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Leading a one-man charge for diversity

Clinton's point-man on race takes on racial profiling, corporate America, and Hollywood.

Every Wednesday, many of the White House staff stop what they're doing and plunk down in front of a TV to watch a fictionalized version of their lives - NBC's hit drama "The West Wing." Some say the show captures what they do even better than they do. Ben Johnson is not among them.

As a senior adviser in the most diverse White House in history, Mr. Johnson wonders why the ensemble show - which has one regular black character - doesn't reflect the minorities who serve Bill Clinton in such high-power jobs as chief speechwriter, director of political affairs, and deputy chief of staff.

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"Minorities are mostly stuck in the sitcom area. But look at what minorities are doing in America. It's not all comic and rap. There are people who have serious roles," says Johnson.

He doesn't say it, but that would include a man in black leather suspenders and a starched white shirt - one who meets with the president on a weekly basis. Johnson is director of the president's Initiative for One America, the four-person office set up a year ago to replace Mr. Clinton's disbanded - and controversial - race commission. With only a few months left to make a mark, he's on a near one-man diversity crusade, albeit with the help of a boss with not inconsiderable clout.

To tackle stereotyping, Johnson wants to organize a White House "session" with all the "movers and shakers" of the news and entertainment media. A first step will be his meeting this month with screen actors to explore an advertising campaign on race - an idea they came up with. The meeting comes after the Screen Actors Guild released a study last week showing that black characters on TV tend to be segregated on sitcoms and the netlets WB and UPN.

This month, he's also gathering the nation's religious leaders. After that, it's corporate America's turn.

"The whole idea is to challenge corporate America to diversify. Don't just do it from a reactionary standpoint when Denny's won't serve black Secret Service agents.... Let's do it because it's good for the bottom line, and it's good for the country," he says.

Johnson describes his role as diversity "cheerleader" in a country undergoing significant ethnic change. By 2030, according to the Census Bureau, whites under 18 years old will no longer be the majority. In California, the total white population dipped below the majority last year. But it is the cheerleading role that draws criticism of his office, just as it did with the race commission.

In 1997 and '98, the commission criss-crossed the country, engaging Americans in a dialogue on race - and was seen by some as nothing more than a roving therapy session. One consultant to the former race commission states frankly about One America: "I can't see that they've done anything useful. All I hear about is outreach-style meetings that probably contribute to getting the president's constituency business done, but certainly don't contribute in any broader way to advancing the president's substantive goals or vision."

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Johnson vigorously disputes that claim, crediting his office with putting the issue of racial profiling on the front burner. The administration is studying the problem of law enforcement singling out suspects because of their race, and is expected to issue an executive order curtailing the practice at the federal level. The issue "was there and people knew about it, but you have to have someone be an advocate for everything you do in this White House," Johnson says.

A man who once went to jail to protest South African apartheid, Johnson says, "I'm not one to sit back in a room and something is going on and not raise it." Indeed, in his early political career he decided to run for mayor of South Bend, Ind., just to spotlight issues such as dusty alleys in poor neighborhoods that dirtied everybody's drying laundry. (Trucks would dampen down the alleys in the wealthy neighborhoods).

Although he had a lucrative offer in the private sector, Johnson, who has worked at the White House for nearly seven years, said he took on One America because he wanted to push into areas the race commission didn't touch, such as corporate America and the media. This year, he also wants to push the president's long-awaited book on race.

A policy-heavy draft exists, but the book has been delayed for more than a year - interrupted by impeachment, the war in Kosovo, disagreement over content, and Clinton's desire to add something new and meaningful to the field.

Johnson advocates something like President Kennedy's "Profiles in Courage." It should reflect the president's "passion" on the subject, and be "something that is short, that is not policy-wonkish, that's direct and forward-looking. Because in his speeches, that's all he talks about. And he [the president] sent me a note the other day that he agreed."

As a whole, minorities have fared significantly better under the economic and social policies of the Clinton administration. Unemployment is at record lows, and incomes for African-Americans and Hispanics have increased about 15 percent since 1993. The poverty rate is the lowest in two decades - though the White House is pushing new incentives to spur business investment in rural and poor urban areas. It's one of the few Clinton proposals that Congress is likely to pass.

Still, there are wide gaps in the treatment of minorities - in healthcare, in education - and Johnson's office is looking at ways to close those gaps. For example, the legal community, with White House prompting, is organizing to increase its pro bono work in poor communities.

Part of it can be through policy, but the importance of dialogue can't be underestimated, Johnson says. It's in the realm of words that some successes can be seen: Churches of different racial groups are swapping pastors and congregations. The mayor of Indianapolis recently held a race summit in which 900 people showed up in a snow storm.

In the end, says Johnson, there's no escaping the diversity question in America. "We're going to have our diversity, and you have to celebrate it."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society


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