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A Conversation With President Bill Clinton on Race in America Today

President Bill Clinton with NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume
President Bill Clinton with NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume

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American Progress Senior Vice President Cassandra Butts
Cassandra Butts

In his new book, My Life, former President Bill Clinton writes with great candor about the issues and experiences that have defined his life, including the issue of race in America. As a son of the south who grew up in segregated Arkansas, President Clinton has a unique understanding of the complexities of race and the challenges of inequality that still exists in America today.

The Center for American Progress caught up with President Clinton to discuss race and equality in America.

Q: You write a lot in your book about the role race played in politics in Arkansas while you were growing up and when you entered political life. Do you think attitudes on race have changed very much in Arkansas today?

President Clinton: I do, I think people are much more forward looking. I think there is much less overt racism and discrimination, and I think a lot of it is changes in laws, and a lot of it is changing in habits. I think people working together, living together, and going to school together has reduced overt racism.

Q: What do you think is the unfinished agenda on race in America?

President Clinton: I think first of all, there are still pockets of illegal discrimination and outright hatred, so I think the unfinished agenda includes passing the hate crimes legislation, funding the equal employment opportunity commission budget, getting rid of the back log. Then I think we have to look at the continuing inequalities in America that have a racial aspect. There are still income inequalities, health care inequalities, education inequalities, great disparities in the treatment of blacks and others in the criminal justice system and in their presence in our prisons.

Q: Education is seen as fundamental to the future opportunities of all Americans, but the failings of our education system are felt most acutely by children of color. What do you believe was the single most important policy put forward during your presidency to address this problem?

President Clinton: Oh, I think requiring uniform standards and providing more money to the schools to support them, along with after school programs and tutoring programs. This whole idea that we could have uniform achievement, but we had to give more help, and we gave very specific help. We had, by the end of my term, for the first time in American history, a high school graduation rate in the African-American community that was almost exactly the same as it was among whites.

Q: Photographs of Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzie Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Duke Ellington, and Wynton Marsalis line the walls of your office. As someone who plays a musical instrument, you have an obvious appreciation for music= What is it about music that bridges the racial divide

President Clinton: It's a common language, and it speaks to the heart in a place where there's no room for hatred.

Q: The comedian Bill Cosby's recent remarks about personal responsibility in the African-American community have caused some controversy. Do you think such a discussion helps or hurts the broader discussion of race in America in its various complexities?

President Clinton: Absolutely helps. It helps because it helps for two reasons. First of all because I think that whenever you're blaming other people for your problems – I know I've been there – whenever you're blaming other people for your problems, even if you're right, and in this case, non-blacks are responsible, or at least the history for a lot of the problems of the black community, you still have to be careful because it diverts your attention from what you can do to improve things. So what Cosby did was really good for the black community, because whether you agree with exactly how he said it or not, he said, okay, suppose we got a lot of problems that are other peoples' fault, what about what we can do to fulfill our responsibilities, so it was a big plus.

The second reason it was a plus is it is good politics because it removes an excuse from the members of the white community, who might not want to do more for black children, or for black economic development, who say, well they're not trying to help themselves. Cosby takes the excuse away. So it was good in two ways. Cosby did a service to black America and to all Americans by doing that, by focusing black Americans on what they can do for their future and reminding white Americans that most black people are doing the very best they can to do everything they can and therefore we all ought to be working to overcome these disparities.