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Jewish World Review Dec. 3, 1999 /22 Kislev, 5760

Morton Kondracke

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Can race be a constructive issue in 2000? -- It's perfectly legitimate that race be a major issue in the 2000 elections. After all, it represents one of the country's major unsolved problems. The question is, will candidates talk about it constructively or destructively?

So far, the signs are not good, as Democrats look for opportunities to accuse Republicans of racial bias -- seemingly, to maximize black turnout next November.

For instance, Democrats cried racism when the Senate last month rejected the nomination of an African-American, Ronnie White, to be a federal judge in Missouri.

The rejection was not merited, but it wasn't based on racism, simply cheap politics -- an effort by Senate Republicans to help an endangered incumbent, Sen. John Ashcroft, R-Mo., make an issue of the death penalty, whose imposition White has opposed on occasion.

There were more racism charges when Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., out of silly personal pique, tried to block the nomination of former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill., to be ambassador to New Zealand.

Braun ultimately was overwhelmingly approved -- not because senators regard her as particularly qualified, but because she was once one of their own and because Republicans feared the "R" brand would be seared onto their reputations.

The two nomination fights seemingly are a warm-up for the kind of campaigning that occurred in 1998, when the Missouri Democratic party ran ads linking Republicans to church-burnings in the South.

That kind of race-baiting could be considered payback for Republican ads -- including some run by Sen. Helms -- implying that white workers lost jobs because black workers got them.

In fact, neither kind is acceptable. Next year, though, Democrats will be more tempted to mount them than Republicans, because African-American turnout may be key to a number of close contests.

One potentially bitter battleground is New York, where both Democratic presidential candidates and Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton are courting one of the nation's most notorious demagogues, the Rev. Al Sharpton, now an African-American power broker.

Sharpton gained infamy for helping keep alive charges that prosecutors and police had kidnapped and abused a black teen-ager, Tawana Brawley, who concocted the story because she lacked an excuse for staying out all night.

New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani has aroused the ire of the African-American community for seeming soft on police brutality.

It will take extreme forbearance for Clinton not to accuse Giuliani of racism, rather than poor police management, especially when black turnout could be crucial to the outcome of the contest.

There's every reason for race to be an issue in 2000, but the issue ought to be framed as: What's the best way to provide equality of opportunity for all Americans?

The just-published survey of 40,000 members of the Armed Forces indicates that feelings of racial inequality persist even in the most-integrated of American institutions.

Three-quarters of all African-Americans surveyed and two-thirds of Hispanics said they had experienced racially offensive behavior in the past 12 months, as did 62 percent of whites. More than half of those surveyed said that when they complained to superiors, nothing was done.

The Armed Services had been regarded as one of America's greatest racial success stories. Indeed, it is, with minorities now accounting for 15 percent of all officers, compared with just 7 percent in 1977, and with minorities occupying 40 percent of all management jobs.

Yet, 80 percent of blacks and 87 percent of Hispanics in uniform feel that they have been given inferior assignments because of race. Almost all whites said there was no such discrimination.

On the presidential level, there is a chance for a "what's best?" debate, although the heat of a campaign may yet tempt candidates to hit low.

Among Democrats, former Sen. Bill Bradley, D-N.J., vows to make racial justice a keystone of his campaign -- although what that means in policy terms is deeply unclear.

His rival, Vice President Al Gore is a supporter of the traditional civil rights agenda of affirmative action and contract set-asides -- racial preferences increasingly under attack in the courts and in public opinion.

Gore has come close to accusing anyone who deviates from that agenda of being hostile to minorities, although the Republican front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, presents a smaller target than other Republicans.

That's because he helped institute a viable alternative to affirmative action when a federal appeals court outlawed race as a basis for college admissions.

Bush supported a plan whereby the top 10 percent of every high school graduating class in Texas can get into its state university. A variation is going into effect in Florida, where Bush's brother, Jeb, is governor. The Texas governor also regularly courts black voters and has made deep inroads among normally Democratic Hispanics.

Still, we shouldn't be surprised if Democratic ads don't point out that blacks and Hispanics still have problems in Texas and accuse Bush of racism. We shouldn't be surprised, but we should be disappointed.

JWR contributor Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


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