Stanford, California.--President Clinton's first choice as the Justice Department's civil-rights chief was Lani Guinier, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a close friend of the president and his wife.
Her name was withdrawn after the president read some of her law-review articles and found them "anti-democratic and difficult to defend."
Members of the congressional Black Caucus reacted angrily, warning that the president should not take their support for granted on other issues.
The president's second choice was John Payton, the corporation counsel for the District of Columbia. He withdrew his name because -- among other reasons -- of strong opposition from many black members of Congress.
Deval L. Patrick, a Boston attorney with strong ties to the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, is the latest choice to head the civil-rights division.
The difficulty in filling this position (and other civil-rights posts in other agencies) is symptomatic of a much larger problem. Virtually everyone agrees that President Clinton (in contrast to his immediate predecessors) is concerned about the severe conditions haunting black America and that he wants to bring together people of all races and backgrounds and put an end to racial discrimination.
But at a time when people across the country believe there are critical issues dividing blacks and whites and that the level of tension among different racial groups is increasing, the president has not indicated in clear and straightforward terms what he thinks must be done to close the racial gap. Nor did he do so during the 1992 presidential campaign.
The race issue was hardly ever mentioned. "I'm not sure I even heard him say 'racism,' " commented Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., Mr. Clinton's campaign co-chairwoman. In the Clinton-Gore book, "Putting People First," 31 "crucial issues" are listed and discussed. Race is not on the list.
The omission was not accidental. The Clinton strategists remembered that every time the race issue had heated up in past elections, the Democrats lost.
Mr. Patrick's confirmation hearings will provide Americans with the first opportunity to learn if and how the Clinton administration intends to deal with the underlying reality of race and race relations.
What we will learn, however, will depend on what Mr. Patrick is willing to say and on whether the Senate Judiciary Committee will raise questions of principle and substance.
The senators could begin by asking Mr. Patrick if he agrees with Benjamin Hooks, former executive secretary of the NAACP, that a color-blind approach to civil rights is "wrong because it's stupid" -- or are he and the president committed to a national standard that is blind to color distinctions?
Do he and the president believe that the civil-rights agenda has changed, and that many of the government's past strategies no longer represent the best approach to improving the conditions of America's blacks and other minorities?
Will Mr. Patrick call for affirmative action to be refocused -- by explaining why moving away from race-specific and group-oriented preferential policies would not mean abandoning the president's commitment to equal opportunity for every citizen?
As assistant attorney general for civil rights, will Mr. Patrick lay down firm guidelines opposing the drawing of legislative districts designed to segregate voters by race?
Mr. Patrick could take the lead in affirming that all of us for too long have been victimized by an unthinking tyranny of terms like "racism" and "racist" -- not because racism no longer exists, but because the special ills that trap millions of black Americans in failure and despair simply cannot be attributed to white racism and would not disappear if racism were eradicated tomorrow.
One way a president defines himself is by what he chooses (or doesn't choose) to say on important public issues. Mr. Clinton has a singular opportunity to address openly and candidly the nation's racial problems, even if some of his views are not shared by the congressional Black Caucus or the liberal-left wing of the Democratic Party.
The president could take a major step by urging a reformulation of priorities and strategies that will encourage "deracialized" solutions to the many problems facing the nation.
Instead of viewing politics as a "zero-sum, race-reductionist game" that leads to division and confrontation, he could ask the American people to join him in building a new consensus that goes beyond race in pursuing the interests of all Americans.
John H. Bunzel, former president of San Jose State University and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, wrote this commentary for the San Francisco Examiner.