What Happened To the National Race Dialogue?

Patricia Williams dialogues with Angela Oh, one of the most outspoken members of the Advisory Board to the Presidentu2019s Initiative on Race.

By Patricia Williams Mar 15, 1999

In 1997, President Bill Clinton made a much heralded announcement of his intention to allocate resources toward healing the complicated legacy of racism in the United States and “bridging” racial divides. For many of his constituents, his statement alone symbolized one of the most significant presidential commitments in this regard in recent history. Shortly thereafter, Clinton appointed an Advisory Board, composed of some of the most distinguished historians, activists, and social scientists in the nation. There was much fanfare and, for a short time, hopes were high indeed.

Almost immediately, however, the Initiative ran into significant challenges. From the right came attacks that the Advisory Board was “too liberal,” supported discrimination against presumptively “more qualified” and deserving white candidates, and worst of all, believed in “preferences” for a wide range of undeserving minorities—”undeserving” either because shockingly underqualified or appalling overqualified.

From the left, the critique began by asserting that the very metaphor of a “bridge” over the divide of race implied only two sides. What of Native Americans? What of Asians, Latinos, and the multiple identities and cultural positions subsumed by any of the flat, “essentializing” taxonomies of race?

Undoubtedly it would have been a more interesting debate if these attacks, aggressive as they were, were all that the Board had been confronted with. The greatest obstacle turned out to be obscurity. There was no national conversation. The media, so fatally attracted only to sensation, minimized, marginalized, and outright ignored the work of the Board. And the White House, so distracted by Ken Starr’s blitzkrieg of pulp politics, found the considerable resources of the executive branch increasingly reconsecrated to defensive maneuvering and damage control.

Given such a complicated backdrop of dashed hopes and distortions, it was a privilege to sit down and talk to one of the Board’s most distinguished members, Angela Oh. Herewith is her attempt to set the record straight.

Patricia Williams: Angela, how did you see your role on the Advisory Board to the President’s Initiative on Race?

Angela Oh: Well, I thought my role was to travel throughout the country, engaging communities in a constructive dialog about racism—and about the possibilities of racial reconciliation.

PW: What impact did the Initiative have?

AO: We stirred a lot of pots. Thousands of stories were run about the Initiative. We counted about 3,000. And hundreds of public meetings on race were held, attended by tens of thousands of people. The interest in the Initiative was enormous. But, mostly, I see the Initiative as just the beginning of a process that I hope will have a long term impact on the difficult problems of racism.

PW: Was it difficult to serve under the media’s scrutiny?

AO: I had never served in a capacity that was so visible and national in scope, and I didn’t appreciate how truly powerful the media is. The media presented the Initiative as much more sweeping than it was meant to be and that created public expectations for immediate results.

Then, when we filed our report to the President, the media dubbed it the Initiative’s “Final Report to the American people,” and passed the judgment that “it doesn’t really say much.” In reality, the report is just a memo to the President from the Advisory Board. It outlines our observations on race and racism and makes suggestions we thought the President should seriously consider pursuing.

PW: Was the media right about the report? Or does it actually say something substantial?

AO: I actually think it says a lot of very significant things. We told the President to establish an institutional base in the executive branch for the Race Initiative. Once established, the Initiative could produce a comprehensive “White House Monograph on the State of Race Relations at the End of the 20th Century.” The monograph could consist of a series of volumes, including contributions from a wide range of disciplines and points of view. It could be a huge legacy to future generations—and something concrete to deliver to the American people.

PW: I noticed that the media never greeted John Hope Franklin, the chair of the Advisory Board, as the legend he truly is. I never saw anywhere in print the fact that he revolutionized the writing of U.S. history with his book, From Slavery to Freedom, or that he has authored over sixty important books.

AO: John Hope Franklin is a man who has led with such dignity and grace throughout the years. It was awful that he was treated so poorly by the media, and in some instances by members of the public who had no idea who this man is, and what he represents to this country. And yet, it was his demonstration of grace, elegance, self-dignity, and respect in the face of criticism that was my greatest lesson in this whole process. Through him, I learned what a truly great person is like when placed in a position of tremendous responsibility.

PW: The media portrayed friction between the two of you. Was there?

AO: From the very first day of the Board, the media manufactured a conflict between John Hope and me. What really happened is that I voiced an opinion that any relevant framework around race relations in this country would have to include the experiences of people who are neither black or white, let alone mixed race people. I did not try to diminish the chasm between blacks and whites, but only to highlight my thoughts about other issues I thought we should discuss.

John Hope did not disagree with me at all. He simply asserted, as the great historian he is, that we should not forget the unique history of white/black relationships as we move forward. I really respected that. But that little exchange between John Hope and I was blown up by the media as if it were a big conflict on the Board.

You know, when the media blew this thing up, John Hope could easily have asserted himself. He would have had all of the evidence in place on his side. But in his wisdom, he knew that making a fight out of this might alienate many of the people we were reaching out to. So, instead he showed his greatness by listening. I was very moved by his leadership style.

John Hope and I were extremely dismayed by this whole controversy. So, we have decided to write a piece together that will get broad circulation to counteract this perception.

PW: What else were you surprised by on the Advisory Board?

AO: How powerful the internal political machinations of the White House are. I still believe that the President had a genuine interest in race and wanted to do something significant and bold. But I also believe there were people close to him that did not want anything to happen with this because they saw the Race Initiative as a political liability. Although I can’t give you names, we all felt huge resistance from the White House staff.

One example was that, when we finished, we had a big press conference to hand over our report to the President. But the White House Staff did not even have copies of our report available for distribution. I still don’t know how people can get copies.

PW: Did anything else interfere with the Initiative’s success?

AO: Definitely. By January, our staff was finally hitting a rhythm. We could have moved stuff, I think. But then the Lewinsky scandal surfaced. After that, nobody was interested in us. Nuclear testing in India and Pakistan and the fiscal crisis in Asia also emerged. With all this going on, the Initiative was overshadowed.

PW: Conservatives seemed to try to discredit the Initiative by claiming they were excluded. What do you think of this criticism?

AO: To me, it didn’t make sense to bring conservatives like Abigail Thernstrom or Ward Connerly onto the President’s Advisory Board. Why would you invite people who you know are going to try to undermine your agenda? However, I believe the White House was right to invite conservatives to participate in the public discussions, to submit papers, etc. But there was no reason to include them on the Advisory Board itself.

PW: Did you receive any really negative response to your work on the Board?

AO: I got my share of hate mail and hate voice mail, threatening things like “I know what you look like. You don’t know what I look like. I’m watching you.” I called the Federal Marshal and said, “now you told us to report anything, so I’m reporting it.” I just wanted there to be a record of this. What’s scary is that you know these people are not stable. But you just have to move past it.

PW: What did you learn about the future of race relations in the U.S. by participating in the Initiative?

AO: As I talked to people all around the country, I was impressed over and over again by the number of really decent people out there. There are so many people trying to find a way to make things work. They aren’t filled with hate. It’s easy, if you don’t have opportunities to really know people of different races and nationalities, to be tricked by what you see or others say.

As far as people of color go, as our numbers grow, we will get more influence over the political process. The recent California election shows that we will have new opportunities and challenges. To me the question is: Will we behave like many of the white people who have power now—will we act out of vengeance? Or will we be able to demonstrate that not only are we competent but that we have the compassion and the stability to exercise power wisely. I look forward to these challenges and am optimistic about the future.

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