Clinton is considering a conference on race relations after march Notion wins praise from black and white Democrats, Republicans

October 19, 1995|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- President Clinton, seeking ways to capitalize on momentum from the Million Man March, is considering holding a White House conference on race relations and appointing a blue-ribbon commission to study the problem, aides said yesterday.

Black leaders have appealed for Mr. Clinton to appoint such a commission to address the march's message -- an appeal for new approaches to the plight of black males. And the idea quickly drew support from Republicans as well as Democrats.

But the impulse to build on the positive feelings engendered across the nation by the spectacle of more than 400,000 black men assembled on The Mall in the name of atonement and personal responsibility was also tinged with caution.

At the White House and elsewhere in Washington, political strategists were aware that, while the challenges of crime, poverty, drugs and family disintegration in the black community are serious, they are also politically explosive. Especially for Democrats, whose long identification with blacks and members of other minority groups has alienated some white voters.

As a result, the White House chose its words carefully in discussing a high-profile conference.

"A lot of different ideas have been put forward and a White House conference is one of the possibilities, but the president is reserving judgment for now on exactly what to do," said Mike McCurry, Mr. Clinton's press secretary. "He wants to build on the momentum of the positive aspects of the march."

The march differed from most massive demonstrations held in the past in Washington in that it had no agenda calling for specific action by the government or either political party. Instead of making such demands, most speakers focused on what black men themselves should do to make their communities better and safer.

Still, the massive demonstration caught the public's interest as few events have since the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil-rights movement of the 1960s.

Some GOP leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, responded to the march chiefly by denouncing its prime organizer, Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam, a fiery speaker who has made anti-white and anti-Semitic statements.

But others have looked for ways to build on the event.

Several black and white members of Congress sent Mr. Clinton a letter urging him to appoint a commission "to issue a report on the progress and failures that our nation has made on race since 1968."

That was a reference to the Kerner Commission appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, which in 1968 issued a study that concluded the nation was moving "toward two societies, one black, one white -- separate and unequal."

Rep. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, in proposing the appointment of a commission, said, "while our cities may not be burning, anger rages in the hearts of too many of its citizens."

At least one Republican shared that sense of need for action. "There is something wrong about attitudes and perceptions in our society today," said Rep. Bill McCollum, a Florida Republican.

At the White House yesterday, chief of staff Leon E. Panetta held meetings with aides and other advisers to discuss several different responses to the march, including a commission and a White House conference.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, a veteran of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and one of those who addressed the march, called on Mr. Clinton to convene a White House conference on urban policy and economic development.

"The president cannot just give a speech of anecdotes. It's better than being hostile," but it's not enough, Mr. Jackson said.

The notion of a commission won wide praise. Rep. Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said it was "an excellent idea -- I'd like to be on it."

Ed Gillespie, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Dick Armey, a Texas Republican, praised the idea and promised that "a lot more ideas will crop up" from Congress in the days ahead.

But others portrayed the commission as a maneuver to stall for time on a problem that has been endlessly diagnosed.

Rep. Julian C. Dixon, a California Democrat, argued that the issues raised by the march are not suited for Congress to deal with as a body. Saying he would try to deal with the issue by trying to promote candid conversation in community groups, Mr. Dixon said: "I don't think Congress has the ability to heal nor do we have the will, at this point."

And Chairwoman Mary Francis Berry of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights said: "We don't need another commission. The Kerner Commission's recommendations still haven't been implemented. The commission said we had two separate

societies, one white and one black and unequal -- and we still do."

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