[Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: William J. Clinton (1997, Book II)]
[December 3, 1997]
[Pages 1693-1695]
[From the U.S. Government Publishing Office www.gpo.gov]

[[Page 1693]]

Opening Remarks in a Townhall Meeting on Race in Akron, Ohio
December 3, 1997

    Thank you. Thank you very much. Dr. Ruebel, thank you. We're 
delighted to be here at the University of Akron. I want to thank my good 
friend Senator John Glenn and your Congressman, Tom Sawyer; Congressman 
Lou Stokes; Congressman Sherrod Brown for being here. And Mayor Don 
Plusquellic, thank you so much for making Akron so available and for 
doing all you have to help us. I thank the county executive, Tim Davis, 
and all the people here in Akron who have just been wonderful in helping 
us to put this together.
    I also thank the people who are behind me who have agreed to be a 
part of our panel today and to kind of put themselves on the line on 
behalf of all the rest of you, and I hope on behalf of all Americans, in 
launching this important dialog.
    There are 96 watch sites that have been set up around the country by 
our regional administrators, constituency groups, and others who will be 
kind of doing what we're doing here in their own way after they watch 
    I'd also like to acknowledge the presence here today of members of 
our racial advisory board: Dr. John Hope Franklin, our Chair; Linda 
Chavez-Thompson; Reverend Suzan Johnson Cook; and Judy Winston, our 
Executive Director.
    Ladies and gentlemen, last June at the University of San Diego I 
challenged all Americans to join me for at least a year in addressing 
the enormous challenge of making one America out of all of our racial, 
ethnic diversity in this country. At the time I did it, a lot of people 
said, ``Well, why is he doing this? We're not having any riots in the 
cities. The economy is the best it's been in a generation.'' And my 
answer was, that's precisely why I'm doing it now, because what I have 
tried to do as your President is to get all of us to think about and 
work on things that are going to be critical to our future before the 
wheel runs off, because if we plan together and work together to make 
the most of our common future, we can avoid some of the terrible things 
that have happened in other countries, and we can avoid repeating some 
of the darker chapters of our own history. And, by the way, we can 
acknowledge that we still have some problems and we need to get them out 
on the table and deal with them.
    Now, to me, this is a critical part of the larger challenge of 
preparing our country to live in the next century. It's not just a new 
century in a new millennium. There's a whole different world out there 
in the way we work and learn and live and relate to each other. All of 
you know that. And I have done my best to pursue a vision that would 
create opportunity for everybody responsible enough to work for it and 
to maintain our country's leadership in the global economy and for world 
peace and security and freedom, to give everybody a chance to be a part 
of the winner's circle in America. But I know it can't be done unless we 
recognize the fact that we are rapidly becoming the most diverse and 
integrated democracy in the world.
    We have to deal with a lot of the older racial issues that have been 
with us from the beginning--from the time of Africans coming here on 
slave ships, between blacks and whites; from the time of our moving 
Indian tribes off the land, between Native Americans and white 
Americans; from the time of the war with Mexico, between Americans and 
Mexican-Americans--now increasingly enriched and diversified by all the 
immigrants that have come to America in the 20th century.
    In the school district that's just across the river from my office 
in Washington, DC, there are now students from over 180 different 
national groups, with over 100 different native languages, in one school 
district. We are becoming a very richly multiracial, multiethnic society 
at a time when, in the last few years, we've read of ethnic and racial 
hatred and murders and problems and wars from Bosnia to the Middle East 
to Northern Ireland to Africa to Russia to India--you name it. And we're 
beating the odds so far, with all of our problems.
    But I think it is very important that we understand that this is 
something that we have to keep dealing with honestly and openly. There 
are many people today with whom I have great sympathy, who say, ``Well, 
the President shouldn't be talking about race out of context. Most of 
the problems that minorities have today

