A New Tack on Civil Rights

January 03, 1994|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- A year into his presidency, Bill Clinton is a walking paradox on civil rights, behaving a bit like Ronald Reagan and sounding a lot like Dan Quayle.

He has dragged his heels in making his civil-rights appointments. He has denounced women who advocate affirmative action as ''bean counters.'' To avoid confronting Senate conservatives, he torpedoed Lani Guinier's nomination. Like a latter-day Quayle, he admonishes black audiences to lift themselves by their bootstraps, restore family values and stop the violent crime that betrays Martin Luther King's dream.

What gives? Is President Clinton too eager to please white swing voters, as some of his critics charge? Is he really a closet Republican? Does he have something up his sleeve? Or is he just stumbling along, unsure of what he wants?

I think Mr. Clinton knows perfectly well what he wants. I think he sees this period in America as a post-civil-rights era in which black America's biggest problems call for something other than civil-rights solutions.

Opinion polls indicate most African-Americans agree, citing issues like jobs, crime, education, health care, economic growth, spiritual despair, eroding family values and decaying community cohesion as more urgent than civil rights these days.

In pursuing common answers to these common problems, the nation's No. 1 ''New Democrat'' appears to see civil rights as an issue that, after years of white backlash, inflamed by vote-seeking Republicans, divides more than it brings together.

But if Mr. Clinton has a clear idea of where he wants to go with civil rights, he's having a tough time finding black nominees to help him get there. John Payton, a District of Columbia corporation counsel, recently dropped out of consideration to be deputy attorney general for civil rights, after black congressmen thought his position on redistricting was too wishy-washy.

If so, he probably reflects the squishiness Mr. Clinton showed when he rejected Ms. Guinier's views as too radical for his tastes, even though they were based on well-established voting-rights cases and principles.

The president's squishiness on civil rights helps explain why, more than a year after his election, almost all of his civil-rights posts, including the head of the crucial Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, remain vacant or occupied by Bush appointees.

While civil-rights lawyers care about civil-rights law, Mr. Clinton appears to be more interested in non-legal ways to open up economic opportunities. In his effort to win white support without losing the minorities who are crucial to his party's base, he has taken counsel from pragmatic authorities like the University of Chicago's William Julius Wilson, who say the nation will support vigorous government anti-poverty action, if the remedies are targeted to need, not race.

In books like ''The Declining Significance of Race'' and ''The Truly Disadvantaged,'' Mr. Wilson builds a persuasive argument that economic changes kept the black ''underclass'' mired in poverty despite civil-rights reforms.

So far, Mr. Clinton's needs-based, color-neutral approach appears to be paying off. Its most recent test came when the president called on blacks in the Memphis church where Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last sermon to roll back soaring black-on-black crime.

The speech played extraordinarily well to blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives alike. It helps that black audiences know that Mr. Clinton, unlike Presidents Reagan or Bush, is also preaching to white audiences across town that they must not let their avoidance of handouts shortchange those who need a hand up.

Perhaps, just as it took a quintessential red-baiter like Richard Nixon to open the doors to China, it takes a liberal like President Clinton to take a self-help message across racial lines.

Now, Democratic insiders say, Mr. Clinton plans to address problems of urban black Americans in his State of the Union address this month. If so, expect him to wax quite eloquent about job training, education, violent crime and restoring hope, but don't expect to hear much about divisive issues like ''racism'' or ''civil rights.''

So far Mr. Clinton's approval ratings among blacks remain high, and black leaders are divided over how to respond. His chief critic on the Left, Jesse Jackson, isn't giving him much trouble. Quite the opposite, Mr. Jackson is basking in a resurgence of public support and media praise for his own new crusade. His targets: young black criminals. His weapons: self-help and family values.

What a difference a year makes. Maybe Dan Quayle's family-values message was just ahead of its time.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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