A Politics of False Choices That Ignores Our Lives

June 18, 1991|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON. — Boston.-- Some weeks ago, eager to do the right thing, I called up one of the usual honchos in the civil-rights community.

I asked her to explain the civil-rights bill in simple language so anyone who'd been turned off by the wrangling could understand what was at stake.

Twenty minutes later, I knew in excruciating detail which of the Supreme Court's worst decisions on discrimination would be overturned by this bill. And I knew why I never went to law school.

Here are three points to remember: 1. This is a bill that should be passed. 2. This is a bill that only a lawyer could love. 3. This is a bill that's a political gas guzzler: far too much energy is being expended for too little mileage.

Over the past several months, an extraordinary amount of attention, work, lobbying and front-page space has been devoted to this fight. Charges of quotas and countercharges of racism have stirred a pot of bad feelings. Not just about race and gender but about the truly great divide of American life between politics and people.

Now it appears that a Senate compromise is in the offing. But the political furor over the civil-rights bill will go down as a case study in ''Why Americans Hate Politics,'' as E.J. Dionne names his new book about ''the politics of false choices.'' The wrestling over this bill reflects the worst or at least the weakest of both sides.

Consider the role played by the president. In arguing against the House civil-rights bill, he insisted that he wasn't playing divisive racial politics but, rather, taking a principled stand against quotas. But this is the man who lost his credibility on race when he went along with the Willie Horton ads.

As for gender, the president unapologetically belongs to four clubs that have a quota -- a quota of zero -- for women. Of these only Skull and Bones at Yale, is repentant. But he is yet to say a word about the others.

At West Point this month, Mr. Bush waxed eloquent about the need for people to ''think of ourselves not as colors or numbers but as Americans, as bearers of sacred values.'' He used West Point as the example of an institution where people are measured on ''merit, heart and will.'' But he forgot to mention that affirmative action diversified the color and gender of the graduates before him.

The problem of the other side isn't credibility. It's relevance. Civil-rights groups are caught in the position of having to defend earlier gains from a Reagan-rearranged Supreme Court.

So their leaders are heard using the language of individual rights at a time when most Americans are worrying about community. They are heard promoting lawsuits as the tool of progress when most Americans think that the arena for changing society has moved away from the courts.

The conservative argument reeks of racial divisions, a tape nobody wants to keep playing. The liberal argument is stuck on a legal agenda that is 30 years old.

The energy both sides have expended on this issue feeds the sense that politics is the business of the elite, an arcane conversation between a coterie of lawmakers and campaign analysts that has less and less to do with the people who are less and less likely to vote.

Ask women what their most pressing problems are and they will talk more about pregnancy leave than lawsuits. They're aware of bias, but the most imposing roadblocks aren't legal ones.

Ask black Americans what's impeding progress and they are more likely to talk about the breakup of the family, about jobs, schools, crime. Racism is not just about legal barriers. More people are worried about having jobs than suing bosses.

In the Capitol, the questions that resonate are these: Does the Democratic bill favor quotas no matter what it says? Will a compromise make it? Will the Republicans have the civil-rights bill to kick around in '92?

But outside of that infamous beltway that is strangling political life, these headlines are greeted with an alienated silence. Here, people talk about their kids, their bills, their futures. They want to know if the country is going down the tubes, if health insurance is going through the roof and why Washington doesn't speak their language.

Slowly, politics becomes a spectator sport in a democracy. With too many empty seats.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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