From advocate of equality to defender of the faith ON POLITICS

JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

January 26, 1993|By JACK GERMOND & JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- Thurgood Marshall obviously will be remembered as the first black to serve on the Supreme Court and as the legal counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People who won the case in 1954 in which the court overturned the doctrine of "separate but equal" education. But the tides of his lifetime also teach a lesson about how American attitudes in race keep changing, and not always for the better.

Marshall came to the court as the nominee of President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 in the wake of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- two pieces of landmark legislation that not only codified the rights of black Americans but seemed to define the national ethic on the race issue. Both laws were a kind of natural evolutionary product of the 1954 decision on Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka and the tumultuous movement for civil rights that followed.

But within three or four years of his appointment to the court, Marshall could feel it moving under him and to the right, a movement begun under Richard Nixon and accelerated during the 12 years of the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush. In his last few years on the court, Marshall was most often either writing a dissenting opinion or joining one written by the only other liberal on the court, retired Justice William Brennan.

Then he had to accept the irony that, upon his retirement, he was replaced on the court by a black conservative, Clarence Thomas, who was nominated by Bush.

But the court, as Mr. Dooley once said, "follows the election returns," so there was nothing particularly surprising in its direction. What has been more unsettling, however, has been a return to racial resentment -- if not outright racism -- as an important factor in American politics.

Although the ethic supposedly was settled almost 30 years ago, there is a new generation of voters with little in common with Thurgood Marshall in their attitudes on race questions.

This resentment is reflected particularly in the uneasy coalition within the Democratic Party in some Southern states. White politicians who make common cause with blacks and thus can rely on winning 85 percent to 90 percent or more of the black vote often find it difficult to capture the 30 percent to 35 percent of the white vote they need in a state in which 25 percent of the electorate is black. In some states with such a significant black population, white Democrats fear their party's becoming "the black party" and, as such, one with which many whites want to avoid identification. That concern is not something they discuss publicly, but it is one voiced by political professionals in such states as South Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama.

But there are also signs of racial resentment in the voting patterns in Northern and Midwestern states as well. During the Democratic presidential primaries of 1988, for example, it became clear that Jesse Jackson's share of the white vote was largest in states with the fewest blacks, smallest in those states with the most blacks.

There seem to be several explanations for this resurrection of racial resentment. The most obvious is the passage of time. Young whites have no memory of the days when it was necessary for a Thurgood Marshall to fight through the courts to equalize public educational opportunity. Nor do they have any memory of the abuses that inspired so many young blacks to the protest movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

There also are economic factors. In some communities, the competition for jobs -- unskilled jobs in particular -- pits blacks against whites. And the tension has been exacerbated by affirmative action programs that help blacks and at the same time convince whites that they are being forced to atone for crimes they didn't commit. Beyond that, there is a pervasive anger among working-class taxpayers about the costs of welfare programs that they see, sometimes accurately and sometimes not, as primarily beneficial to blacks.

Whatever the reasons, it is plain that American society is not static on the race question. But what is equally clear is that the legal protections for which Thurgood Marshall led the fight 40 years ago are as important today as they were then.

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