Imaginary America


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton goes to Charlotte, N.C., today to speak at the annual convention of the NAACP. It is one of the most dispirited gatherings in the 87-year history of the organization.

It is an unhappy meeting because of what the NAACP's president, Kweisi Mfume, calls a "national scourge of intolerance and insensitivity" that is reflected not just in the torching of black churches but what Mr. Mfume calls "unwarranted attacks by the U.S. Supreme Court" on black political power and affirmative action in all its forms.

This NAACP convention reflects black dismay over the fact that America's minorities face a hostile judiciary, an unfriendly Congress and an unsupportive fourth estate. Only the presidency still is fairly sympathetic to the civil-rights movement. Much will be expected of Mr. Clinton, especially if, as appears likely, the Republican challenger for the presidency, Bob Dole, turns down an invitation to speak to the NAACP.

It seems to me that black disillusionment is growing, not because of any upsurge in white hating as much as white denials of racism and official white pretenses that the United States has become a color-blind society, or close to it.

Problem of make-believe

Let's look at just one area -- black electoral power -- to understand this problem of make-believe.

Several years ago political leaders in both the Democratic and Republican Parties decided that it made for a more peaceful America if all large racial groups had some representation in Congress, on city councils, on school boards, etc. They agreed to end old practices of gerrymandering voting districts to guarantee a white majority in virtually all districts. They also agreed to stop electing all city-council and school-board members "at large" to ensure that the white majorities would control every contest.

That produced what some hoped would be an ideal situation: People would just run under "color-blind" circumstances, and whoever got the most votes would win office. But in the real America, white people were still loath to vote for a black candidate except in the rarest of elections. Clearly, more had to be done to guarantee a sharing of political power.

Republican and Democratic kingpins thought that the goal of defeating racism and providing black and Hispanic representation in state legislatures, the Congress and other bodies was so great that they would tolerate a bit of reverse gerrymandering. Especially since drawing lines for school and voting districts was less than an exact science.

In states like Louisiana and North Carolina they redrew voting district lines to guarantee a black majority in one, then a Republican majority in another. Racial-political compromise was the new order of the once-violent South.

The state legislatures and the House of Representatives began to look more and more like America, and almost everyone seemed happy with the result -- except for a few litigious whites who felt cheated by odd-shaped black-majority districts.

This Supreme Court would not accept arguments that states needed to make amends for the generations when they denied blacks the right to vote; and for the years when whites gerrymandered districts to ensure that no black would be elected to anything. The high tribunal holds to the position that a color-blind Constitution does not permit any actions designed to guarantee that people of a certain race will have a better chance of winning a seat in any governmental body. The court says we have to take our chances that white voters will be color-blind.

This "make-believe" stance will reduce black representation and diminish black political power in all the places in America where the decisions that govern our lives are made.

What are judges supposed to do? Make decisions on the basis of a race-neutral color-blind society that the framers of the Constitution envisioned? Or on the basis of an existing society that is acutely color-conscious, politically bigoted and generations away from being remotely fair?

Given this no-win situation, one might understand why the black delegates in Charlotte wonder if even the president can say anything that will lift their spirits.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 7/10/96

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