Forgive me, but should blacks cling to Clinton?

October 07, 1998|By E.R. Shipp

ALL THIS talk about black Americans being forgiving to a fault is tiresome, not to mention galling.

We forgive George Wallace, the man who pledged himself to "segregation forever" before he saw the light in his later years. When the former Alabama governor died last month, blacks were prominent among the mourners.

Polls show that blacks forgive President Clinton. More than whites, blacks are hanging in there with a president who is mired in a sex scandal. "Don't mess with Bill," blacks seem to be saying more loudly than any other segment of the populace -- though, truth be told, the polls don't seem to be interested in what Latinos and Asian-Americans think. They're mainly interested in black and white.

"African Americans across the board are more readily willing to forgive," says Gordon Bush, the mayor of East St. Louis, Ill., and president of the National Conference of Black Mayors.

I don't buy all this noble Negro exceptionalism. Somehow it seems that blacks are being set up as a different species of Americans even as this president, more than his predecessors, has made inclusion a touchstone of his administration. From his good friend Vernon Jordan to his sometimes spiritual adviser Jesse Jackson to his several dozen black political appointees, Mr. Clinton has done much to mainstream black Americans.

And now this blacks-are-different-from-everyone-else malarkey. Either they're prone to forgiveness, or they don't care as much about morals as others do.

A history of oppression

For sure, blacks tend to be proportionately more religious and to speak of their sojourn in this country in biblical terms. So the language of forgiveness and redemption is quite familiar. But one might say as much about any particularly religious sector of the populace or any whose history has included oppression.

"Black people have known what it's like to be hounded and persecuted and to be selectively investigated," says Harlem's Rep. Charles Rangel.

Beyond black and white

That's true, but blacks are not unique on that score. If polls were to push beyond black and white, they might discover that a willingness to forgive may not be tied to race so much as to class, religious identification and a collective memory of persecution.

I'm not sure whose interests are served by depicting blacks as creatures uniquely capable of forgiving, if not forgetting, everything from slavery to a presidential sex scandal. But I do know that the interests of blacks themselves are not served.

Rather than blacks being naive Bible-thumpers who are easily appeased by access to White House social events like the recent reception for South African President Nelson Mandela, I'd like to believe that some of their response to Mr. Clinton is a calculated assessment of political self-interest.

"There is a certain black identification with Bill Clinton as someone who stands up for black Americans. Clinton would have to do something that's a direct affront to African Americans for them to turn on him," says David Botsitis of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington research institution.

A recent poll conducted by the Washington-based Pew Research Center for the People and the Press showed that 88 percent of blacks approved of how the president is doing his job, while only 61 percent of whites did.

Says Joan Campbell of the National Council of Churches: "It's hard to turn away when the most powerful man in the world has decided to make racial justice his priority. So we're very loyal."

Maybe. Maybe not. If the president's travails make it impossible for him to deliver on a domestic agenda that could benefit blacks, then they are no more likely than anyone else to go down with a sinking ship.

E.R. Shipp is a columnist for the New York Daily News.

Pub Date: 10/07/98

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