Not Just Talk

Not Just Talk

Not Just Talk

Politics and policy.
June 22 1997 3:30 AM

Not Just Talk

A five-point program for better race relations.

To the growing legion of Clinton cynics, the president's race-relations initiative, unveiled last weekend, is an exercise in cheap talk. Liberal and conservative pundits disagree about affirmative action and welfare reform, but concur that a series of town meetings, an advisory panel, and an eloquent report are sorry substitutes for decisive action.

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If they were talking about Social Security reform, the critics might have a point. There, endless calls for more study postpone necessary but unpopular changes in policy. But when it comes to race, the power of words should not be so lightly dismissed. If President Clinton can use his rhetorical gifts to change attitudes on both sides of the divide, he will be accomplishing something of great significance. It's also all he can really hope to do right now. The public's current skepticism about activist government stymies new initiatives. Having screwed up his first term by misjudging the public demand for reform in the far less difficult area of health care, the president would be foolish to present a costly multipoint program on race.

Jacob Weisberg Jacob Weisberg

Jacob Weisberg is chairman and editor-in-chief of The Slate Group and author of The Bush Tragedy. Follow him on Twitter.

But if we had the money--and the will--what would we do about race relations? A few years of peace, prosperity, and balanced budgets--and a deeper awareness of just how bad our race problem is--may create a climate where such a program could succeed. When that moment arrives, Clinton, or his successor, should have a five-point plan ready.

De facto segregation exists throughout society. But the essence of the problem is the condition of the worst-off blacks in the urban ghetto. White fears of the urban underclass are distorted into broader stereotypes about blacks as a whole, which poison relations between the races at all levels. Next week, Dateline NBC will report on the south Chicago suburb of Matteson, which is tipping from an upper-middle-class white suburb into an upper-middle-class black one. Matteson ought to be an integrationist's paradise, but whites are fleeing because of their concerns about crime and gangs, declining schools, and falling home prices. In reality, schools, safety, even the property values haven't declined. But fear that these things will happen is not purely irrational. If the whites all leave, decline may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus subtle racism and a rational urge to self-preservation are bound up together. Unmaking the underclass would answer white fears while giving lower-class blacks a chance they are now largely denied: that of assimilating into the mainstream of an integrated society.

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P erhaps the most important difference between people who live in the ghetto and those who live outside it is that most of the former aren't employed. Breaking down the underclass will require finding new ways to draw unemployed ghetto residents into the culture of work. The jury will remain out for some time on the effects of the welfare cutoff signed by Clinton last year. But even with the jobs provisions included in that bill, it's evident that there still aren't sufficient jobs in the inner cities, especially when you consider the prospects of unemployed men, who aren't eligible for welfare. In his latest book, When Work Disappears, William Julius Wilson argues that there is a "spatial mismatch" between workers in the cities and jobs in the suburbs. Wilson's answer is a transportation program to get blacks to where the jobs are, and a big WPA-style jobs program (the details of which he borrows from the journalist Mickey Kaus). These sub-minimum-wage jobs--doing basic neglected work like repairing roads and bridges--would constitute the missing bottom rung on an economic ladder.

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The second step is to address the extreme isolation of the inner-city poor. This means a housing strategy that shifts more decisively in the direction it has been inching under Clinton. Instead of trying to tame inner-city housing projects with different kinds of architecture, lower density, and income mixing, the Department of Housing and Urban Development should redefine its purpose: to help its tenants escape the ghetto. It should take a sledgehammer to every high-rise under its control and instead provide vouchers. But these vouchers can't be the kind conservatives prefer, which are sharply limited in value so as to forestall real integration while directing tenants toward private-sector slums. Vouchers need to be worth enough to afford real avenues of escape. They should also steer beneficiaries away from other beneficiaries, to keep pockets of concentrated poverty from re-emerging farther from the city's core. An easy way to do this would be to enforce strict limits on the percentage of voucher tenants allowed in any one building.

Aless obvious factor fostering residential segregation is the boundary between city and suburb. When whites flee the central cities, they take with them most of the tax revenue, and leave behind a downward spiral of city services. As David Rusk, a former mayor of Albuquerque, argues in his book, Cities Without Suburbs, metro-wide governments where the suburbs and the city are joined tend to be more racially integrated, and better off in various other ways as well. Washington can't erase jurisdictional frontiers, but it can encourage metropolitan government via tax incentives and cheerleading. Such a policy would displease many black politicians, since it stands to diminish black political representation in the short run. But this is a trade-off well worth making.

All of these measures together will not cause the ghettos to disappear. Providing escape routes from the inner city may make the ghettos worse by depriving them of their most competent residents. What's needed, alongside an evacuation plan, is a realistic program to stabilize conditions for those left behind. The goal shouldn't be to make the desert bloom. It should be to create zones where people can raise children in safety even if they must travel elsewhere to work. To accomplish this, a strategy would need to focus on crime and schools.

Of course, neither law enforcement nor education is principally a federal responsibility. But in both cases, the feds can help. On crime, Clinton has had basically the right idea with his community-policing initiative. Cops walking the street create a sense of order and provide good role models for young boys. This program should be expanded, perhaps with incentives for police to live in the neighborhoods they patrol full time. Schools are a harder nut, but not an uncrackable one. There are a few good schools, even in Harlem, which have succeeded by doing end runs around the unionized bureaucracy of the central system. The federal government should do more to spur the creation of such institutions, by providing resources, and by helping to equalize the shameful disparity in funding between rich and poor districts generally.

Some of these concepts have demonstrated their success at an experimental level and are ripe for expansion. Others are just promising ideas that ought to be tried. All, unfortunately, are expensive and sure to be controversial. They can't simply be foisted on a reluctant public. To lay the groundwork for useful action on race relations, we need exactly what President Clinton is proposing as a starting point: honest talk, and lots of it.