"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 25 August 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.

In Harmony's Way



We really should appreciate Bill

Clinton more than we do. Who

cares if the president merely

talks a good game? Presidents

have always been better at

making high-minded palaver than

at making policy, and Clinton

has proven himself many times

over the most memorable (and

lengthy) Chief Speechmaker since

John F. Kennedy (without the

ur-philanderer's herniated



Last June, Clinton kicked off his

yearlong Initiative on Race with

a characteristic mix of

Ciceronian phrasing ("So much

for the argument that excellence

and diversity do not go hand in

hand."), oddly timed bits of

candor ("Hispanic high school

dropout rates are well above -

indeed, far above - those of

whites and blacks."), and the

shining appeal to the obvious

("... there is old, unfinished

business between black and white

Americans"). It was a stirring

speech, and the President had on

a suave manner that actually

made you believe he had all the

answers. The problem - whenever

Clinton takes the bully pulpit -

is that nobody has any




While the transcript of the race

speech bears mute witness to

"applause," the actual response

to the initiative has been the

sound of one hand clapping. Two

months down the road, the

campuses and pool halls aren't

exactly buzzing with honest

conversation on race. (True -

word that New York's Finest

mistook a Haitian immigrant's

tuchus for a stopped toilet has

gotten the discussion of racism,

if not race, flowing again in



Worse, the presidential panel

designed to lead the discussion

seems to be self-destructing.

Panel head John Hope Franklin is

pushing for a focus on historic

racism against African

Americans, while panel member

Angela Oh is publicly urging a

move beyond the traditional

"black-white paradigm."


[Photo of Tiger Woods, thinking.]

No word yet on whether we can

move beyond the "German-Jewish

paradigm" of the Holocaust, but

this debate only makes clear

what a small-minded affair our

racial dialog has become. When

you can't even figure out which

end zone is yours, the huddle's

bound to be pretty complicated.

Clinton is too smart not to take

a bow toward the multipolar,

cablinasian future, but his

desire to invoke some of the

clear purpose of the Civil

Rights movement is achingly



Can you blame him? Clinton's

attitudes were formed during the

heroic age of his youth, when

there was an actual prize to

keep your eyes on, and even

white men (think congressman Bob

Filner, or John Doar) could take

a stab at righteousness (or at

least, really swing!). By

contrast, the race entropy

embodied in Jack Kemp's shower

boast and Charles Barkley's

gubernatorial run make one long

for the time when riding the bus

wasn't just a slow way to get

across town.


[Photo of Minitset Farrakan.]

It's a strange spectacle - a

national leader in need of a

national crisis. The actual

events in the history of race

relations during the Clinton

years have been

pratfalls, not stands: The

dispute over whether there

were really a million men at the

Million Man March, the stunning

anticlimax of the second Rodney

King trial, the late-empire

fussiness of the O. J. case, all

those steaming piles of comedy

that were evacuated by crackers

nationwide during the Ebonics

dustup. They form a mist of

pettifoggery that no sane

president would even want to

think about ...



... or try to penetrate. Beyond

even the fact that plain old

racial justice hasn't quite made

heaps of progress during

Clinton's tenure, what makes any

race-relations initiative seem

dubious is our sneaking

suspicion that America's racial

dilemma may be about as solved

as it's ever going to be.

Granted, we're closer to

realizing Elijah Muhammed's

dream than Martin Luther King's,

but it's hard to imagine any

different scenario; at least, to

imagine one that doesn't involve

whitey's actually having to pay

something (or even acknowledge

that there's something to pay

for. It turns out there's not

much support for that idea).



More complicated still, as

America re-splinters into

ethnically discrete

neighborhoods (of which the Web

is only the most prominent), the

movement feels less like a

retrenchment than a regression

to the mean. Self-segregation is

no easier to regulate than

self-abuse, and when a trend is

both voluntary and mutual, maybe

we shouldn't even be trying to

stop it. Except for

pointy-headed narcissists like

Michael Lerner and Cornell West,

nobody gets into much of a

lather about racial separatism

anymore. Compared to the task of

building decent schools -

integrated or not - for black

children (oh, and did you hear

the one about Ebonics?), the

integrationist goal of getting

people to live together (even if

you have to force them) seems

almost obnoxious, the innovation

of white people who have never

asked themselves, "Why wouldn't

they want to live with us?"



Of course, outside the Nation of

Islam, separate-but-equal

remains as chimeric now as it

was in 1896. At the same time

the President's panel began to

puff and wheeze, Congress voted

to suspend home rule in

Washington. In this case,

Marion Barry's unfathomable sloth, pride,

and avarice make him an easy

scapegoat (and it has the added

benefit of being true). But the

mere mention of the phrase "home

rule" reminds us that right down

the street from Bill Clinton's

house, a mostly black population

still lives like Palestinians.



History, which torments other

countries, mostly just teases

America, so that at various

times since the Civil War we

have seemed right on the verge

of working out the racial

puzzle. But don't count on

moving past the old black-white

paradigm anytime soon. And don't

be surprised if the President's

panel ends up recommending that

we all sit down and do nothing.

Considering how much worse

things could be, the old brick

wall of black-and-white

Americanism doesn't look too

shabby. There's no anxiety of

minor differences here; in

America, we all know where we

stand. It's bitter, it's ugly,

and it's a mess. But we call it

home. For Bill Clinton, though,

no news may be bad news. When

you're a president looking for a

legacy, it's a curse to live in

uninteresting times.

courtesy of BarTel D'Arcy

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