Thomas draws little interest among blacks Passion on either side absent in New Orleans


NEW ORLEANS -- A face flickered onto the television screen, somber and anxious. It was Hamp, relieved that Kat was not badly hurt in the crash after she learned about her father, but now angry to discover Gilly's call-girl past.

Judge Clarence Thomas, on another channel, could wait. If this was 2 p.m., it must be time for "The Guiding Light" on the television in the student lounge of Dillard University.

That the "soaps" were on last week at this predominantly black university, instead of the confirmation hearing of Judge Thomas, is a measure of the failure of opponents to arouse public sentiment against the Supreme Court nominee.

The black community in New Orleans, one of those crucial to the strategies of both sides in the confirmation fight, is not saying much. It has been silenced by division and lack of interest, those here say.

Elvin Brown, 22, was watching the soap opera between physical therapy classes at Dillard. He had listened to a little of the Supreme Court nominee's confirmation hearings, he said. He believes Judge Thomas ought to get the job: "Give him a chance; then if they don't like him vote him out."

Gelair Gilson, a 19-year-old sophomore, was more in touch. She had watched Judge Thomas' opening statement at the hearings, in which he described in poignant terms the indignities of racism suffered by his grandparents. Ms. Gilson was unmoved.

"Everybody who is black can go back and find a grandfather who was called 'boy' and a grandmother who was denied access to a bathroom," said Ms. Gilson, a mass communications major at Dillard. "But I think his head has to be in the right place. He doesn't represent us."

The groups for and against Judge Thomas are keenly interested in how his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee is playing here.

This is a black-majority city in a state represented by a white senator, who is up for re-election next year. Sen. John B. Breaux, a Democrat, won by a slim majority in 1986 with black support, and he cannot risk alienating the black constituents who are one of every four registered voters in the state.

Opponents of Judge Thomas hope black Louisianians will pressure Mr. Breaux, so far uncommitted, to vote against the nominee because he is conservative. His backers hope blacks will tell their senator to approve Judge Thomas because he is black.

They are doing some of both, but mostly neither. Instead of feeling pressured by his constituents, it appears Mr. Breaux is thus far off the hook.

"I haven't heard a word out of any other black leaders," said the Rev. Avery C. Alexander, a long-time civil rights leader, state legislator and one of the few public officials to take a stand on the nominee -- against, in his case.

"I'm getting used to wringing my hands and screaming about these things all alone," he said.

"It's not a big story here. There just hasn't been any reaction one way or another," said Edward Renwick, a pollster and political consultant in New Orleans.

The silence from the black community is in sharp contrast to the uproar caused by the 1987 nomination of Robert H. Bork, a strident, white conservative rejected by the Senate.

"The Bork nomination got down to the people," said Mr. #i Alexander. "We were frightened by Judge Bork. Judge Thomas hasn't frightened people here."

That is evident in the mail to Senator Breaux. According to his press secretary, Robert Mann, Mr. Breaux had gotten almost 1,400 letters on the Bork nomination at the start of those hearings. On the Thomas nomination, he has gotten fewer than 60.

Senator Breaux spent half of August traveling around his district, and Mr. Mann, who was with him, does not recall one question put to the senator on the nomination.

"It's almost like the voters are saying, 'We trust your opinion on this one,' " Mr. Mann said. "I don't think, however he votes, it's going to generate a great deal of public outcry."

Explanations vary. The nomination of a black conservative was a shrewd move by the Bush administration that split some black groups and paralyzed others.

"Blacks don't want to be in opposition to him because he's black, but they have a hard time being enthusiastic about him either," said Russell Henderson, a Louisiana field organizer for People for the American Way, a national group opposing the confirmation of Judge Thomas.

In addition, the boasts by his supporters that Judge Thomas is his own best witness seem to have proved true. The sight of a black man remaining unflappable as a bank of white senators grilled him last week won some converts.

"He impressed me a lot," said Denise Short, 36, director of a senior citizens center in poor west New Orleans. "When he was nominated, I didn't think he was for the people. But he really seemed composed. Cool. He didn't break under pressure.

"He strikes me as a fair-minded person who sticks to his convictions," Ms. Short said.

"I've changed my mind," said Fred Plunkett, a 43-year-old clothing store owner. "I didn't like his track record. But after listening to some of his answers, I'm for him."

But even disagreements about Judge Thomas here are wrapped in precious little passion. Opinions are offered more with a shrug than with fire. Perhaps it is the anesthetic grip of summer's lingering hot and steamy weather.

Whatever the cause, the result is "people are hesitant about doing anything," said Mr. Henderson of People for the American way. "We don't have a groundswell," he acknowledged.

National polls indicate black support for Judge Thomas dropped from above 50 percent after he was first nominated to 23 percent in the latest New York Times/CBS poll. In that poll, taken early this month, two-thirds of blacks and whites said they are undecided.

Observers here say the black community seems evenly split. Norbert Davidson, editor of the black Louisiana Weekly newspaper, said he expects his paper soon will endorse Judge Thomas. He believes a majority of blacks -- "55 or 60 percent" -- support the nominee.

"I've been surprised at the positive reaction I've heard," Mr. Davidson said. "I think there is a groundswell that's building that a lot of the liberal ideas haven't worked."

Mr. Alexander, the legislator, scoffs at such judgments. He estimates two-thirds of the black community opposes Mr. Thomas.

"There are some conservative blacks, but they are uninformed," Mr. Alexander said. "All they know is he's a black man appointed to a high post, so they're for him. Most blacks know he's black on the outside and white on the inside."

It is easy to find evidence for either opinion in conversations around this laid-back river town.

At the Golden Temple barber shop, there is livelier interest in the governor's race, with ex-Klansman David Duke an unexpectedly strong candidate. And of course, the most fun in town last week was the legal cat fight between TV preachers Jimmy Swaggart and Marvin Gorman, accusing each other in the courthouse of lying and adultery.

But pressed on Judge Thomas, Dwight Baker, 42, concluded, "If the man is qualified, he should be confirmed. Being a conservative shouldn't cast a shadow on him."

That brings a grunt of dispute from the next chair over. "I don't like him," said Garvin Lowe, 45. "He appears to be a puppet on a string. I don't feel he would support the blacks."

Attorney Donald Ray Pryor, stopping for a bracer from the air conditioning at his campaign office while hustling votes in his first run for the state legislature, dismisses "this guy Clarence . . . what's his name? Thomas?"

"He's up in his own world, got this white-woman wife, and all these white folks around him, and he comes out with all this DTC natural law stuff. Where did that come from?" said Mr. Pryor, 37. "He's got the appearance of being an Oreo, a token."

The nomination of Judge Thomas has prompted a fresh look at the presumption that the black community is uniformly liberal in its politics.

Mr. Davidson, the editor, said that he has long believed that the black leadership is farther left than its constituency.

"What's wrong with being a black conservative?" mused Willa Edomobi, a 33-year-old librarian on the Dillard campus.

"I consider myself a black Republican, a liberal Republican, but you'd get tarred and feathered if you said it," she said.

She is undecided about Judge Thomas. "It's hard to call a person by his past," she said. "Look at Hugo Black. He was a conservative southern lawyer, an ex-Klansman from Alabama. And he turned out to be one of our greatest champions on the Supreme Court."

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