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are problems of economic and educational opportunity that they share 
with people who aren't in their ethnic group, and what we really need is 
an affirmative opportunity agenda to create more jobs for all the 
dispossessed, create more educational opportunities for everybody that 
doesn't have them.'' I basically agree with that. I agree with that. But 
you have only to look at the rest of the world and your own experience 
to know that in addition to that, there is something unique about racial 
difference that affects the way people relate to each other in every 
society in the world.
    It can be wonderful. It can be truly wonderful. We ought not--I 
don't like it when people say we ought to tolerate our differences; I 
don't buy that. I think we ought to respect and celebrate our 
differences. Tolerance is the wrong word here. But we also ought to 
struggle constantly to identify what unites us; that's more important 
than what's different about us. And that's why we're having these 
townhall meetings.
    Now let me say, I want to now turn to the people who are here. And I 
want to ask all of you who won't be talking to carry on this 
conversation in your mind--and all of those at the other sites around 
the country. And when this is over, I want you to go out and do this all 
over again at work or in any other groups that you're in, because what 
we're trying to do here is drop a pebble in the pond and have it 
reverberate all across America, because I honestly believe that this is 
a good country full of good people. There's never been a challenge we've 
ever faced we haven't been able to overcome. And so I ask all of you to 
join me and to help us in that.
    I also would remind you that if we don't speak frankly about what we 
believe, then when it's over, we won't feel very good. I told our 
opening speakers, I said, ``You've got to imagine that we're at a cafe 
downtown, sitting around a table drinking coffee together. Forget about 
the fact that all these people are staring at you and you're on 
television.'' [Laughter] ``Don't say this in the way you think it's most 
proper. Say this--whatever you have to say--in the way you think is most 
honest so that we can move forward together.'' Again, let me say that 
this dialog to me is an important part of where we're going.
    Now, we have responsibilities in Washington, too. There is an 
economic responsibility. There is an education responsibility. A few 
weeks ago I announced that we were going to support scholarships for 
people who would go out and teach in educationally deprived areas where 
we needed more teachers. Today we are releasing a proposal to create 
educational opportunity zones to reward school districts in poor urban 
and rural areas who undertake the kind of sweeping reform that Chicago 
has embraced in the last couple of years, closing down failing schools, 
promoting public school choice, holding students and teachers 
accountable, involving parents more, providing opportunities for 
students who have learning problems to learn but ending automatic social 
promotion and giving people high school diplomas that don't mean 
    I think that we should support that sort of thing, and we will do 
that. We have a policy responsibility. I think we should build on our 
economic efforts to create an affirmative economic opportunity agenda 
that crosses racial lines, and the same thing with education, the same 
thing with health care, the same thing with things like our family and 
medical leave law that helped people balance the demands of work and 
family. Yes, there is a public responsibility here. But this country, in 
the end, rises or falls on the day-to-day activities of its ordinary 
    Again, let me say that I thank the racial advisory board for the 
work they have done here. I said I thought three of them were here, but 
I see Governor Winter is also here. We have four of the five members who 
are here today, and I received a letter from Angela Oh, the member who 
could not be here today--is she here? Oh, hello, how are you? I was told 
you weren't coming. That makes our board more diverse; that's good.
    So we're going to do our part, but I don't want anybody for a moment 
minimizing the importance of this sort of dialog. The reason we came to 
Akron, as was said earlier, in part is because of this Coming Together 
Project you've done here. And I believe if we can find constructive ways 
for people to work together, learn together, talk together, be together, 
that's the best shot we've got to avoid some of the horrible problems we 
see in the rest of the world, to avoid some of the difficult problems 
we've had in our own history, and to make progress on the problems that 
we still have here today.
    Now, I think it's appropriate that we begin this dialog with young 
people. After all, they've got more time in front of them than behind 
them. And it is their lives that will be most

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directly affected by this incredible explosion of diversity while we 
become more integrated into a world of global diversity than the rest of 
    So let's begin. Our first student here is McHughson Chambers. And he 
has an interesting ethnic background himself. I'd like to ask him 
basically to begin by trying to level with us about what impact, if any, 
race has on his life and whether he believes it affects any of his 
relationships with other people and his future prospects in life.

Note: The President spoke at noon in the E.J. Thomas Performing Arts 
Hall at the University of Akron. In his remarks, he referred to Dr. 
Marion Ruebel, president, University of Akron; Summit County Executive 
Tim Davis; and former Governor of Mississippi William F. Winter, member, 
President's Advisory Board on Race. The discussion was part of ``One 
America: The President's Initiative on Race.''