DISAPPEARING ACTS

IF SLICK WILLY WON'T MAKE THE CASE FOR RACIAL JUSTICE, WHO WILL? A NEW TIMES EXCLUSIVE.

That was exactly what Bush's press secretary Marlin Fitzwater and Housing and Urban Development chief Jack Kemp accused Clinton of doing after the candidate visited two black churches in Washington, D.C., and suggested that the Bush administration might learn something from a Clinton "fact-finding" mission.

While Bush disconnected the "loss of life and property" in L.A. from the institutionalized brutality of Daryl Gates' police force, and Vice President Dan Quayle laid the blame for the riots at the feet of Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society," Fitzwater sought to discredit "Slippery Bill," claiming the Democrat viewed the riots as a "political opportunity." Kemp issued a statement declaring the Clinton campaign had "reached a new low" in attempting to politicize "the tragic situation" in Los Angeles.

In response, Clinton was defensive, pushed off the front pages by his failure to distinguish himself from George Bush's law-and-order rhetoric.

"There's some chance if we come out with an agenda, the current administration will adopt it," Clinton told New Times. "There's some precedent for that in this election. They did that with education reforms, and I think that's a good thing. Maybe, just by going there and just coming up with some things that we can do, we can alter this in a nonpartisan way."
But then the fires were tamped out. White America appeared more alarmed by the violent reaction to the King verdict than the savage inequities that had caused the riots. Along the way, Clinton became more follower than leader. As he parroted Bush's attack on "crime," he faded into the weird background static of the 1992 election, yet another glib Democrat without focus or conviction.

For one brief moment, Bill Clinton had an opportunity to shift national attention from the content of his personal character to the character of America's content--its willingness to put racial justice at the top of the country's domestic agenda.

But the moment passed.

for those who know
him well, Clinton's tepid statements in the wake of the King riots are disappointing.

Janis Lunon Kearney, editor and publisher of Arkansas' largest black newspaper, the Arkansas State-Press, acknowledged Clinton's historic support for civil rights. "Bill Clinton is the best thing ever to happen to black people in this state," said Kearney. While she won't condemn Clinton as wishy-washy in the wake of the King verdict, Kearney believes "he missed his chance to say something strong."

Clinton's political instincts, which drive him to broaden his appeal at every opportunity, caused him to falter while Los Angeles--and other American cities--was burning. Some suggest that Clinton, whose campaign has focused on the "middle class," may have muffled his concern for racial justice for fear of alienating whites who hold little sympathy for urban looters. In doing so, Clinton surrendered the moral authority his civil rights record may have lent him.

"It's too bad because race is the one subject on which Bill Clinton is unreproachable," says Stephen Buel, the editor and co-founder of Spectrum Weekly, a Little Rock-based alternative newspaper. "It's the one issue on which he's consistently enlightened and where he's followed his own heart."
Buel points to Clinton's fearlessness in appointing blacks to positions of responsibility within his administration. Aside from sprinkling blacks across the breadth of state boards, Clinton has appointed blacks to high-profile, policymaking positions. For example, he appointed Dr. Jocelyn Elders, an outspoken liberal and advocate of sex education in schools, to serve as director of the state health department. Likewise, Clinton appointed black businessmen to the directorships of the Arkansas Development Finance Authority and the state's Finance and Administration Department. Clinton has also named blacks to the state's Game and Fish Commission and Highway Department.

But Paul Greenberg, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, who last month became editorial page editor of the state's largest newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, disagrees. He says Clinton's appointments have not come at the risk of his popularity, and that the candidate's "disappearance" after the King verdict and subsequent riots was in keeping with his history of avoiding controversy.

"He has substituted patronage for progress," Greenberg said. "We do not have a state civil rights law. We don't have a fair housing law in this state--that would also cost him some popularity. He just dodges and weaves whenever it might cost him something to support civil rights. I don't think appointing black folks to boards and commissions has hurt him. I don't think there's any great groundswell of opposition to black members on these boards and commissions. A state civil rights' bill, a fair-housing law, that would mean that he'd be risking something politically." To others, however, Clinton's appointments matter precisely because in Arkansas black people are effectively disenfranchised from electoral politics. For a Southern state, Arkansas' black population is relatively small, about 16 percent, and concentrated in the state's southern and eastern regions. (The northwest corner of the state, the most prosperous and fastest growing area, is, aside from a few athletes matriculating at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, almost entirely white.)

The racial dynamic is different there, too. Unlike other Southern states, the legacy of slavery has had a relatively minor effect on Arkansas. Since only 3 percent of Arkansas landowners had slaves at the onset of the Civil War, recent tensions between the races have resulted more from economic competition between poor whites and blacks than from a continuation of the plantation system. While white attitudes toward blacks in places like Mississippi, Louisiana and Georgia are informed by a certain noblesse oblige, Arkansas stands apart from the South. White racism in Arkansas rarely manifests itself in the "gentle" patronizing of black folkways associated with the stereotypical Southern aristocrat. In Arkansas, racism is more fearful and desperate than condescending.

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