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First Lady, Boston Youth Talk Race

December 9, 1997

BOSTON (AP) _ The matter-of-fact tone in Amy Coran’s voice belied the pain she felt that day when someone at her soccer game shouted the joke she recounted Tuesday to first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

``There were these four boys ... . Then one said, `What’s the difference between a Jew and a pizza? A pizza doesn’t scream in the oven,‴ Amy said, as sighs of shock rippled among the thousands of teen-agers listening in Fleet Center sports arena.

``Why do you think young people say things like that? What’s going on in their heads?″ Mrs. Clinton asked.

``Ignorance!″ shouted a boy deep in the upper-level seats.

``Insecurity!″ yelled someone else.

So it went for an hour as Mrs. Clinton engaged Boston-area youth in a discussion about bigotries far older than any of them. It was the type of candor that President Clinton sought _ but didn’t get _ when he kicked off his national dialogue on race in Akron, Ohio, last week.

In an interview, Mrs. Clinton said the responses in Akron were probably less forthcoming because ``people feel overwhelmed by the race initiative.″ She suggested that there be a focus on ``those little things that create human connections.″

``I felt so stunned,″ said Claudy Paul, a senior at a majority white high school, who told Mrs. Clinton a schoolmate used a racial slur one day as he boarded a school bus.

``Did you ever try to sit down and talk with that young man?″ Mrs. Clinton asked.

``Yes I did,″ Claudy replied. ``He said, `I’m sorry,′ and `some of my best friends are black.′ My mom was telling me how racist the school was. I did not want to believe her. Then that happened to me.″

One student asked Mrs. Clinton whether she thought affirmative action had helped or hurt American race relations. She replied that it had done both, by uplifting poor minorities and by being ``misconstrued and misunderstood and used in a negative way.″

Since candor was contagious, the first lady told of her own brush with prejudice.

She was about 13 years old and she, too, was on the soccer team. It was very cold, so she tried to make small talk about the weather with the goalie, who replied, ``I don’t care if you’re cold. I wish people like you would freeze.‴

``I said, `How can you hate people like us? You don’t even know us,″ Mrs. Clinton recalled. ``She said, `I don’t have to know you to know I hate you.′ And I’ve never forgotten that.″

Hers wasn’t a racial incident, Mrs. Clinton said. The goalie was of Eastern European descent, and she considered the then-Hillary Rodham as a ``rich, Waspy type.″ Those kinds of ``non-black-white″ tensions also need to be addressed, for they are a larger problem than many believe, Mrs. Clinton said.

``People overlook the importance of forcing this conversation,″ she said. ``The black-white issue has to be the focus because it’s the unfinished business of America. But I think we can help people understand it better if they see it as part of the overall dilemma of bigotry and prejudice that we have to contend with.″

Tuesday’s dialogue was part of an annual event by Team Harmony, an initiative begun by Boston-area professional sports teams in 1994 to help middle- and high-schoolers combat bigotry.

Mrs. Clinton joined professional athletes, local bands and the cast of an MTV program before 10,000 eighth- through 11th-graders. The three-hour program also was broadcast live over New England Cable News.

The first lady told the children that the best way to handle racist behavior is to refuse to respond. ``It doesn’t always work to stand there and yell and trade insults,″ she said.

``There are still going to be people who are so unhappy inside ... that they won’t be able to accept other people,″ she said. ``We need to make that number as small as possible, and then surround those people with our own respect and love, so they are rendered as harmless as possible.″

As the president did in leading his discussion in Akron, Mrs. Clinton focused on attitudes among young people. As in Clinton’s dialogue, there was no real divergence of opinion here.

``That didn’t bother me,″ Mrs. Clinton said. ``Telling their own stories was a big part of educating their peers.″

Thao Tran said she didn’t think much about race until she noticed that black students, white students and Asian students divided into factions aboard their school bus. Fights began to break out, and the officials at her school didn’t handle it well.

``They say, `We’ll take care of it,‴ Thao said. ``Then the next day, we get beat up.″

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