Unfinished Tasks

Unfinished Tasks

By Harry Ashmore

Vol. 16, No. 2, 1994, pp. 20-23, 31

If American society is divided by horizontal class lines, there is also a vertical division based on race that begins at the point where the affluent are set apart from the poor. Analysis of 1990 census data showed that blacks in significant numbers lived in upscale urban and suburban neighborhoods, but intimate contact with their white neighbors was minimal. Generations of Southern demagogues had claimed that such residential race mixing would result in wholesale miscegenation, but the 53 million marriages recorded in the 1990 census included only 240,000 with a black spouse.

In the upper strata of society racial attitudes, reinforced by ethnocentrism on both sides, still inhibited interaction and provided fertile ground for political exploitation. But in the ghettos the issues were still those that had existed throughout the nation’s history. The greatly expanded opportunities available to middleclass blacks remained as far beyond the reach of most underclass youths as they had been for their sharecropping forebears. Segregation was still the dominant fact of life below the poverty line, and the issue was quite literally survival.

In his campaign, Clinton had carefully avoided proposals targeted directly at the festering problems in the inner cities. If they could be persuaded to vote, the poor blacks who lived there could provide effective political support, but the threat of racial violence emanating from these neglected communities also worked against any candidate who embraced their cause in the name of social justice.

The result was spelled out in the conclusions of leading social scientists who contributed to The Urban Underclass, a 1991 Brookings Institution study. “Universalism” was the key term that emerged from the mass of statistical evidence. Despite the surge of antitax sentiment, broadbased programs such as Medicare and Social Security had remained securely imbedded in the unbalanced federal budget. But problems peculiar to poor blacks had long since lost priority. Any approach to meeting their needs would have to be, as J. David Greenstone put it, “politically feasible, that is, be supported outside the inner cities.”

Kevin Phillips, whose focus on the common denominator of self-interest had made him the most reliable Washington appraiser of political attitudes, concurred:

To the extent that you tell the middleclass you are going to tax the rich so that you can give more to the middleclass, they will love you. But if you tell suburbia you are going to tax them more so you can give more to low-income school districts, they are not going to do it.

Head Start was the only Great Society program of consequence to survive the rising tide of right-wing populism. The preschool program was never adequately funded, but it managed to gain popular support to the point where it even received the blessing of Presidents Reagan and

Page 20

Bush. President Clinton was pledged to increase its reach to include all eligible children, and increased funding was included in his pared-down budget.

Head Start met the political test the administration applied to most of the recommendations it made to Congress—that they have sufficient popular support to overcome ideological opposition. “Poor children, who cannot readily be blamed for their plight,” Greenstone noted, “are relatively popular beneficiaries.” And Head Start also had the political virtue of being effectively divorced from any prospect of directly advancing racial integration.

Busing was a dead letter, and the Supreme Court had opened the way for district courts to rescind orders requiring the elimination of segregated schools. Eligibility for Head Start required that children must come from families below the poverty line, and if it were opened to all such, the great majority of new black recruits would be found in urban districts from which 96.7 percent of white students had decamped.

As he rounded into the second year in office, it was unclear how well Bill Clinton was succeeding in his declared goal of persuading the American people to take a longer-range view of public policy. Congress had imposed a higher priority on budget-balancing than he had projected, forcing him to cut back on proposed economic stimulus programs to offset the continuing effects of structural job loss. But the outlines of a new industrial policy had been put in place, and he had restored the burden of increased revenue on upper-income taxpayers, while exempting the poor and minimizing the impact on those in mid-income brackets.

He was still plagued by the skepticism of the media, which continued to portray him as a blundering neophyte out of his depth in big league politics. But when Congress closed out the 1993 session, Congressional Quarterly’s scorecard showed that Clinton had prevailed on 90 percent of the votes on which he took a stand—the highest success rate since the first year of the Eisenhower administration forty years before.

In the course of wheeling and dealing with Congress, he had reaffirmed his centrist position—prevailing against the Republicans on basic elements of his social programs, and successfully outmaneuvering the labor unions on the left and Ross Perot on the right, to put through the North American Free Trade Agreement with a vote margin that refuted the dire predictions of the pundits.

As he moved to take his case directly to the electorate, the polls showed that he was rallying majority support for health care reform, the centerpiece of his design for redirecting the nation’s social policies. Government-directed universal medical coverage would provide an essential benefit for the underclass but the emphasis was on meeting the needs of the middleclass. Welfare and educational reform were still on the presidential agenda, but as a Los Angeles Times headline put it, the White House was “Fighting a Quiet War on Poverty.”

