Published on Sunday, January 21, 2001 in Newsday
Clinton Gave Blacks a Hug but Little Else
by Les Payne
THE CHAOS that brought George Walker Bush to the White House is fast fading
into history as the stock of this 43rd president, and even his IQ, seem
mysteriously to be climbing. Before the election, pundits had the Texas
governor barely able to knot his string tie. Now he is being saddled up as an
adept, or soon to be adept, chief executive successor to his father and Bill
Clinton, if not quite Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman.
By week's end, Time Magazine's Person of the Year and his first lady will be en route to their place among the nation's Most Admired, and she, despite early sartorial exhibits, will be named one of the Best Dressed.
The American heart pounds inexorably and forgivingly for its semisacred presidency no matter how thick the transgressions of the sitting president, or how thin his margin of victory. Having lost the popular ballot to Al Gore by, the Associated Press says, 539,947 votes, Bush is counting on the American public to close ranks behind his newfound appreciation for the Electoral College.
There will be plenty of time to gauge the unfolding of the Bush administration, but what about the legacy of President Clinton? Much will be made about Clinton's mark on the economy, NAFTA, Kosovo and Monica Lewinsky.
What about his mark on race relations? No other U.S. president ever dared handle this explosive issue unless it was first heaved through the Oval Office window like a Molotov cocktail.
"We don't have any burning social upheaval," Clinton said on the eve of his big 1997 racial initiative speech in San Diego. Still, he proceeded to establish a national diversity panel to study race relations. White Americans-far gone in denial-maintained that the federal government had already done enough, thank you. Thus, Clinton's race initiative, doomed from the start, withered as a quack prescription written for a patient admitting to no known ailments.
Personally, it must be said that this fifth-generation Arkansan, whose forebears were no strangers to slavery, shows more insight into race relations than all the white politicians, lawmakers, cops, educators, landlords and journalists heard from anywhere in the republic these days. Yet, after the end of two full terms, he leaves much undone, by his own admission, in the area of race relations.
On the plus side, Clinton appointed seven key black cabinet members and more black federal judges and commission heads and other professionals to the federal government than any previous president. The rising economic tide of the Clinton-era economy also lifted the boats of African Americans to relatively new heights. The recent National Urban League report, "The State of Black America 2000," said black unemployment, though still twice that of whites, was at an all- time low, with a corresponding uptick in college enrollment and housing ownership.
In the macro area of judicial punishment and general welfare, blacks have been somewhat battered. Clinton's omnibus crime bill left untouched the 100-to-1 ratio in the disparity in sentencing of crack and powdered cocaine offenses. He has, curiously, petitioned the incoming Bush administration to correct this bias, which lands great, and disproportionate, numbers of blacks in prisons.
This crackdown on young, first-time, nonviolent offenders has been nothing short of devastating. The number of black juveniles charged during the Clinton years jumped to 535,500 in 2000 from 456,072 in 1992. During the same period, black adults in the criminal justice system increased by 276,700 to 2,149,900.
When I once asked President Clinton about this racially biased cocaine sentencing disparity, he said, "The situation that exists is unfair, unjustifiable and should be changed." Yet he has found no way to change it.
Clinton's terrible performance with this federal drug punishment matches his sorry achievement with welfare reform and health care as they especially affect underprivileged African Americans.
Perhaps Clinton was indeed America's most enlightened president on racial matters and counted blacks among his closest friends. Still, as with his marital fidelity, his record on substantive racial issues is littered with sweet intentions, high hopes and the double-cross.
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