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Tuesday, April 14, 1992 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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John Leo

It's Time To Be Honest About Racial Matters

Universal Press Syndicate

HERE'S a clear indication that a significant shift is under way in thinking about racial matters: In the same week, two Democratic senators gave strong speeches that deviated sharply from what white liberals normally allow themselves to say in public.

On the floor of the Senate, Bill Bradley said we can't "make race an excuse for failing to pass judgment about self-destructive behavior." He specifically named the 65 percent rate of out-of-wedlock births among black women and said that fear of violence at the hands of young urban black males "covers the streets like a sheet of ice."

Speaking at Yale, John Kerry of Massachusetts sounded many of the same themes in the same stark language: a high illegitimacy rate, families "on welfare for far too long," a reality "ruled not simply by poverty but by savagery," a crime rate that is "the most deadly poison there is to improved relations between black and white Americans," and the desperate need for "the simple restoration of order."

Pulling these quotes out of long speeches may make it seem that the senators were hostile to the cause of racial justice, but that is not the case. Both were pleading for the rebuilding of our cities and both were straightforward about the sins of whites.

But here is what is significant: In their use of blunt language and their repeated calls for honesty in racial matters, both senators were acknowledging that the discussion has been basically dishonest for some time. Bradley said Republicans have Hortonized the race issue, while Democrats have "suffocated discussion of self-destructive behavior . . . in a cloak of silence and denial."

In fact, public discussions of race have been basically dishonest for 27 years, ever since the Moynihan Report. The denunciation of Daniel Patrick Moynihan as a racist (for reporting on the apparent breakdown of the black family) ushered in a defensive and narrow orthodoxy built around the insistence that all problems of blacks are the products of white racism. Any criticism of behavior has been off-limits, a form of "blaming the victim" that can only give aid and comfort to racists.

That orthodoxy, policed for decades by the civil-rights establishment, is now breaking down. Kerry's speech reveals, at last, a liberal senator vividly acknowledging the downside of affirmative action and challenging the whites-are-racists rhetoric so popular among black spokesmen. Kerry told the Yalies: "We cannot equate fear of crime and concern about deteriorating schools with racism and then expect those we have called racists to invest in the very neighborhoods they have fled."

Another sign that the long post-Moynihan period is ending is the reception now being given to Andrew Hacker's new book, "Two Nations." Hacker is a political scientist at Queens College. His book, written entirely in the approved prose of post-Moynihanism, is basically a long argument that blacks are nothing but victims and whites nothing but victimizers. It is an uncomplicated appeal to white guilt and shame. Even the killing of blacks by blacks is mostly the fault of whites. ("While in one sense these are `free' acts . . . it is white America that has made being black so disconsolate an estate.")

Alan Wolfe of the New School for Social Research took the book apart in a devastating New Republic review. Jim Sleeper, author of "The Closest of Strangers," a study of liberalism and race in New York City, wrote in New York Newsday that Hacker's book reveals a mind-set "profoundly offensive to most whites and insufferably patronizing to blacks." Both reviewers insist that blacks, like everyone else, are accountable for their own behavior. They cannot be depicted as spectators in their own lives. Sleeper writes: "We are well past the time when anything will be gained by denying blacks a larger measure of credit and responsibility for their own liberation, even in the teeth of racism itself."

Hacker's prose reflects the ossified thinking of an older white liberal elite that has just finished spending a quarter-century placating an older black liberal elite. Along the way, this alliance has spent much energy ignoring or explaining away the disorder, illegitimacy, crime and urban chaos that Americans of all colors desperately want to have addressed.

Bradley and Kerry are political harbingers of a different body of thought that has been gaining ground in academic circles. That thought assumes that old strategies have been exhausted and something new must be tried. Whatever these strategies are, they will have to avoid all the dreary stereotyping of white apprehensions and build broad, nonpolarizing multiracial alliances. There is no other way to go.

(Copyright, 1992, John Leo / Universal Press Syndicate)

Copyright (c) 1992 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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