Some of the initiatives clearly are focused on relieving poverty—programs aimed at decreasing homelessness and stimulating business in depressed communities for example. Other new programs, including national service, are couched in rhetoric about helping a broad spectrum of the population but are targeted at low-income individuals and poor communities.

Clinton’s critics labeled this a “stealth policy.” Those on the left discounted the programs as palliatives designed to distract attention from his sellout to business interests in the name of job creation, while the Heritage Foundation spoke for the right wing when it charged that the administration was really bent on “throwing money at every welfare program we’ve ever had…old ideas that the administration is trotting out even when they are proven failures.”

But Labor Secretary Robert Reich pointed out that the focus on encouraging private sector job creation was

what we were elected to do. The putting-people-first campaign was all about investing in the work force. There is a difference between this and the older Democratic philosophy of redistributing wealth from the rich to the poor. It’s about giving everyone in society the capacity to be a constructive member of society.

Representative Craig Washington of Texas reflected the

Page 21

prevailing view of the Congressional Black Caucus: “It’s a smart approach. The people who have the least clout and the least influence…are poor people. If you stick something out there like a sore thumb, it would never get passed. It’s more important to do something to help the poor than to beat your horn about it.”

Appraisals of Clinton’s performance in terms of the conventional political orientation of Democrats and Republicans had become virtually meaningless in the face of pressures emanating from the electorate. Passage of a package of gun control measures he had sponsored, Clinton said, had nothing to do with ideology; the Congressional response demonstrated that “Americans are finally fed up with violence that cuts down another citizen with gunfire every twenty minutes.” Wherever they chose to place the blame, city dwellers were faced with inescapable reminders of the cost to the whole community of failure to deal with the root causes of crime and violence in the inner cities.

The mounting negative force of these unmet needs were demonstrated in the 1993 off-year elections in Los Angeles, which epitomized the dislocations afflicting all major cities. The coalition of liberals, Jews, blacks, labor and downtown business interests that had kept a moderate Democrat, Tom Bradley, in the mayor’s office for twenty years went down to crushing defeat. His successor was Richard Riordan, an obscure Republican multimillionaire who had moved ahead of twenty-eight candidates with a Perot-style television blitz paid for by six million dollars of his own money.

An exit poll on the day of Riordan’s runoff victory over the Democratic organization’s candidate, City Councilman Michael Woo, provided what the Los Angeles Times termed “a downcast portrait of the city’s political landscape”:

It is a portrait of an electorate deeply divided by race and by what it expects of the next mayor, but unified in its doubts about the honesty of both candidates, its distaste for the campaign’s negative tone and its deep skepticism that improvement will occur….

With a different cast of characters, that portrait would be replicated in mayoral elections in Detroit and New York later in the year.

Maxine Waters, who represented riot-torn South Central Los Angeles in Congress, put a human face on the source of municipal angst:

Look on any street corner—any street corner in my congressional district or in any other urban center—and you will see him. He is a member of our lost generation.

He is between 17 and 30 years old, the product of a dysfunctional family. Unskilled and without a job, he is living from girlfriend to mother to grandmother. He’s not reflected in the unemployment statistics and surely isn’t on the tax rolls. If he’s driving, it’s without a license. If he’s bunking in public housing, you won’t find his name on the lease. He has a record—misdemeanors if he is lucky, felonies more likely. He was the most visible participant in the Los Angeles uprising, but otherwise he seems almost invisible to society.

For too many young men in my district, and in other cities around this country, there is precious little hope. They have given up on themselves and they have given up on us. If we know what’s good for us—and him—we had better start paying him some attention.

Bill Clinton came before the American people as a healer, committed to bringing together a divided nation. Martin Luther King, he said, had been the teacher of his generation: “He taught us about the pain and promise of America, about the redemptive healing of faith and discipline, about love and courage….” As a politician in a poor Southern state, Clinton had also recognized the end of racial discrimination as a pragmatic necessity—not only to meet the pressure exerted by newly enfranchised blacks, but also to free whites of the crippling legacy from the racist past. Blacks now posed a similar challenge for the nation.

When they were isolated and powerless, their existence as a mass of exploited workers had refuted the majority’s professed moral precepts; the civil rights movement that made them a positive factor in national life had tested the basic tenets of governance. Now the movement had run its course and black leaders no longer held the moral high ground. But the effects of the social Darwinism reinstated as public policy could not be ignored if there was to be a restoration of the level of civility upon which democratic government ultimately depends.

