Clinton urges Americans to face their fears and begin to bridge racial divisions

May 03, 1992|By Knight-Ridder News Service

NEW ORLEANS -- Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton waded into the seas of racial politics yesterday with an appeal to blacks and whites to accept responsibility for racial divisions and to take action to cure them.

Borrowing Thomas Jefferson's warning about slavery to call the Los Angeles riots a "fire bell in the night," Mr. Clinton said that Americans "must face our fears and stop running from them. There is no place to hide."

In an emotional speech to the Democratic Leadership Council, the Arkansas governor criticized both Republican neglect and Democratic unwillingness to face "the hard truth" about urban violence.

"White Americans all too often fear that violence has only a black face," he said. "Blacks too often fear that violence has a black face and no one cares."

Mr. Clinton praised President Bush's firm response to the Los Angeles riots, but he warned that deep economic and social problems will remain even after order is restored in the streets.

He accused Republicans of exploiting the white fear and animosity toward blacks that split the old Democratic coalition in the 1960s and contributed powerfully to the election of Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush.

But Mr. Clinton also said that "we Democrats too often have let the American people down" by not paying enough attention to the victims of crime and by pouring tax dollars into ineffective social programs.

The 40-minute speech, which Mr. Clinton delivered from handwritten notes, was also a search for safe ground for his shaky presidential campaign at a time of high racial tension.

Political analysts have debated whether the re-emergence of race as a burning political issue in 1992 will help or hurt Mr. Clinton in a contest against Mr. Bush and, probably, Texas independent Ross Perot.

In the short run, most thought the riots would hurt, but Clinton supporters argued that he could turn it to his benefit in time.

Warning flags were raised by poll-taker Daniel Yankelovich. "The most primitive political emotion is fear of disorder," he said. "It sweeps everything else aside."

Mr. Yankelovich also cautioned that Mr. Clinton would fall into a "major political trap" if he let himself be pushed into proposing "preferential treatment" for blacks in the wake of the riots.

During the New York primary, for example, Mr. Clinton said he supported Mayor David N. Dinkins' plan to set aside 20 percent of city contracts for minorities.

This kind of "affirmative action" infuriates whites, said Mr. Yankelovich.

"On this issue, the gap between whites and blacks is so wide as to seem almost unbridgeable," he said.

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