Former U.S. President Bill Clinton gave the opening address of a two day conference on inequality at the University of Pennsylvania this morning.
“In the last decade, inequality has returned with a vengeance, and it has a racial aspect,” Clinton told an audience of more than 500 to open the Kerner Plus-40 symposium. “It leaves in its wake, a quiet disillusionment.”
The name of the symposium refers to former Democratic Governor of Illinois Otto Kerner, Jr., who chaired the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. It was formed in July 1967 by then-U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate causes of the race riots that were plaguing the country. Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of the commissions’ findings being released, Feb. 29, 1968.[youtube:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IONdGtyUCxk 350 292]
The speech was held in the Great Hall of Irvine Auditorium at 34th and Spruce Streets on Penn’s campus. Clinton was scheduled to come on at 11 a.m., but didn’t begin until after 11:40 a.m. He was introduced by Amy Gutmann, Penn’s president.
“He is a life-giving force, an American icon, an extraordinary leader,” Gutmann said.
Clinton, who served as president from 1993 to 2000, spoke for roughly an hour, on subjects as varied as the mortgage crisis, the prospect of a national recession, college aid, and childhood obesity. During his speech, he made no mention of his wife’s candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination for President. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) is involved in a heated two-candidate race with Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
The former president’s theme was what social change requires government action and what doesn’t.
“Government policy matters,” Clinton said. “The failure of government policy matters.”
But a recurring focus was, like the symposium he was introducing, about access.
“I wouldn’t spend five minutes celebrating,” he said. “Not with inequality still growing.”
He mentioned regrets of his presidency, things he didn’t accomplish because, as he mentioned, his “party lost control of Congress.” Those regrets involved offering more low interest, federal loans for low-income students hoping to attend college and growing education programs in prisons.
“We say we’re a country of second chance,” he said. “We don’t mean it.”
The Kerner Plus-40 is a joint project of Penn’s Center for Africana Studies and Annenberg School for Communication, with the Institute for Advanced Journalism Studies at North Carolina A&T State University. At 1:30 p.m. today, the symposium, which concludes tomorrow at 3 p.m., opened with the continued separation of access in U.S. society.
After his speech, he was interviewed by DeWayne Wickham, director of the North Carolina A&T’s journalism institute, and Tukufu Zuberi, the Lasry Family Professor Race Relations at Penn. The panel includes a number of free and open-to-the-public kernerplus40.org.
Christopher Wink can be reached at email@example.com.