Changing racial attitudes affect both parties' politicking

June 17, 1996|By JACK W. GERMOND AND JULES WITCOVER

WASHINGTON -- The burning of black churches across the South makes it impossible for anyone to ignore the sorry state of race relations in this country today.

People in politics have known for years of the resurgence of racism among Americans as more time passes since the civil-rights revolution. It has now been 31 years since Congress approved the Voting Rights Act, and 32 years since the Civil Rights Act desegregated public accommodations.

But politicians and others have been reluctant to face up to the ugly reality of the new racism. That is apparent in the time it has taken both the government and the press to respond to the more than 30 fires. Does anyone imagine it would have taken a year and a half if those had been white churches or synagogues?

President Clinton has responded now in just the way a national leader should respond. Vividly expressing the national ethic, he has taken action to mobilize forces to prevent more fires and find the people responsible for setting them.

The complaint from some Republicans, notably House Majority Leader Dick Armey, that Mr. Clinton is ''playing politics'' with the issue is hollow. What is a president supposed to do in such circumstances? Whether there is some national conspiracy behind the fires is irrelevant. There is no logical reason to believe that some cabal is responsible. But, as several black ministers have pointed out, it is even more frightening and discouraging to accept a more likely conclusion -- that there are haters in many communities willing to set fire to these churches in the dark of night.

The politicians already know there has been a rise in racial resentment as fewer Americans have first-hand memories of the reasons there had to be a civil-rights movement in the first place. Few today have first-hand memories of Rosa Parks and the Montgomery bus boycott, or of Martin Luther King Jr.

That is the reason, of course, that there has been so much anger about affirmative action that the politicians are so quick to exploit in their campaigns this year.

But affirmative action is not the only issue in the political arena with racial content. Both the welfare-reform and crime issues are seen by politicians on both sides as race-tinged because disproportionate numbers of black Americans are welfare beneficiaries and perpetrators of street crime -- as well as, not incidentally, victims of crime.

Democratic bonanza

For a few years after the Voting Rights Act was approved in 1965, it appeared that the Democratic Party would reap a bonanza from coalitions of black and liberal white political leaders. Such coalitions elected a number of Democratic governors and senators in states with substantial black populations.

But the change in racial attitudes over the past decade has changed the political equation markedly. The Republican Party in the South has benefited as white voters increasingly have resisted identifying themselves with the Democrats they see as ''the black party.'' In South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, Democratic candidates can depend on such solid backing from large blocs of black voters that they usually need only 30 to 33 percent of the white vote to win. But Democrats have discovered a paradox: The smaller the share of the white vote they need, the more difficult it is to capture. The larger the black vote, the more white voters desert from the Democrats.

One result has been an obvious attempt by white Democrats to seem less liberal than they may be. That was the strategy Bill Clinton followed in 1992 when he presented himself as ''a different kind of Democrat,'' willing to talk about the ''responsibility'' he would require of welfare recipients and willing to affront Jesse Jackson in the Sister Souljah episode.

But on other black-white issues temporizing is impossible. The burnings of black churches are such an issue. So President Clinton has taken a firm and highly visible position as a national leader who will not accept the unacceptable. If that is playing politics, so be it.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 6/17/96

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