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Jewish World Review August 3, 2001 / 14 Menachem-Av, 5761

Ben Wattenberg

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Consumer Reports

Winner for the harshest political rhetoric of the year -- HEREWITH some items on the racial front, perhaps with a pattern, and perhaps not a bad one.

We have a winner for the harshest political rhetoric of the year. The award goes to Julian Bond, Chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, who said at that organization's recent meeting: "Instead of uniting us, the new (Republican) administration almost daily separates and divides. They selected nominees from the Taliban wing of American politics, appeased the wretched appetites of the extreme right wing and chose cabinet officials whose devotion to the Confederacy is nearly canine in its uncritical affection."

I've been to many political and organizational meetings in my life, and I think I know the function of raw red meat to rouse an audience. But this reeked.

Bond's words sent House Republican Leader Dick Armey into orbit. He wrote to Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, suggesting that they get together to talk about items on the NAACP agenda. And he also wrote: "I believe there is a phenomenon in American politics today that could justly be called 'Racial McCarthyism' or 'reverse race-baiting.' ... In my opinion, it has become an all-too-common practice to spread unfounded, racially charged falsehoods against Republicans for political advantage. Deliberate or not... this practice will continue to divide our nation ... and do untold harm in the lives of real people who are unjustly accused of conspiracy against the civil rights of African Americans."

Mfume's response to Armey's charge was moderate, without giving an inch. He wrote: "Dear Dick, I'm sure we could agree that there is enough blame to be placed on both sides, but the real question is where do we go from here? ... Like you, I know that all Republicans are not racists or bigots and neither are all Democrats saints or saviors."

Mfume and Armey will meet soon. I have no idea what will come from it. There are some intractable issues in play, and some intractable politics. But the tone is better than Bond's by 99.5 percent.

At about the same time, with very little publicity, Hugh Price, President of the National Urban League, delivered an opening address to his organization's meeting, in Washington. It was calm and constructive, offering President Bush some agenda items to consider.

Some suggestions made good sense. The election process in America must be improved. The African-American home-ownership rate has gone up to almost 50 percent, but that amount still trails the 73-percent home-ownership rate of whites. Whatever can reasonably be done to increase black home ownership further, should be done. Price also favors an increase in the minimum wage. There is a vigorous argument among economists about whether such a move would stoke inflation. I've been on several sides of that argument over the years. With inflation low, it's time to look at it again.

The troubling part of Price's address is what it didn't consider. About 20 years ago Sen. Daniel P. Moynihan (D-N.Y.) made the point that Republicans -- not Democrats -- had become the party of ideas. That's still an interesting, if contested, argument. Republicans do (!) have some good new notions, many of which would have been considered liberal in earlier times. These include, for example, school choice vouchers for disadvantaged children, a program which has the support of many rank-and-file African-Americans.

In addition, there is the Himalayan matter of partial privatization of Social Security. Price says it would hurt blacks. I'm dubious. I believe it can give every American a piece of the Rock. In any event, the Social Security argument will last for years, and we might all be wise to keep our powder dry before the argument is drenched and drowned in partisan politics.

Finally, there is the haunting issued of "racial profiling." Price urges Bush to do away with it. Everyone in politics agrees. But a recent article by Heather MacDonald in the City Journal makes the case that cops and law enforcement officials -- blacks and whites -- are going where the crime is, which is disproportionate among minorities and in minority neighborhoods. In the process, though, innocent people are suffering harm and humiliation.

On a PBS "Think Tank" program I recently moderated an extremely tense program about racial profiling. Passionately arguing against MacDonald's view were Paul Butler, former prosecuting attorney and professor of law at George Washington University and David Cole, law professor at Georgetown University.

There were dueling studies aplenty, tough language and a variety of policy ideas. But what is clear is that millions of innocent blacks in America are being inadvertently hassled and humbled. That stinks.

I confess: I came out on both sides, and I think to some extent the panelists did too. The root of the problem is violence, not race. The remedies are unclear. But the result is social tragedy. Maybe if we can understand just that much, for now, we'll keep moving ahead, slowly.

Ben Wattenberg is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and moderator of PBS's "Think Tank" is the author, most recently, of The First Measured Century: An Illustrated Guide to Trends in America 1900-2000 (paperback) and (hardcover). You may comment by clicking here.

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