The president must take the lead in addressing the race question


WASHINGTON -- The Army's attempt to confront its problems with sexual harassment is being enormously complicated -- and perhaps compromised -- by accusations that it is being driven by racism.

This is not surprising. Charges of racism have become a common element of controversial situations that seem to juxtapose whites in positions of authority against blacks as victims -- even when the evidence of racism is as flimsy as, for example, it was in the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

President Clinton has signaled that he intends to confront the broad problem of race relations in America today, perhaps with the appointment of a blue-ribbon study commission or a series of speeches or a special White House conference.

The charges of racism have not been limited to the military. Many black politicians have been convinced that there has been a racist pattern in investigations of corruption charges against mayors and other elected officials.

In some cases, those suspicions appear to have some solid foundation. In others, they do not. But the effect is to cast doubt on the validity of many of the corruption cases without regard to whether they were reasonable or not. The same result is likely in the cases involving the military -- a cloud of suspicion hanging over everything.

The Army's campaign to deal with sexual misconduct in the ranks has offered an obvious opening to those, including such prominent African-American politicians as Rep. Maxine Waters, who choose to raise the racism issue. Most of the cases have involved black noncommissioned officers and white recruits.

Convincing evidence

The evidence in some of these cases appears substantial. The evidence against Staff Sgt. Delmar G. Simpson at the Aberdeen Proving Ground appeared to both the jury and outsiders to be extremely convincing. Simpson was sentenced to 25 years in a military prison after being convicted of raping six women.

But his lawyer and some politicians have depicted the case as based on racism -- a charge not likely to have been made if the races of the drill instructor and the young women under his command had been reversed. But it is also a charge that might not have been made if any white drill instructors also faced similar charges at the same time.

No one who knows anything about the military imagines this is a problem peculiar to African-American NCOs. But it is difficult for other African Americans to accept the idea that the fact only blacks have been charged is the luck of the draw rather than the product of racist policy -- even though Secretary of the Army Togo West is himself an African American. Both whites and blacks know that the upper echelon of all the armed services is still predominantly white.

The situation has been further complicated by the Army's bringing charges against its most senior enlisted man, Sgt. Major of the Army Gene C. McKinney. He has been accused of adultery with one woman and propositioning three others. Citing the fact that he is black and the four women white, Sergeant McKinney issued a statement that race is "driving this investigation and the way it is being conducted."

Public-relations standpoint

A spokesman for the Army investigators disputed that, but perhaps the Army would have been better off, at least from the public-relations standpoint, if the accused and his accusers had been of the same race.

In a better world, the race question wouldn't be as omnipresent as it seems to be today in so many areas of American life. But African Americans suffer from discrimination often enough that it isn't surprising that they believe it is a driving force even more often.

No one has a better bully pulpit than the president to take the lead in confronting the race question. It is a touchy business with all sorts of obvious political hazards to be skirted. But this is just the kind of issue on which a strong national leader can make a critical difference to his constituents of all races.

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

Pub Date: 5/12/97

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