Pounding Bush on civil rights


ON THE DAY he lifted sanctions against South Africa, George Bush complained that he was taking a "pounding" from black leaders who did not think he cared about blacks or civil rights. It might well be replied: Why should they?

Bush not only seemed wounded by the obtuse world he sees out there; he indulged himself in Bushspeak -- a language, or something -- a local alderman might not dignify with use.

"Hey, listen, we got a good record on civil rights," said this graduate of Andover, Yale and affluence. "We got a good civil rights bill."

Hey, listen, we also got a president that don't talk as good as Lincoln. Or Eisenhower neither.

Bush acted on South Africa over the protests of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress, the South African Council of Churches, the Congressional Black Caucus and the NAACP on grounds that progress already made toward ending apartheid was "irreversible."

He was convinced, he said, that ending sanctions also would "encourage further change."

Those may prove to be defensible reasons; certainly it remains to be seen whether lifting sanctions will further the release of the 850 political prisoners Amnesty International believes still are behind bars in South Africa. But defensible or not, Bush's decision is one more in a series not likely to endear him to most black Americans and many whites.

You don't have to start as far back as Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey; he cited Congressman George Bush's opposition to a civil rights bill in 1964. Begin, instead, with the famous Willie Horton ad that helped elect Bush in 1988.

He protested that the ad wasn't racist but only asked if voters believed "in a furlough program that releases people from jail so they can go out and rape, pillage and plunder again." But it was a black who was depicted in "rape, pillage and plunder."

Bush, moreover, repeated the ad's false message. Most prison furlough programs have been successful in helping inmates return to straight life; and no inmate ever has been released on purpose to "go out and rape" etc. all over again.

Then there's the civil rights bill Bush vetoed last year and opposes in this year's version. If Congress really wants a civil rights bill, he insisted, "pass mine, pass mine now." By the same logic, if the president really wants such a bill, he could "accept theirs, accept theirs now."

But Sen. John Danforth, a Republican, could not negotiate a compromise rights bill with the Bush White House. He now says the real difference in the two measures is that the Bush version would allow employers to erect job qualifications having no relevance to job requirements.

Bush says the Democrats are pushing a "quota bill," and no doubt will try to make quotas the burning issue in 1992 that Willie Horton was in 1988.

The president supports a policy upheld by the Supreme Court that prevents poor women from receiving information about abortion in federally funded clinics. He says he could agree to an "acceptable" compromise, but must maintain his "fundamental position" -- which makes compromise hard to imagine.

Now Bush has nominated Clarence Thomas to succeed Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court, though Thomas is suspect among many blacks for his opposition to affirmative action.

The Congressional Black Caucus opposes him and the NAACP has not yet decided whether to back him. Bush defends his choice as "the best" -- not the best black but "the best" -- but the president can hardly be surprised if those who revered Marshall's achievements don't regard Thomas as highly.

More important, most American blacks are still on the economic fringe, including many who have dead-end jobs. Black unemployment runs about twice as high as that of whites. For black youths, joblessness and hopelessness are astronomical.

George Bush's "fundamental position" against abortion, even advice about abortion, hits hardest against such desperate groups.

He has made little effort to attack or alleviate poverty and unemployment, preferring instead to keep pounding away for a capital-gains tax break for the rich. Denouncing quotas and deploring critics is no substitute for economic policies that might create enough jobs to go around, and hope for all.

So to repeat: Why should they think he cares?

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