Haiti debate illuminates racial division in U.S.


WASHINGTON -- The continuing controversy over United States policy toward Haiti is illuminating once again a fault line of racial division in American politics in general and the Democratic Party in particular.

Public opinion polls show that about two-thirds of Americans don't believe there is any vital U.S. interest in Haiti. And that finding suggests that even the tentative discussion of using American troops to install democracy in Port-au-Prince is politically ludicrous.

The Vietnam syndrome has not been eliminated as a fact of political life. No one in politics believes that voters are willing to pay with American lives to return Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency of Haiti.

But the currents of opinion underlying the poll numbers define the problem even more clearly. Black leaders, including those in the Congressional Black Caucus, are convinced that the policy of sending Haitian refugees back to the island nation wouldn't be applied so rigorously if those refugees were white.

That view was one they were quick to express when President George Bush followed that policy. And candidate Bill Clinton seemed to be endorsing that judgment when he attacked the Bush policy during the 1992 election campaign and promised to reverse it if elected.

Once in office, Clinton found himself adopting the same policy in the face of the prospect of Haitian refugees overrunning south Florida. But now he has tempered the policy by ordering that refugees be processed on ships or third-nation centers to determine whether they are fleeing their homes for valid political reasons or only for economic reasons.

The president has insisted unblinkingly that this is not really a new policy but simply a procedural change. But the fact that he made the change in obvious response to a 26-day hunger strike by TransAfrica's Randall Robinson, the single most visible advocate of restoring democracy in Haiti, has not been lost on white Americans.

Many of them see it as another example of a liberal Democrat caving in to a constituency group -- the kind of thing that "new Democrat" Clinton seemed to be signaling in 1992 that he would not do.

As a practical matter, the new policy has been slow to get off the ground, although Clinton's description of it May 8 was enough to increase the flow of Haitian boat people sailing for Florida. So far no Caribbean nation has agreed to serve as a center for the processing, and the administration has been forced to acquire a Ukrainian cruise ship as a floating center.

Meanwhile, the White House has been fending off demands for the use of military force by demanding even tougher international sanctions on Haiti. But there is substantial evidence that the sanctions have had more impact on ordinary Haitians than on the military leaders who have continued to defy efforts to return Aristide to power.

For Clinton, the political equation is complex. The president enjoyed strong support from black political leaders during his election campaign even though he took great pains to avoid being seen as their champion. And these leaders generally accepted quietly his public rebuff to Jesse Jackson in the controversy over rap singer Sister Souljah.

They understood that this "distancing," as Jackson described it, was essential if the Democratic nominee was to enlist the support of those white "Reagan Democrats" whose defections had cost the party three straight presidential elections. Moreover, the strategy worked, and Clinton was elected on the strength of both overwhelming black support and clear majorities among those working-class white voters.

The result, unsurprisingly, was that black political leaders believed they had reason to expect some special consideration once Clinton took office. But the economic stimulus bill that would have provided more jobs for heavily black inner cities was rejected. And then Clinton abandoned a prominent black nominee, Lani Guinier, as head of the Justice Department's civil rights division.

Now the blacks' demand for recognition of their importance has become centered on the Haiti question. And Clinton is once again trying to perform a balancing act by appearing to give Haiti such a priority without raising fresh doubts among whites who are quick to see "special treatment" of blacks in such cases.

He is learning that, even 40 years after Brown vs. Board of Education, racial tensions are still a significant factor in American politics.

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