Race is now a class issue

MOST reports by presidential commissions lie forgotten, gathering dust in the Library of Congress. Yet, Americans who hope their country will practice what its Constitution preaches still invoke the report presented to President Lyndon Johnson 20 years ago by the Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, the so-called Kerner Commission. This 800-page document accused the United States of having become ``two societies, one black, one white, separate and unequal.'' Following the ``long hot summer'' of racial discord and urban riots in 1967, this accusation rang true. Our report was unanimous. Whether liberal, conservative, or moderate, every commission member acknowledged incontrovertible evidence of a racially polarized body politic.

Two decades later that polarization has taken a new form. The US now confronts a new crisis in race relations which the Kerner Commission could hardly have anticipated and which better leadership in recent years might have prevented.

America's nonwhite middle class has expanded significantly; that is partly because of the Kerner report and to citizens and political leaders who took the findings seriously. Also, a growing number of blacks and Hispanics occupy leadership positions in city halls and statehouses across the country, as well as in Congress.

While such changes are hallmarks of greater decency and maturity in our national life, many of the poorest of minority citizens have been left far behind in a losing struggle for survival. Backsliding at the federal level on commitments to equal opportunity in employment, job training, low-income housing, and medical care have had devastating results.

Rising crime rates, more homelessness, ascending teen-age birthrates, lower school dropout ages, and heavier traffic in illegal drugs describe the effect on behavior and the tragic circumstances of a growing portion of the population that is disconnected from society as we have known it. What were once regarded as issues of race have become, increasingly, issues of ``class,'' a word never heard in our country before.

In the 20 years since the Kerner report, legislative protections against racial discrimination have diminished, but not erased, the problems of poverty suffered by this ``underclass.'' A new commission examining the difficulties that the Kerner panel investigated would find two societies: divided these days more along lines of economic conditions and personal conduct than of race. Worse, racial polarization has become further exacerbated by the widening gulf between social classes.

This problem, caused by a climate set at the highest levels of government, can only be solved by leadership that reflects the US Constitution's highest principles.

During the last eight years, federal social programs have been indiscriminately slashed. Meanwhile, defense spending has soared extravagantly, and vast tax cuts have taken effect. Pointing to the record budget deficits that its own senior officials created, Washington now cries poor when the poor cry for help. Then, exploiting backlash fears generated by those cries, some political leaders discredit expenditures designed to ease the problem as ``throwing tax dollars down the drain.''

The result has been a national disaster. Demagogic appeals by self-anointed ``law and order'' advocates unleash the very lawlessness and amoral behavior that further polarize society between race and class. And political leaders must cease using code words that thinly disguise appeals to racism.

It is essential that America's leadership sets a healing tone in domestic politics. As the Kerner Commission noted, the plight of the disenfranchised casts a long shadow of uncertainty over every American's future. Anarchy in the streets caused by the rootless young who have no stake in society imperils our neighborhoods. We must deal with their pain and anger and protect ourselves from its consequences.

A new presidential commission could identify such malicious political activity for what it is, recommend more enlightened budget priorities, and help the press locate flash points in neighborhoods and in halls of government where racial tensions are at work. The lives of all Americans are blighted by these social conflicts; each of us must contribute to their resolution. How well we face up to this challenge defines our character as a nation.

The task is not an easy one. The longtime neglect of the inner city will not be quickly repaired. Several of this year's presidential candidates have displayed authentic compassion for the underprivileged; yet they come up short on specific solutions to their troubles. More money is necessary, but money will not do the job alone. We need skilled, knowledgeable, and committed men and women to build education, employment, housing, language, job training, antipoverty, and drug programs - and to deal effectively with crime, the most menacing effect of neglect in these areas. The present climate has driven many such able people out of the fold.

Our nation is trying increasingly hard to become more productive industrially, to correct trade imbalances, and to establish better commercial relations with nonwhite nations around the world. At the same time, this country's minorities make up an increasing percentage of the US's total population. We will not be able to move ahead economically on the global stage unless we address the concerns of those minorities here at home.

It is time for another presidential commission to look anew at our divided society and point the way toward the style and substance of leadership that once again can summon the generous, enlightened, and honorable impulses that exist in the American people.

John V. Lindsay, former mayor of New York and member of Congress, was vice-chairman of the Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission. He is now a lawyer with Webster & Sheffield in New York.

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