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Color Bind

Al Gore, racial moralist

The closing weeks of 1997 were not tranquil ones for President Clinton's national initiative on race. Trouble erupted on November 19, when the panel's chairman, John Hope Franklin, offended even supporters of the initiative by excluding Ward Connerly, the the chief advocate of California's Proposition 209, from a forum on diversity in higher education. Clinton himself clashed awkwardly with Abigail Thernstrom, another opponent of affirmative action, at a presidential town meeting on race on December 3 in Akron, Ohio. Then, on December 15, Clinton dismayed even moderate critics of his civil rights policies by naming Bill Lann Lee, a veteran naacp litigator on behalf of racial preferences, as his acting assistant attorney general for civil rights.

His efforts at racial dialogue producing anything but, Clinton responded with, of course, more talk. Four days after appointing Lee, he invited Connerly, Thernstrom, her coauthor (and husband) Stephan Thernstrom, activist Linda Chavez, Representative Charles Canady, and other affirmative-action critics to a meeting in the Oval Office to air their views. For Clinton, it was an opportunity to co-opt and appease his foes after weeks of contention.

Vice President Al Gore was there, too. But he did not seem to share the president's nonconfrontational agenda. He saw the meeting as an opportunity to do something he had done before and has done again since: to wield moral reproach as a means of discrediting opponents of affirmative action. The transcript of Gore's intervention confirms what participants I have talked with recall: Gore repeatedly misconstrued their comments as positions they don't really hold and lectured them about racist evils which some of them know more intimately than he does.

Clinton and the guests had been talking for nearly a half hour when Gore first spoke up. He asked the group to imagine a city whose population was 50 percent black but whose police force was 100 percent white. "Under those circumstances," he asked, "do you think that the community would be justified in making affirmative-action efforts to open up a lot more positions on the police force for blacks?" Canady replied that, instead of using explicit racial classifications that equate skin color with sensitivity, he would support community policing and require more cops to live where they serve. "Of course, I strongly disagree with you," Gore answered, insisting that to deny "that a police force with black representation on the force would have an easier time relating to the black community is, I think, to deny the obvious, with all due respect." But Canady had denied no such thing; Clinton himself seemed to side with Canady by praising a white Chicago firefighter who had recently risked his life to save two black girls because "he was in tune with the people of that community."

When Chavez noted that, in fact, few predominantly black cities still have all-white police forces and urged, along with the Thernstroms, that racial preferences be replaced with more anti-discrimination enforcement, assiduous outreach, and attention to "root causes" of black underrepresentation such as racial gaps in measured reading ability, Gore told them that they were "profoundly wrong."

When Chavez ventured that racial preferences might make some people think that her own three sons were not capable of meeting the same standards as white children, Gore changed the subject. Repeating bits of a Harvard commencement address he'd given in 1994, he said, "It is naive in the extreme to assert that there is no persistent vulnerability to prejudice rooted in human nature," adding that prejudice based on race and ethnicity can lead "to an unleashing of evil. I think that evil lies coiled in the human soul ... to deny that there is this factor called race that is persistent is, I think, just wrong." Again, nobody had denied that. Chavez and others left the meeting feeling that Gore hadn't addressed their arguments in good faith.

It was a remarkably inflexible performance, especially for a politician whose hallmarks are intellectual curiosity and a fascination with the futuristic. Old racial categories and paradigms are coming under pressure from new realities: the rise in cross-racial voting in the Deep South; more interracial marriage with millions of mixed-race offspring; a deluge of nonwhite immigrants whose concepts of race are more fluid and ecumenical than those of most American-born blacks and whites. Yet race is one area where Gore toes an obsolescent line, catering even more assiduously than Clinton to the priorities of a civil rights lobby that seems to draw a new racial distinction every day.

Gore has, at times, approached race the same way he has tried to master arms control and the environment: by soliciting and engaging a broad sample of expert opinion. Early in 1995, he invited 20 prominent thinkers about race to unconstrained discussions over three consecutive dinners at the vice president's mansion. Historian John Hope Franklin, sociologist William Julius Wilson, philosophy professor Cornel West, and economist Glenn Loury gave talks before dinner. Dissenters from civil rights orthodoxy--such as writers Shelby Steele and Stanley Crouch and law professor Stephen Carter—held forth less formally over coffee and dessert.

But it's not clear what impact, if any, this exercise had on Gore's thinking. If he understands that critics of current racial preferences are not always ignoramuses or hypocrites, little in his recent words suggests it. If he grasps how easily his own presumptions about the immutability of racial differences can feed racism itself—how, as Senior U.S. District Judge G. Thomas Eisele of Arkansas puts it, "pride is only a heartbeat away from prejudice"—he doesn't acknowledge it. If he sees a distinction between affirmative action as outreach or remediation and more rigid racial preferences that strain transracial standards, and, with them, interracial comity, he hasn't let on.

What accounts for Gore's adherence to what Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson has called the "racism forever" mindset? Electoral politics is one reason. In 1992, Gore and Clinton seemed to run against civil rights orthodoxies, but then they made their peace. And now Gore is determined to reassure core Democratic constituencies, including the "race industry" made up of civil rights lobbies and allied bureaucrats and diversity consultants. "He's a juggernaut, systematically nailing down liberal labor, feminist, and civil rights groups," says Will Marshall of the Democratic Leadership Council, a centrist organization that has long supported Gore.

