Clinton spoke the truth on race

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WHEN President Clinton suggested that race might motivate some voters in New York City's mayoral election, he was accused of "interjecting" or "re-igniting" the race issue, of "playing the race card" for partisan advantage.

I believe that he simply brought the issue of race more into the open. Racial bloc voting is one explanation for the lack of honest dialogue about race in New York.

David Dinkins, the black Democratic incumbent, is not guaranteed re-election in an overwhelmingly Democratic city. The opposite side of his meager white support (27 percent) in 1989 was the equivalent of a landslide of white votes for his opponent, Rudolph Giuliani.

Some white voters admit that they won't vote for a black mayor, whoever he is. As one local voter explains, she's not "generally prejudiced"; it's just that blacks "have proven themselves to be a hostile race."

In this year's rematch, Mr. Giuliani needs Latino votes. Blacks and Latinos often vote for whites, yet given a choice, they too vote on racial or ethnic lines. So Republicans aren't talking candidly about race either.

Regardless of ideology, politicians and policy makers are uncomfortable discussing race. Some of this discomfort masks racial bias across the political spectrum.

A recent National Science Foundation study found liberal and conservative whites almost equally willing to express negative characterizations of blacks.

Forty-five percent of white liberals and 51 percent of conservatives agreed that blacks are aggressive or violent.

Much of this bias reflects the absence of any dialogue about race among people of different races and ethnic groups -- who, despite backgrounds that may have many similarities, live fundamentally different lives.

Many whites hold amiable assumptions about racial progress, unaware that their middle-class, college-educated black counterparts are seething about encounters with prejudice and discrimination. Only 8 percent of college-educated blacks feel that things have been getting better over the past decade, according to a 1991 Gallup poll.

Conversations take place, but as the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison alerts us, the racial subtext remains "hidden and covert." Because "black people have become the way in which we talk about poor people," conversations about welfare or crime are freighted with racial innuendo and resentment. Media reports on biracial election contests often use a racial text, without explaining the underlying economic or social context.

Campaign commercials telegraph racially coded messages. Law and order functioned as a code phrase for repression of black unrest in urban ghettos in the 1968 presidential campaign; "ethnic purity" was a code phrase for segrega tion in the 1976 campaign.

Quota is another racial code. While my nomination as assistant attorney general for civil rights was pending, a copy editor coined the phrase "quota queen," linking me through clever alliteration to welfare chiselers.

The sociologist Jerry Himelstein calls these code phrases "rhetorical winks." They communicate a well-understood but implicit meaning, while allowing the speaker to deny any such meaning.

In the mayoral race, both candidates disavow racially or ethnically charged comments. But whether the candidates wink or grimace is not the point. The point is to stop speaking in code and to start speaking openly about the real racial divisions in this society.

Sixty-seven percent of New Yorkers report a bleak view of race relations. The voters need to know what the candidates and our national political leaders intend to do about that. Thus, I applaud President Clinton for taking the first step in opening up the conversation in New York.

But other than his lament that "too many of us are still too unwilling to vote for people who are different than we are," what does he offer in the way of a moral vision?

What is missing from public discourse is a vision of the future in which society commits itself to working through, rather than running from, our racial history and racial present.

What is missing is leadership.

Sen. Bill Bradley is one of the few politicians who candidly confront the dilemma. He asks: When is the last time any of us had a conversation about race with a person of another race?

After the Los Angeles riots, he declared, "When politicians don't talk about the reality of what everyone knows exists -- that as slavery was our original sin, so race remains our unresolved dilemma -- they cannot lead us out of crisis."

After 25 years and seven presidents, our society remains remarkably similar to the one described by the Kerner Commission in 1968: one nation, divided.

There is no longer time for occasional, oblique references. It is time to take the next step, to provide all Americans with forums in which we can educate ourselves and one another about the crisis of race.

The president should establish a national bipartisan commission update the Kerner report. After public hearings and town meetings, this commission could report its findings at a White House "summit" meeting on race. Ultimately, such a meeting could concentrate the nation's attention on the hard issues that thrash beneath the surface of debates over urban crime, affirmative action or the notion of a color-blind society.

It could help people start talking to one another in barber shops, boardrooms, churches, shopping malls -- everywhere Americans gather.

Perhaps election campaigns are not the best opportunity to turn the nation's attention back to the unfinished agenda of race relations. But while we may be uncomfortable talking about such things, our common destiny depends on just such honest talk.

If New Yorkers and other voters like them across America are left in the gloom of coded messages and shaded meanings, candor and solutions will elude us, and our problems will multiply.

At best, what W.E.B. DuBois called the problem of the 20th century -- the problem of the color line -- will become the problem of the 21st century.

At worst, like Langston Hughes' dream deferred, it may not "dry up like a raisin in the sun."

It may just explode.

Lani Guinier, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, is author of the forthcoming "The Tyranny of the Majority."

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