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Sister Souljah Revisited


Does anyone remember the spate of angry columns that appeared last summer denouncing Bill Clinton for criticizing Sister Souljah -- and, by implication, Jesse Jackson, who had invited her to speak at his Rainbow Coalition convention?

The writers said Mr. Clinton's criticism of Ms. Souljah's remarks after the Los Angeles riots -- she suggested black people ought to kill white people instead of each other -- was actually a coded racial appeal to white Reagan Democrats. Some writers went on to express the hope that black voters would punish Mr. Clinton by staying away from the polls in November.

I thought Mr. Clinton's critics were wrong then, and I expect them to be proved wrong again on Election Day when black voters turn out in record numbers for the Democratic nominee.

This has been a bad year for pundits, who have consistently misjudged the mood of the electorate.

The relative handful of black pundits haven't fared much better than their white counterparts in this regard. Bill Clinton didn't die like the gut-shot Confederate soldier he was supposed to be after the Gennifer Flowers story broke. And black voters aren't going to abandon the Democratic standard bearer over some imagined slight to Mr. Jackson's outsized ego.

On the contrary, black voter turnout this year is likely to be significantly higher than in 1988 because 1) the big issues -- such as the economy and jobs -- are of equal or greater concern to blacks than to whites, and 2) more minorities than ever are running for Congress this year due to redistricting.

Put those two together and you've got plenty of reason for heightened black voter interest this year. With the gap between Mr. Clinton and President Bush narrowing in the final days of the campaign, blacks clearly could provide the margin to put Mr. Clinton over the top in several crucial states.

All of which makes me wonder what those pundits were thinking of last summer when they urged black voters to sit out this election.

The rap against Mr. Clinton for criticizing Sister Souljah was never very strong. She deserved to be criticized -- not for her anger over what happened in Los Angeles but for letting it blind her moral vision. A more mature person would have urged people to love one another -- as indeed Rodney King did -- rather than kill anyone.

As for Mr. Clinton's supposed slight to Mr. Jackson by criticizing Ms. Souljah at a gathering organized by Mr. Jackson, it's worth recalling that Mr. Clinton only said publicly what Mr. Jackson himself admitted saying to Ms. Souljah in private.

Mr. Jackson may have had his reasons for not wishing to disagree openly with Ms. Souljah; he was similarly reluctant to distance himself from the demagogy of Louis Farrakhan. But it seems to me Mr. Clinton did the only honorable thing by repudiating such bigotry.

The Jackson affair was in any case a far cry from Ronald Reagan's 1980 campaign stop at the Neshoba County Fair in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil-rights workers had been slain with the complicity of local police in 1964.

As veteran Washington reporter Lou Cannon reported in his 1982 book, "Reagan," the former president appeared on TV telling a cheering white crowd that he "believed in states' rights" and as president would do everything he could to "restore to states and local governments the powers that properly belonged to them."

Given the context, there was absolutely no mistaking the message of Mr. Reagan's speech. Yet Mr. Clinton's critics imply that black voters should see what was, after all, a rather gentle rebuke of Sister Souljah in the same light as Mr. Reagan's blatant appeal to racism.

This strikes me as an almost willfully perverse misreading both of the Rainbow Coalition episode and the level of sophistication among black voters. Large numbers of blacks take pride in Mr. Jackson's accomplishments in the area of voter registration and education. Many of them undoubtedly would support him again if he decided to run for president a third time.

But they are not prepared to virtually disenfranchise themselves at a crucial moment in history merely in order to assuage some pundit's indignation over a perceived breach of racial etiquette. Anyone who thinks otherwise is out of touch.

Of course, I could be wrong. The electorate has taken great delight in confounding us media types so far. That remains one of the predictable hazards of the pundit game in this most unpredictable election year.

Glenn McNatt writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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