Clinton Sidelines Civil Rights

IN 1992, Bill Clinton ran on a platform that pledged to ``rebuild and vigorously use machinery for civil rights enforcement.'' In 1993 he did nothing of the kind.

Nearly a year into the Clinton presidency, the top civil rights posts at the Justice Department and the Labor Department remain unfilled. Meanwhile, the White House has not nominated anyone to head the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where a Bush administration holdover is still in charge.

What's going on here? The Clinton administration's lackadaisical attitude toward civil rights staffing reflects a political approach that takes racial minorities for granted and assumes that few white people will object.

While de-emphasizing issues of discrimination and unequal opportunity, the administration prefers to woo the vaunted ``middle class'' - too often a euphemism for white and not poor. President Clinton has insulated himself from a sense of urgency about racial bias by surrounding himself with people who will not confront him about the terrible matrix of racism and poverty that continues to trap many people in this country.

The president's top black appointees hardly personify a broad range of backgrounds and perspectives. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy was a ``moderate'' member of Congress; the secretaries of commerce and energy, Ron Brown and Hazel O'Leary, stepped into the Cabinet from corporate boardrooms. In effect, Clinton has sealed out the angry voices of African-Americans being crushed by the status quo.

But the burden of calling for a drastic change in policy should not be shouldered only by racial minorities. In 1994, white people should resolve to put the heat on Clinton over his shameful relegation of civil rights to the back burner. Something is very wrong with an administration that can redecorate the White House in its first year but can't find an assistant attorney general for civil rights or someone to chair the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The president has gambled that not many white people will take umbrage at his cavalier attitude toward civil rights. It's time to prove him wrong. In the process, whites will need to rethink their own attitudes.

Race, we've been told, is ``our national obsession.'' But perhaps it is more like our national evasion. ``What we call a race problem here,'' James Baldwin observed a quarter-century ago, ``is not a race problem at all. To keep calling it that is a way of avoiding the problem.'' He added that ``any real commitment to black freedom in this country would have the effect of reordering all our priorities.''

That may explain why America's so-called race problem is so intractable. It is really about the huge obstacles to ``reordering all our priorities.'' It is about power and money and privilege.

The heavy weight of history is a massive burden for many people with dark skin in the present day. But whites usually find it convenient to pretend that the past is mere prologue. We play dumb, as if by doing so we absolve ourselves of culpability for dodging other people's pain.

The vacancies in top civil rights posts of the Clinton administration symbolize a broader abdication of responsibility. If the president continues to give short shrift to the goal of equal opportunity, people of all races must see to it that he pays a political price. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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