What White Folks Really Think About Race

December 02, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

Havre de Grace. -- Earlier this fall, when Bill Clinton implicitly labeled as racists all white New Yorkers not planning to join him in supporting the re-election of a black Democratic mayor, jaws dropped from coast to coast.

The toxic rhetoric wasn't especially surprising, but at least to non-professionals the politics of this particular campaign emission seemed stunningly inept. The president would be needing the support of middle-class voters of all races over the next years. Why would he want to jab a large group of them, quite gratuitously, in the eye?

The remark turned out to be every bit the miscalculation it seemed. David Dinkins, the president's candidate for mayor, narrowly lost the election, with many of the middle-class white Democrats who had helped elect him four years before helping to bring about his defeat. It isn't implausible to suggest that these voters' disgust at Mr. Clinton for so arrogantly playing the bigotry card contributed to the outcome.

In the distant future, the Clinton comment on the 1993 New York City election may come to seem a benchmark moment in a benchmark year. It may well pinpoint the time that American politicians' public attitudes toward race finally began to turn around, just as private attitudes did years earlier. There are signs of this happening all across the country now, even in politically rigid Maryland -- although obviously everyone hasn't yet gotten the word.

How could Bill Clinton, an intelligent and sophisticated person with intelligent and sophisticated advisers, have struck such a sour note as he did in New York? Only by accepting two assumptions, long discarded by most ordinary Americans but still invested with the authority of holy writ in political circles.

These are, first, that even in 1993, the black political agenda retains the same glow of moral superiority it acquired during the civil rights battles of 30 years past; and second, that those who do not express 100 percent support for that political agenda and its candidates for office are by definition racially prejudiced.

There was a time when these assertions were credible, a time when the civil rights movement did indeed occupy the moral high ground. But although the political establishment has been slow to realize it, that time is long past.

Where the Rev. Martin Luther King once stood, there now stands the Rev. Al Sharpton. Rosa Parks, who helped overcome a racist law, is history; Tawana Brawley, who told elaborate lies to establish her victimhood, only recently was front-page news in New York. Under the banner of civil rights, brave black people once asserted their right to eat in whites-only restaurants; today, the same banner is waved to justify the abuse and intimidation by black thugs of struggling inner-city Korean grocery store owners.

Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza, respectively a Stanford political scientist and a University of California public opinion specialist, have just published an important book dealing with current American views on that red-flag issue, race. It's based on careful, non-ideological polling and survey analysis. If Mr. Clinton had read it earlier this year he might have revised his comments about the New York election.

The Sniderman-Piazza book -- ''The Scar of Race,'' Belknap-Harvard University Press -- reaches a number of sensible conclusions about prevailing attitudes toward race among white Americans.

The authors found a strong and emotional consensus on some issues, including support for fair housing laws and opposition to affirmative action. They found a clear distinction between what white Americans think about blacks, as individuals and as a group, and what they think about government policies dealing with blacks.

They also found that in today's context, most Americans see racial issues as politics, not morality, and make their decisions accordingly. Thus ''non-trivial numbers of whites are open to persuasion. New majorities can be made -- and unmade. The future is not foreordained. It is the business of politics to decide it.''

This means several things, most of them healthy. It means that in most parts of the country, the political significance of a candidate's color will continue to decrease, that the impact of bigotry on politics will decline, and that charges of racism will be taken ever less seriously.

''The demagogic use of the charge of prejudice has done much to poison the contemporary discussion of race,'' say Messrs. Piazza and Sniderman, ''persuading many scholars as well as citizens that the concept of prejudice has lost any serious meaning and become no more than a term of political abuse.''

The children of the Sixties now running the White House ought to take particular note of that. Years ago, many of them pitched in to bring about better race relations in the United States. Now they want to do it all over again, but haven't figured out that this time around the best tactic would be just to shut up for a while.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer. His column appears Sundays and Thursdays.

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