On racial issues, Bush has a tough act to follow

The president-elect says he's committed to healing racial divide, but many minorities are unconvinced.

When it comes to race issues, George W. Bush is likely to find Bill Clinton a tough act to follow.

Dubbed America's "first black president," Mr. Clinton gets widespread credit for connecting with minorities - and articulated their issues - better than any president since Lyndon Johnson.

But Mr. Bush, who has taken care to create a diverse cabinet, nonetheless starts out with several strikes against him. The election outcome in Florida tapped an anti-Republican strain within the African-American community, and certain cabinet nominations have only exacerbated that reservoir of ill will.

Simply because he's a Republican, "Bush was not off to a good start even before the election," says David Bositis, who follows race issues for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. After the Florida confusion, and Bush's controversial nominations of John Ashcroft and Linda Chavez - "Republicans are even more unpopular, which, I have to confess, I didn't think was possible."

A 'new' Republican

Bush supporters, including minorities, acknowledge the president-elect has hurdles to overcome, but they are confident he is a "new" Republican who will fulfill his promise to make civil rights enforcement a "cornerstone" of his administration.

His diverse cabinet is a step in that direction, they say. Other plans - including meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus, something Ronald Reagan didn't do, and creating a presidential commission to study election reform - will help heal the breach, they add.

"One thing we are committed to is healing this divide, and we'll look for thoughtful, creative, and activist means of healing," says Bush aide Juleanna Glover.

Minority groups, though, say actions speak louder than words, and they're already concerned about some of what they're seeing.

They are now directing much of their fire on Bush's nominee for US attorney general, former Senator Ashcroft. Apart from the flap over Ashcroft's role in denying a federal judgeship to African-American Ronnie White, minority groups are focusing on the senator's opposition to collecting racial data on arrests and incarceration, says Brent Wilkes, who directs America's largest Hispanic group.

Mr. Wilkes thinks arrests and imprisonment are unjustifiably directed against blacks and Hispanics. He's alarmed that Ashcroft is disinclined to study the data. "Bush is good in terms of using the bully pulpit for inclusiveness," says Wilkes, "but at this point, we're still concerned about whether he'll push policies and legislation to break down barriers."

Others are concerned the new president will give no specific attention to race issues, relying instead on general policies deemed good for all Americans - like tax cuts and education accountability - to resolve any problems. If that happens, nothing will be done about racial profiling, the disproportionate number of minorities on death row and in prison, or an education-achievement gap, they worry.

"It's going to be, leave it to the states,... leave it to religious organizations, leave it to a thousand points of light, but don't expect ... government to provide leadership," says Christopher Edley, a former Clinton adviser on race.

But minorities who back Bush urge that he get a chance. His affirmative-action stance, they say, is similar to Clinton's "mend it, don't end it."

They point to his Texas record of improved test scores among minority students and his diverse team of appointments as governor.

"He's a man of his word. If he says civil rights will be the cornerstone of his administration, I expect that to be the case," says Rev. Kirbyjon Caldwell, an African-American independent who introduced Bush at the Republican convention last August.

Bishop Carlton Pearson, a Republican African-American who met with Bush in December, adds that Bush still has a ways to go to fully understand issues important to blacks. "I think he's off to a good start, but we're trying to educate him," he says. "He's going to have to move much further, and much more aggressively, toward the middle."

Even supporters like Bishop Pearson say Bush will never have the rapport with blacks that Clinton, who grew up disadvantaged and among blacks in Arkansas, has.

Bush, on the other hand, is a privileged son of a president, though perhaps more in touch with Latinos than Clinton.

The Clinton White House targeted the poor with the much-overlooked earned-income tax credit, put Africa and the Caribbean back on the map with trade agreements, and filled judgeships with minorities and women.

Yet even Clinton fans recognize unfinished business, and the factors that constrained him - politics, other priorities, and an unfocused staff - may work against Bush as well.

Unfinished business

Clinton never signed an executive order outlawing racial profiling at the federal level, put off a decision on a federal death penalty moratorium, and did little about the rate of minorities in prison. Bositis says Clinton had to appear tough on crime, in order to deprive Republicans of an issue.

Not surprisingly, Bush has political calculations to make, as well. It is his Republican right wing, explains Bositis, that accounts for the nominations that so disturb minorities.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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