Affirmative action

Just & unjust at the same time

President Bill Clinton’s initiative on race is already running into the classic problem of American ventures in brotherhood and sisterhood: We can be nice or we can be honest, but we rarely manage both.

This is not a cynical statement. Nice means we try to get along, respect each other, and not pick fights. Honest means we’re upfront about our differences, not only between blacks and whites, but also among blacks, whites, Asians, and Latinos. Each group has a very complex relationship with the others—and, if we’re being really honest, each is itself highly diverse.

The largest problem facing Clinton’s Commission on Race Relations is deciding on its goal. If it is seeking universal understanding, it will almost certainly fail. Sure, whites should understand that African-Americans confront a legacy of slavery, segregation, discrimination, and racism. This can make even the most successful African- Americans feel separate from a society they see as hostile.

Sure, nonwhites (and, for that matter, non-Protestants) should appreciate that for all their flaws, our Anglo-Saxon founders created a regime and nurtured an idea that provided unparalleled freedom for outsiders and dissidents. Slavery and segregation could not survive in the climate they created. The American paradox is that we began with a Constitution that permitted slavery and a Declaration of Independence whose core idea subverted slavery....

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About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).