Clinton Is Squishy on Civil Rights

Article excerpt

A year into his presidency, Bill Clinton is a paradox on civil rights, behaving a bit like Ronald Reagan and sounding a lot like Dan Quayle.

He has dragged his heels in making his civil rights appointments. He has denounced affirmative-action-advocate women as "bean counters." He torpedoed controversial law professor Lani Guinier's nomination to avoid confronting Senate conservatives. Like a latter-day Quayle, he admonishes black audiences to lift up their bootstraps, restore family values and stop the violent crime that betrays Martin Luther King's dream.

What gives?

I think Clinton knows perfectly well what he wants. I think he sees this period in America as a post-civil rights era in which black America's biggest problems call for something other than civil rights solutions. Opinion polls indicate most African-Americans agree, citing jobs, crime, education, health care, economic growth, spiritual despair, eroding family values and decaying community cohesion as being more urgent concerns than civil rights.

In pursuing common answers to these common problems, the nation's No. 1 "New Democrat" appears to see civil rights as an issue that, after years of white backlash, inflamed by vote-seeking Republicans, divides more than it brings together.

But if Clinton has a clear idea of where he wants to go with civil rights, he's having a tough time finding black nominees to help him get there. John Payton, a District of Columbia corporation counsel, recently dropped out of consideration to be deputy attorney general for civil rights, the job to which Guinier was named, after black members of Congress thought his position on redistricting was too wishy-washy.

Clinton's squishiness on civil rights helps explain why, more than a year after his election, almost all of his civil rights posts, including the head of the crucial Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, remain vacant or occupied by Bush appointees.

While civil rights lawyers care about civil rights law, Clinton appears more interested in non-legal ways to open economic opportunities. In his effort to win white support without losing the minorities who are crucial to his party's base, Clinton has taken counsel from pragmatic authorities like the University of Chicago's William Julius Wilson, who say the nation will support vigorous government anti-poverty action, if the remedies are targeted according to need, not race. …