'Whad'ya mean we?' F


August 04, 1991|By RAY JENKINS

There's an old story about the time the Lone Ranger and his faithful Indian sidekick Tonto found themselves surrounded by hundreds of hostile Indians.

"Tonto, we're in trouble," says the Lone Ranger. To which Tonto replies: "Whad'ya mean we, white man?"

That bit of whimsy came to mind the other day when Clarence Thomas asked the NAACP to help save him from hostile Indians. But after painstakingly assessing his record of dutiful service for 10 years to political interests which were "inimical" to the interests of black Americans, decided that Judge Thomas just ++ wasn't worth saving. The NAACP is urging the Senate to reject his nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The dramatic political machinations of the past week called to mind an exchange I had with Mr. Thomas about six years ago, when he was head of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and was one of three minority people who were held in quiet contempt by the civil rights community as lackeys hired to do the dirty work of a Reagan administration.

I was pressing Mr. Thomas about his position on affirmative action -- which he adamantly opposed although (we now know) he benefited from it. Mr. Thomas maintained that once equality of opportunity on an individual basis was assured, people then had to compete on their own merit for jobs, entry into schools, and the like. Using a metaphor of Lyndon Johnson, I asked Mr. Thomas how he could expect two runners in a race to compete fairly when one wore shackles -- the shackles of centuries of discrimination?

He suggested that my question implied not equality of opportunity but rather "reparations." He seemed to believe that courts had no business of extending "reparations." In reality this is a stunted view of the law, because the civil law since time immemorial has sought to "repair" damages and injuries whenever possible -- usually through individual cases, to be sure, but often collectively through what is know as the class action lawsuit, which is anathema to conservatives like Mr. Thomas.

I did not pursue the matter, but Mr. Thomas had a point. The problem is, "reparations" carries an ugly implication of collective guilt. It is controversial to pay "reparations" even for demonstrable injustices such as taking the land of Indians or placing Japanese-Americans in concentration camps during World War II. Moreover, even if an injustice were committed, why should those who were not direct victims benefit at the expense of other those who were not direct perpetrators?

But regardless of his view of the role of law, Mr. Thomas is certainly right that in the end the courts lack the fiscal and political resources with which to attack the social pathologies of the pervasive poverty that is the legacy of centuries of slavery, segregation and discrimination. Only Congress can command those resources, and it can do so only if it summons the political will.

So far that will has been woefully lacking. Yes, there was the fitful effort of Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. But those programs have now been explicitly adjudged a failure by George Bush.

For the sake of argument, let's concede the Great Society was a failure. But the fact remains that by any measure -- by growing crime, drug-addiction and family disintegration -- the problems which President Johnson sought to address not only remain with us but in fact are worse today than ever.

For the past 10 years, the conservative policies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush have reflected not merely benign neglect but malign neglect. After all, the reasoning went, conservatives owed these people nothing; didn't they always vote for liberal Democrats in overwhelming numbers? So the conservative answer was: just isolate them in inner cities, let them stew in their own juices. If a few can escape -- like Clarence Thomas -- then it only proves our point.

The problem with that line of reasoning is simply that the pathology of poverty can no more be isolated within arbitrary political boundaries between cities and suburbs than the disease-bearing flies and rodents which feast on inner city squalor and then go to the suburbs. Does anyone seriously believe that inner-city squalor can be contained by lines drawn on maps?

It is only when the advantaged recognize that it is not merely in the interests of the disadvantaged but in the interests of everyone that we will attack these social pathologies in a meaningful way. Until then the disease will only spread.

OK, write off the Great Society as a failure. But the Republican administrations' laissez-faire policies have now had a fair trial of 10 years. It's time to paraphrase the question Ronald Reagan asked in 1980, "Are you better off than you were 10 years ago?"

Ray Jenkins is editor of the editorial pages of The Evening Sun.

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