Lewinsky and lost opportunities across country's racial divide

October 08, 1998|By Starita Smith

THE LEWINSKY mess is depriving our nation of the chance to see how far President Clinton might have gone with his efforts to keep race relations at the top of the American agenda.

This effort is no small task. Public perceptions on race are as diverse and divergent as the American population.

There is a large segment of white people who would rather believe that that this is a colorblind culture. We've dealt with race, they say, now let's move on.

On the other hand, some high-profile black folks would like to continue to think that the black-white race dynamic is the only one that counts. It isn't. Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic segment of the U.S. population. Some Latino groups believe they already outnumber blacks. The U.S. Census Bureau shows the population of African Americans and Latinos running pretty much in a tie. And we cannot forget Asian Americans and American Indians.

When Clinton made fumbling efforts to get us to talk to each other, it was perhaps the first time an American president made a serious attempt to get us to talk about race without the sword of major urban riots or a civil-rights movement hanging over his head.

Had Mr. Clinton succeeded in his efforts, it would have been a major historic accomplishment.

Anyone who has tried to take part in a serious conversation about race knows that. I have been in at least three encounter sessions with white people about race. In every session, whites invariably say that it was the first time they ever talked seriously -- about race relations. I believe them.

Why should they talk about race? The mechanics of institutional racism don't require that the beneficiaries of an unequal system discuss race. All they have to do is pick up subliminal signals that protect the perks for them.

Meanwhile, those who suffer from racism can't avoid talking about it. After all, nearly every aspect of their lives is affected somehow by the color of their skin or their accent. Race (and this includes ethnicity) often determines which houses they can buy, which neighborhoods welcome them or shut them out, which schools their children will attend and what jobs and promotions they will receive.

Now, as the nation speeds toward the day when there will be no racial majority in this country, we should take any opportunity to talk honestly and work toward consensus.

But we don't. Too many of us are busy clinging to whatever benefits society gives us to risk a serious discussion.

Now that Mr. Clinton has lost so much of his influence in Congress, even among members of his own party, it is unlikely that he will bring up such an unpopular and contentious issue as race relations again. Even with people like Bernice King (the minister daughter of Martin Luther King Jr.), South African President Nelson Mandela and Democratic Rep. Maxine Waters of California defending him, Mr. Clinton will revert to putting political survival first.

Perhaps the saddest thing about the whole situation is that when we look at the array of would-be Clinton successors, no one (except the Rev. Jesse Jackson) seems likely to take up the challenge that Mr. Clinton assumed when he called for a national dialogue on race.

The death of a national conversation on race could be the least talked about and most tragic fallout of the Ken Starr witch hunt and the Monica Lewinsky affair.

Starita Smith is a writer and editor based in Texas. Her article is one in a series distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service's Progressive Media Project, which provides commentary from leading voices of the African-American community.

Pub Date: 10/08/98

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