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Jewish World Review Feb. 18, 2003 / 16 Adar I, 5763

John H. Fund

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Growing number of black officials breaking ranks by calling for a more honest approach to race relations | Black leaders who focus on racial divisions are too often showered with media attention and, what is worse, given a free pass on demagoguery. Presidential candidate Al Sharpton, handled with kid gloves by other White House contenders, comes to mind. At the same time, leaders such as Clarence Thomas, J.C. Watts, civil-rights leader Roy Innis and even Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice are often called "sellouts," or worse, for not viewing every issue through a racial prism.

Nonetheless, a growing number of black officials are breaking ranks by calling for a more honest approach to race relations. The latest is David Clarke, the elected sheriff of Milwaukee County, Wis., who accused other black elected officials of practicing a "cult of victimology" instead of making "real efforts to better the lives of black people." His critics claim that the 46-year-old Democrat is pandering to whites, but his message has struck a chord among voters of all races and could catapult him into higher office.

The controversy began last month after 24-year-old Lamarr Nash stole a truck and led deputies on a high-speed freeway chase. It ended after the truck collided with a squad car. Mr. Nash gave up and lay on the ground, where, as a TV-station videotape showed, a deputy briefly put his foot on the suspect's neck. Sheriff Clarke conceded that his office "does not teach" that technique but said that its use wasn't unreasonable, given the circumstances. Prosecutors in two counties agreed that the police broke no laws during the chase or after it.

But before that conclusion was reached, Mr. Nash's family claimed that he had suffered bruising, and some black officeholders rushed to condemn the incident. "It was excessive, and it was inappropriate," Reserve Judge Russell Stamper told an unruly meeting at the local NAACP office. Sheriff Clarke stood his ground as the crowd of 100 bombarded him with questions. His only supporter was 17-year-old Jovon Groce, who noted that Mr. Nash had "put plenty of lives at risk" with his erratic driving and could have been armed. The teenager was shouted down by the crowd.

Sheriff Clarke asked how many believed the deputy involved was racist. Nearly every hand went up. Mr. Clarke then displayed a photograph of the deputy -- who was black. Many in the crowd remained angry, with Judge Stamper responding that blacks can develop racist attitudes of superiority.

Two days later, an exasperated Sheriff Clarke e-mailed a letter to Charlie Sykes, a popular local talk-show host, who read it on the air. Mr. Clarke said that he had sat through the meeting "in utter disbelief and disgust" as black leaders talked as if Mr. Nash "was some sort of icon in the struggle to achieve equality" and "as if Jim Crow laws and a return to the back of the bus lurk right around the corner." Sheriff Clarke wrote that this "adopting of victimhood as an identity and exaggerating it" only "gives failure, lack of effort and criminality a tacit stamp of approval." He urged people not to listen to a "false message put out by a few demagogues."

The reaction from local officials was withering. State Sen. Gwen Moore accused him of "scapegoating." County Supervisor James White said that Mr. Clarke was "trying to convince conservative monied elements" to back him in a race for mayor. Another called him a "self-hating black." Mikel Holt, editor of a local black newspaper, told me that many of his readers found the sheriff's message "powerful" but added that some are upset that he expressed it to a largely white radio audience. Indeed, the next day Sheriff Clarke felt compelled to appear on a black radio station, where 75% of the two-dozen callers agreed with him.

This isn't the only time that Mr. Clarke has attracted controversy. Last month, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel ran a front-page story highlighting criticism of Ceasefire, a program begun by the Clinton Justice Department to decrease violence. An education element uses ads to remind convicted felons that they face serious penalties if they carry a gun, even if they don't use it. Those who ignore the warnings are prosecuted in federal court, where penalties are more severe. Because more blacks than whites are picked up and jailed through the program, critics argued that its enforcement is racially discriminatory.

Sheriff Clarke will have none of that. "We're not targeting a population. We're targeting neighborhoods," he told the Journal-Sentinel. "The majority of people arrested for violent crimes, they're black males. Why should we kid ourselves . . . they're ravaging the lives of other black individuals."

"I'm result-oriented, and our neighborhoods will never prosper if we don't keep criminals from victimizing families," Sheriff Clarke told me. He is heartened by the reaction he is getting from ordinary black citizens. "They agree that our community will only be strong if we reject low expectations and failure on everyone's part. A new generation of leaders think it's time for a fresh message and more honesty."

A 24-year veteran of the Milwaukee police force, Sheriff Clarke was appointed county sheriff last year by a Republican governor. He promptly disappointed the GOP by winning a full four-year term as a Democrat, albeit one who openly admires Clarence Thomas and Colin Powell.

He says his blue-collar parents taught him "not to use race as an excuse," and he mourns that today "playing the race card is done as if it were some kind of sport." He has called for crackdowns on truant students after a mob of boys as young as 10 bludgeoned a man to death.

On crime, he has beefed up neighborhood patrols, sold the department's helicopter and worked to end a complacent attitude among some of his 600 deputies. He has also criticized the policing methods of white and black police chiefs, including Arthur Jones of the city of Milwaukee. Chief Jones is a polarizing figure who has called two black members of the fire and police commission "Uncle Toms" and is suing his own city government for racial discrimination.

Mr. Clarke could attract votes from all races if he ran for mayor next year. His political strategist managed the election of Jim Doyle, the new Democratic governor. Standing 6 feet 4 inches in his cowboy boots, Mr. Clarke "is a very commanding and imposing figure -- he looks like John Wayne," Evan Zeppos, a public-relations consultant, told the Journal-Sentinel.

Such qualities are bound to help. Today's culture wars inspire an especially toxic form of invective, as Sheriff Clarke has discovered, and it takes an almost heroic temperament to withstand the abuse. New black leaders in particular, Milwaukee reminds us, must endure the hazing of an entrenched civil-rights establishment focused on the tactics and battles of the past.

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©2001, John H. Fund