Black Concerns And the White House

PRESIDENT Bush is back from a nine-day trip to Europe where, from London to Ankara, he played with relish his role of world leader. Next week in Moscow the president again takes world center stage to sign the START treaty with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.Yet amid the crucial foreign policy matters Mr. Bush must deal with are a number of equally important domestic issues. Education and the economy come to mind. But no area today needs more attention - and rethinking - in the White House than that of race. Race is one of the most sensitive and potentially divisive issues in the US. We have fought a civil war and generated a civil rights movement over it. That's why a recent series of White House decisions on issues related to civil rights and race seems questionable - if not always for content, at least for tone and timing. Among the decisions: * White House stonewalling of the Senate's civil rights bill as a "quota bill." Sen. John Danforth, a Republican, came to the White House with five compromises, but no agreement could be reached with the president's chief of staff, John Sununu. Moderates from both parties wonder why. * The president's "political correctness" speech at the University of Michigan this spring. Bush's concerns about free speech and the rise of intolerant orthodoxies on campus are well taken. Yet the speech was perceived by many blacks as soft-pedaling the problem of racism. * The decision by Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher not to adjust 1990 census figures. Urban areas and minorities could thus be shortchanged in the redistricting process. * The nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. Mr. Thomas may be a fine candidate. He believes in the virtues of black self-help. But Thomas is questioned by blacks for attacking affirmative action principles that helped him get where he is. * The lifting of sanctions against South Africa two weeks ago. Given the Thomas nomination and stalling on civil rights legislation, this seemed bad timing. (Now news of Inkatha funding by the police puts Pretoria's good faith in question.) * The nomination of Carol Iannone to an advisory panel of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The administration fought hard for Ms. Iannone, who recently attacked the literary merits of popular black author Alice Walker. None of these developments alone is egregious or divisive. Yet taken as a whole they indicate a pattern of majoritarian decisionmaking. The political motives for such a tack are complex. The White House seems to be appeasing some on the political right who feel too much money and effort is spent on race-based issues. Minority groups may feel ganged up on, but the White House now controls the political mainstream. In such a climate, establishment black civil rights leaders are perceived as vulnerable to t he kind of Republican free-market, self-help agenda that new black conservatives espouse. Yet the present White House course contains some dangers. The administration has to show, through its words and through more actions like the Justice Department's admirably strong stand for voting rights, that it can affirm black and minority issues. It must do more than pay lip service to constructive programs such as Housing and Urban Development chief Jack Kemp promotes. The danger is a politics that could alienate blacks and widen racial divisions in the US. Senator Danforth has offered wise counsel in this regard. After his civil rights bill was stalled, the senator commented, "It is very dangerous to divide the country along partisan political lines." He contends that race issues are more important to US stability than foreign policy matters or the federal deficit. The trust that has been built in the black community over the past 20 years is fragile. Blacks do not have generations of wealth or college education to build on like many whites. Their traditional communities have been ravaged by drugs and flight to the suburbs. In general, they have fewer comfortable assurances than do whites. It may be true that some black leaders exploit these issues, but the issues are real. Race can't be treated casually. The nation's highest official must speak and act meaningfully on the healing of racial divisions.

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