President Bill Clinton had great ambitions when he entered the White House, most of which have been strangled by the harsh realities of Washington gridlock. But that has not stopped him from trying to win a place in history - and if he succeeds in his latest venture, he truly will have earned it. The President yesterday (Hong Kong time) launched an initiative to try to heal America's racial tensions in a greatly hyped speech in California. Earlier in the week, he appointed a commission to come up with new ways of bridging the cultural and economic gulf between whites and ethnic minorities. This is, of course, far from being the first time US leaders have tried to make the great melting pot live up to its name. President Lyndon Johnson's Civil Rights statutes of the mid-1960s made blacks equal under the law, but when the country was riven by racial riots in 1968, a commission had to be set up to discover what else needed to be done. For the prevailing liberal ideology of the day, affirmative action was the answer, and positive discrimination in jobs and education has undoubtedly helped push minorities up the social ladder. But in 1997, affirmative action is almost bankrupt, having been declared un-American by Republican leaders in both the Congress and in states around the country. The University of California, for example, no longer practises racial quotas. Meanwhile, black youths are five times more likely to end up in jail than their white counterparts, while average black incomes still lag behind those of Caucasians. Proof that the racial divide is still huge can be found in the respective attitudes towards the problem itself. In a new poll, 16 per cent of blacks think there is a racial crisis in the US, compared to only seven per cent of whites; and while a full 59 per cent of blacks believe it to be a 'serious problem', only 45 per cent of whites think so. Even 130 years after it became part of history, there appears to be one indestructible, lingering theme - slavery. While most whites (in private, of course) believe African-American activists exploit the memory of slavery as an excuse for under-achievement, many black scholars say the issue of race, even in 1997, cannot be tackled head-on without remembering this dark period of American history. President Clinton mentioned slavery in yesterday's speech; and its memories linger everywhere. The two most important founding fathers, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, talked nobly about the inalienable rights of man to individual freedoms, while keeping slaves on their plantations. And those who believe the Civil War is over only have to look at the furore that erupts in a handful of southern states every time someone tries to ban the public display of their beloved confederate flag. The time has come, some are saying, for the US Government to do the right thing - apologise for slavery and move on. After all, Washington has made national apologies before, for instance to the Japanese Americans interned during World War II; and if Britain's Tony Blair can say sorry for a 150-year-old potato famine, perhaps it is a lead America could follow. Don't hold your breath. In an interesting counterpart to the Clinton initiative, a group of white Democrats in Congress last week introduced a resolution which would indeed express regret to America's blacks for slavery. But although this should not be a partisan issue, the Republican leadership has made it clear it will try to block such a move. 'We can go back and have all sorts of apologies. But will one more child read because of it? The emotional symbolism as an avoidance of problem-solving strikes me as a dead end,' said House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Meanwhile, only unreconstituted romantics can believe Mr Clinton's commission will come up with anything but a bunch of taxpayer-funded truisms. Even Christopher Edley, a Harvard professor who is a consultant to the new panel, admitted: 'This isn't rocket science. It's harder than rocket science.' The latest box office blockbuster from Hollywood is Con Air, an explosive tale about high-security inmates taking over an airline flight. What the action doesn't reveal, however, is that it is not just a product of a screenwriter's over-active fantasy. Congressmen have been up in arms after a Washington newspaper revealed that the immigration services had a long-standing programme for deporting violent criminals on commercial flights - often without any supervision. The report revealed horror stories of some dangerous felons being sent back on flights to their native homes in Latin America with only terrified airline staff to stop them getting nasty. There have been several incidents of deportees molesting female passengers and crew. And the real-life Con Air programme is by no means small: some 12,000 of the 42,000 immigrants deported during the first six months of this year had violent criminal records, and a large number of them fly the friendly skies home with tourists and regular citizens. On some occasions, more than 100 have been placed on one flight. Immigration officials say the practice is safe, cheap and a convenient way of sending the felons home. Next thing we hear, they'll be getting bonus flier miles.