The death of Thurgood Marshall during the week of the Clinton inaugural had provided a poignant reminder of the practical consequences of the nation’s failure to live up to the moral standards prescribed in its founding documents. He was laid out on Capitol Hill in the great hail of the marble temple emblazoned with the slogan “Equal Justice Under Law.” Congress had ordered Abraham Lincoln’s catafalque brought to the Court to serve as his bier, and scores of thousands filed by to pay their respects to one of the last survivors of those who

Page 22

carried the civil rights banner in the days when there was no mass movement to support them.

For me, Justice Marshall symbolized the gallantry that went into the effort to change the legal contours of the nation’s race relations. When I first encountered him he was a lonely figure standing tall in Southern courtroom before hostile white judges and juries, arguing the case for his people he would ultimately make undeniable. He was sustained in that hazardous practice by a sense of irony and an ingrained civility that never deserted him.

The Newsday columnist Murray Kempton thought the origin of those qualities could be seen in an anecdote from the days when young Thurgood worked during college vacations as a waiter at the Gibson Island Club on Chesapeake Bay, where his father was chief steward:

One night, when the younger Marshall was at his station, a visiting congressman from Iowa, high flown with insolence, wine and ignorance of the customs of the region, called out, “Come here, nigger.”

And then Ellison Durant Smith, the senator from South Carolina, rose up to demand in thunder, “What did he call you, Thurgood? I will not hear that word spoken in this club.”

The offender was driven into the night, exiled for a private racial slur by the wrath of Cotton Ed Smith, the most tireless race-baiter on the Senate floor. The “n” word was Smith’s common currency for the campaigns he debased; but he would not tolerate its utterance in the company of gentlemen.

Marshall could tell that tale without rancor. It came from the vast stock of anecdotes he drew upon to instruct his learned brethren on the Supreme Court. “They are his way of preserving the past while purging it of its bleakest moment,” Justice William Brennan said. “They are also a form of education for the rest of us. Surely Justice Marshall recognizes that the stories made us—his colleagues—confront walks of life we had never known.”

Entertaining no doubt as to his own identity, Marshall ignored the circumlocutions that reflected the effort to end usage blacks believed, with good reason, to be redolent of white contempt. He never accepted “black” and continued to use “Negro” in his opinions until his final years on the bench, when he adopted “African-American” but pointedly rejected “Afro-American.”

It was said even by admirers that Marshall’s opinions could not be considered the work of a great legal scholar. That was the note James Jackson Kilpatrick, the father of interposition, struck in reviewing a hagiography written by the black columnist Carl Rowan. Yet, however he may have intended it, Kilpatrick paid proper tribute when he wrote, “His passion was not for law. His passion was for justice.” Those who had come to the Court lately made a distinction between the two that cast Marshall in the role of dissenter.

He held on as long as he could, telling those anxious for a vacancy, “I have a lifetime appointment and I expect to serve it. I expect to die at 110, shot by a jealous husband.” But in 1991 declining health forced him to step down, making way for Clarence Thomas, a black lawyer of another generation who had won appointment by repudiating everything Marshall stood for.

It was a measure of the changing political climate that the justice who moved from majority to minority came to the bench after winning twenty-seven of thirty-three cases he argued before the Court, many of them brought in the days when most of the justices were rated as conservative. When he put aside the advocate’s role he demonstrated that the usual political labels had little application in the areas of the law where he consistently took his stand.

“Marshall’s focus had always been more inclusive than African-Americans,” said Nicholas deB. Katzenbach, who served as attorney general in the stormy days of the civil rights movement:

Page 23

His concern is with all people who do not enjoy the full benefits of a free society…. Fundamentally, he is in his passion for the individual a conservative, a democrat who cannot tolerate the arbitrary acts of governmental bureaucracy in its unconcern for individual rights.

Kenneth Clark rode with Marshall when he headed South to Charleston to try Briggs, the Clarendon County case he would pursue to his final victory in Brown. Late that night, as the train pounded down through Virginia, Marshall looked up from his briefs and said, “You know, Kenneth, sometimes I get awfully tired of trying to save the white man’s soul.”

The task of redemption remained unfinished, and as a new president came up from the South to address it he was faced with the question I had left open a generation ago when the rise of the civil rights movement marked the end of the era I memorialized in An Epitaph for Dixie: “There is reason to wonder, certainly, whether the American political system as it has evolved under the impact of the expanding cities is anywhere giving us the kind of public and private leadership our age demands.”

Former editor of the Arkansas Gazette and an SRC Life Fellow, Harry Ashmore now lives in Santa Barbara, Calif. This essay is excerpted from his new book, Civil Rights and Wrongs (Knopf, 1994), which explores his personal remembrances of U.S. race relations in the fifty years since the publication of Gunnar Myrdal’s landmark study, The American Dilemma, and the founding of the Southern Regional Council.