Clinton's race initiative draws skepticism

July 26, 1997


Staff Writer

Black leaders in the Tri-State area say they are skeptical of President Clinton's initiative on race, a year-long project to attack racism nationwide.

Some minority residents say Clinton's goals of national racial reconciliation, which he calls One America, require more than simply the seven-member advisory committee he established in June to discuss racial gaps and solutions.

"The question is what will the president do, and what will Congress do" to address racial divisions, said Mark Stern, a political science professor and vice president of academic affairs for Shepherd College in Shepherdstown, W.Va.


He said Clinton's "grand goals" will remain a political maneuver unless he can garner tangible financial support from the Republican Congress.

The Rev. Philip Hundley of Hagerstown said true acceptance and understanding must come from within each individual.

"If it does not come from the heart and it's only done for political reasons or from trying to put a Band-Aid over a bullet hole, then it's not worth it," said Hundley, bishop and pastor for An House of Prayer for All People Ministries Inc. and president of the Washington County Ministerial Association until September.

Clinton's initiative is "not getting to the root of the problem, to the ignorance of judging people on the basis of their race or color," he said. "It's going to take people to believe and trust that there's only one race - and that's the human race."

Joseph Quesenberry, pastor of Zion Assembly of God in Maugansville, said reconciliation takes repentance as well.

"We need to ask each other's forgiveness for things we've done to each other. We need to repent of our racism, repent of the way we've treated people," he said.

When thousands of white pastors did just that in a 1996 Promise Keepers conference in Atlanta, Quesenberry said, the 60,000 racially diverse religious leaders in attendance broke through racial walls that legislation alone would never be able to shatter.

"You can make rules and stuff like that, but what you really need to do is change people's hearts," agreed the Rev. Ann Atkins, associate pastor for Otterbein United Methodist Church in Hagerstown, who believes working together is the key.

Those people, Hundley said, can then teach and spread this basic message to finally cross the man-made racial barriers.

In an emotional speech last month in California, Clinton said he hoped to build a peaceful multi-racial democracy and a more perfect union through open, constructive dialogue and programs.

Clinton said he hopes a national discussion will encourage business, community, religious and political leaders to recommend ways for combatting racism in housing, the work force, education, health care, criminal justice system and other areas.

He then plans to relay those ideas to Congress and the entire nation by next summer.

But the president's new policy is just reiterating what has been declared in voice and ignored in action for 300 years, said Lawrence Freeman, a senior investigator who works with the Washington County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to resolve race and sex discrimination cases in Hagerstown.

"Hagerstown does have a racial problem. Until justice is done in this country, what (Clinton) said means nothing," Freeman said.

The Tri-State area will see change only if the initiative involves strong actions, like executive orders and contemporary civil rights legislation that focuses on education and affirmative action, said James Tolbert, West Virginia branch president of the NAACP.

"I think his goals are attainable if the whole country would realize that this is a very, very critical issue," Tolbert said.

It is up to churches and community groups, not the federal government, to lead the way toward awareness, said Maryland Del. D. Bruce Poole, D-Washington.

"This isn't something that's going to be changed with the flick of a switch or another government program," he said.

Teaching youth

In this spirit, community members from Jonathan Street have been mobilizing youth, keeping them off the streets and teaching them to work for what they deserve, said Ruth Monroe, director of the Memorial Recreation Center on North Street in Hagerstown.

The center, which works with more than 200 teens, is fully equipped with an outdoor pool, game room, television room and computer room. It also offers tutoring programs during the school year and sponsors a 10-team basketball league with games played every Sunday.

Some, like Deanna Walker, spokeswoman for the NAACP in Winchester, Va., believe from experience that things won't change, no matter what path the president takes.

Each month, Walker listens to a dozen race discrimination complaints and said racial tensions have grown stronger in the past 10 years.

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