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It was a grand march, but can it change the lives of blacks in America?


WASHINGTON -- Quibbling over the size of the crowd at the Million Man March misses the point. As Red Barber used to say of big crowds at baseball games, "There's more people here than I'd like to be frying catfish for." Whatever the number, it was impressive.

The operative question, instead, is whether and how black men may be able to convert their impressive demonstration of unity and purpose into some practical change in their place in American society.

Some of the realities that face black Americans are harsh indeed. Perhaps the most important is the gulf between the requirements of the job market and the education and training of so many members of the underclass -- white as well as black in the United States today.

The unemployment rate among black men is still twice that among whites -- even higher in some states. And the skills required for the workplace continue to grow more complex every year. The connection between joblessness and street crime is well established.

Equally significant has been the decline in the political power of African Americans over the last 20 years. The increasing dominance of the political debate by conservatives has been driven largely by whites who have become more and more isolated from the black communities even in their own cities.

Simply the passage of time has changed attitudes toward racial amity on both the white and black sides. There is now a full generation of whites who cannot recall the reasons there needed to be a civil-rights movement. And there is a similar generation of blacks who cannot recall that the civil-rights movement was carried forward by many whites as well as blacks.

Thus, the Million Man March came at a time when conservatives are exploiting racial resentments in attacking affirmative action -- and finding evidence in the opinion polls that it is a winning political strategy.

The political parties seem to be at a loss about how to deal with black voters today. Although some Republican leaders pay lip service to the concept of "the big tent" welcoming people of all races, the legislative program of the Republican Party does nothing to prove their seriousness.

When Jack Kemp, the former congressman and Bush-administration cabinet member, campaigned on, among other things, a promise to enlist more blacks into the Republican Party, he found that it was a message with little resonance within his party. And there is no one in the field of Republican presidential candidates today with a demonstrated commitment to attracting minorities comparable to that of Mr. Kemp.

Within the Democratic Party, there is a pronounced ambivalence. On the one hand, the Democrats have come to depend on black voters to split 8- or 9-to-1 in their direction in most elections. They recognize that such margins among African Americans elected both Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton in 1992, neither of whom carried a plurality of white voters.

And they have learned, as they did again in 1994, that when black turnout is low, Democrats lose elections all over the country.

So there is a pressure on the Democrats to recognize this reality in terms of both policies and legislation. That is why, for example, it is the Democrats who are defending affirmative action, trying to salvage training programs for the unskilled and trying to protect social programs that benefit black Americans more often than whites.

Fear of white backlash

At the same time, however, white Democratic politicians are growing wary of being too closely identified with black leadership because of the fear of white backlash. It is widely accepted by political professionals now that candidate Bill Clinton scored an important political point in 1992 when he confronted and embarrassed Jesse Jackson on the issue of rap singer Sister Souljah's rhetoric.

The danger of being too closely identified with blacks is apparent across the Deep South. In South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama in particular, the Democrats' dependence on big turnouts of black supporters has given the party an identification as "the black party" and that, in turn, has alienated white voters.

These are harsh realities that the African-American men who gathered on the Mall here must face. There are staggering economic problems to be resolved. And there are political barriers that must be breached if the message of the Million Man March is to be translated into something more than a memory of a spectacular event in Washington.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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