Applauding Those Who Avoid a `Black Message'

WHETHER Republicans or Democrats occupy the White House, Robert Woodson will be a familiar name there.

A leading black thinker and activist promoting black empowerment and self-help, Mr. Woodson has had numerous contacts with the Bush administration on such issues as enterprise zones and tenant ownership and management of public housing.

He has also advised the Democratic Leadership Council, which counts presidential challenger Bill Clinton and his running mate, Sen. Al Gore, as members.

But Woodson musters little enthusiasm for any of the presidential candidates. "I think there is insufficient attention given to the whole issue of the empowerment of low-income people," said Woodson, president of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise.

The "empowerment agenda" (e.g., enterprise zones) is in the platforms of both parties, Woodson notes, but adds that there's been little campaign discourse on it - because the focus is on suburban voters. "I haven't heard Clinton mention public housing once in any of his speeches," Woodson says. "That concerns me, but I know people have to do whatever they need to do to get elected."

But Clinton has done at least one thing right, he continues: He has not come out with a "black message." "The assumption," Woodson says, "has been with politicians over the years that all you have to do is come to a black church and talk about how you're against racism, sing `we shall overcome', and you've got the black vote. He [Clinton] has not yielded to the temptation to assume that blacks are only concerned about race issues and civil rights."

Though Woodson calls himself a Bush administration supporter, he is "critical of the fact that Bush has really relegated [Housing Secretary] Jack Kemp and the empowerment agenda to the basement.... The other thing I guess that bothers me is that they all talk about poverty as if the only thing that is needed are social programs rather than ownership. People don't burn what they own. And so most low-income people are just not really engaged in this campaign."

The issue, Woodson says, is not spending more or less money. It's making an "intelligent investment" with the money that's available. He is concerned that Clinton's proposed tax on the "rich" will mean higher taxes for the middle class. But he also worries that a second Bush term would be four more years of "this kind of rudderless ship of domestic policy."

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