At the moment, Gore's racial moralism has no political downside. Although most Americans dislike racial preferences, most also dislike racism and are easily cowed by moral reproaches. Those who would follow different paths have no partisan vehicle; Gore faces no challenge from a New Democrat critic of current racial policies, and even Republicans have begun to shy away from such measures as California's Proposition 209. Two years ago, they all but dropped the Dole-Canady bill against preferences.

If these patterns hold, Gore need only outflank those to his left, like Representative Richard Gephardt and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who dashed Gore's presidential hopes in the 1988 New York primary. Entering the state after a strong Super Tuesday performance in the South, Gore floundered on race when Mayor Ed Koch, endorsing him, said that Jews would have "to be crazy" to vote for Jackson. The remark raised so many hackles that Jackson swept heavily African American New York City, running second to Michael Dukakis statewide and leaving Gore in the dust.

Yet conviction as well as electoral calculation shapes Gore's racial views. A Tennessean who came of age during the 1960s, the son of one of the South's leading racial moderate politicians, he approaches race with a penitential Southern attitude whose moralism borders on the Manichaean. Clinton is a Southern liberal, too, but by temperament and class background he is more intimate with poor blacks and poor whites than is Gore. Compare the two men's accounts of their earliest moments of racial insight. Gore recalls how, when he was a boy, his father, Senator Albert Gore Sr., took him to see a big house that was changing owners just up the hill from the Gore home in Carthage, Tennessee. Instead of lingering in the ornate dining room, he has said, "my father took me down to the basement and pointed to the dark, dank stone walls and the cold metal rings lined up in a row. Slave rings."

Soon afterward, in neighboring Arkansas, Clinton was going swimming with black friends in a youthful effort to integrate the local public pool. Addressing ordinary whites or blacks—or both—Clinton seems to draw from a reservoir of empathy and intuition. "When Clinton walks into a black church, he's transformed," says Marshall. "He gets the cadence and the voice so right that he can set up his listeners for new challenges and, without a script, even tell them some things they don't want to hear."

Gore doesn't have that, so he just turns up the volume. The result is earnest but overblown rhetoric like the speech he gave at Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church on Martin Luther King Day this year, only a month after his White House confrontation with the critics of racial preferences. From the pulpit, he thundered against "modern apostles of apathy" who "roll [King's] words off their tongues even as they try to roll back equal opportunity" and invoke "the phrase `the content of our character' ... [to] pretend that that is all we need to establish a color-blind society. They use their color-blind the way duck hunters use a duck blind. They hide behind the phrase and just hope that we, like the ducks, won't be able to see through it. They're in favor of affirmative action if you can dunk the basketball. But they're not in favor of it if you merely have the potential to be a leader of your community ... to teach people who are hungry for knowledge.... So I say: We see through your color-blind! Amazing grace saved a wretch like me," the vice president concluded. "Was color-blind, but now I see!"

Ironically, Gore's strident racial moralism departs from the honorable but more grounded approach of his father. From 1939 through the 1960s, Gore Sr. advocated New Deal economic development (as in the Tennessee Valley Authority) and income redistribution to ease the South's transition to racial integration. A populist scourge of big business, he favored government intervention in economic relations more than in racial ones, which he hoped could be improved through voting rights and bans on discrimination. And not those alone: In 1956, he joined Tennessee colleague Estes Kefauver and Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson as the only Southern senators who refused to sign the anti-integrationist Southern Manifesto.

But Gore Sr. drew the line at the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Although he had voted often to integrate public accommodations and to ban job discrimination, he thought the 1964 act would uproot struggling small businesses and neighborhoods built only recently by whites who had known little but grinding poverty before the 1950s. This philosophical preference for economic populism over social engineering cost him support from the beloved, if often symbolic, community of affluent white liberals and poor blacks. Only later, says historian Tony Badger, who has written extensively about the elder Gore, did he "come to see that his populist faith in economic measures and the right to vote would not solve everything, which is why he voted for the 1968 [Fair Housing] Act."

That change of heart came too late for liberals—and went too far for conservatives. As the white middle class, which Gore Sr. had promoted, pulled up the ladder behind it, and as King's assassination in Memphis deepened even racially moderate Tennessee's polarization, the senator found himself standing on the untenable middle ground. His vote on the 1964 act was never quite forgiven by Tennessee's civil rights coalition; his left-of-center economics made him a pariah to the right. In 1970, he lost his seat to Republican Bill Brock, who ran a scurrilous campaign impugning Gore Sr.'s views on race and Vietnam.

Gore Jr. seems determined not to run the political risk of reexamining his racial commitments as his father did. The irony is that the son's ostensibly left-facing political strategy reverses his father's original, more authentically "progressive" emphasis on economic redistribution. Should economic prospects worsen and class differences deepen, the older Gore's populism could resonate more deeply with Americans than his son's commitment to affirmative action. The vice president's racial moralism—and his faith in global technologies and trade—may not be enough to curb the class and racial antagonisms the Democratic Party is trying to color-code out of our minds. We need racial compassion leavened with transracial candor, not political pandering buttressed by moral censure.