race Initiative

Nothing is more worthy of a national leader's time and effort than harmony among people. Success in this realm could give President Clinton a legacy overarching his second-term sea of troubles. Signs have kept coming that he may try for such a goal by using the full resources of the White House to repair race relations, the main need for making whole a country that is powerful, constructive, but often divided. Now - on Saturday in San Diego - the president is set to announce a major initiative on the subject.

Already the cry is politics and public relations. So what? Using a high-minded appeal to amity for political mileage is better than using a cynical appeal to divisiveness, a gambit not exactly unknown in the politics of our time.

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Think of the power of the American people for positive change if each citizen took one small, self-generated step toward loving-thy-neighbor under a leader's inspiration. Americans don't need to wait for the new initiative's promised development of actions that individuals and corporations, as well as the president, can take to increase racial understanding.

Results in everyday experience could then be writ large in national policy and achievement. Here would be definitive answers to (a) anti-Clintonites who see the presidential initiative as a gambit for minority favor and (b) civil rights activists who worry about all talk and no action.

Meanwhile, the president will be judged on how he uses the bully pulpit as a spur to deeds, not a substitute for them. He has begun well.

"Our diversity is our greatest strength in the world of today and tomorrow," Mr. Clinton told graduates last month at Morgan State, a historically black university that he called "a great American university." He would try to make sure diversity "brings us together rather than driving us apart."

Clinton has retained Terry Edmonds, the first African-American to be a presidential speechwriter. He has conferred with the Congressional Black Caucus and with civil rights leader Jesse Jackson. He asked another African-American, scholar William Julius Wilson, for a memorandum on how the president could help in racial healing. Professor Wilson mentioned it to an NAACP Legal Defense Fund audience, calling for efforts to see beyond the headlined episodes of racial division to the genuine possibilities of interracial concord.

Racial relations in America are indeed improving, says Randall Kennedy, writing as a legal scholar and black American in the latest book in the field, "Race, Crime, and the Law." And in the cover story of last month's Atlantic Monthly he challenged the labeling of problems or achievements by race and praised "ties created by loving effort" beyond ties of blood:

"The difficulties that disproportionately afflict black Americans are not 'black problems,' whose solutions are the special responsibility of black people. They are our problems, and their solution or amelioration is the responsibility of us all, irrespective of race."

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By the same token, meeting problems that afflict other racial groups or the country as a whole is the responsibility of all. As Professor Kennedy puts it, "An appeal untrammeled by race enables any person or group to be an object of solicitude. No person or group is racially excluded from the possibility of assistance, and no person or group is expected to help only 'our own.' " He recalls former slave Frederick Douglass's belief that "the white and colored people of this country [can] be blended together into a common nationality ... as neighborly citizens of a common country."

This is the kind of backing President Clinton needs in his race-relations initiative. It is the kind of America toward which all of us can work.

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