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NEWS ANALYSIS : March Refocuses Debate on Roots of Racial Disparity

October 18, 1995|RONALD BROWNSTEIN | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

WASHINGTON — Beneath the flood of words about race Monday--both at the rally of black men here and in reaction elsewhere--ran a central divide in perception between white and black Americans.

From President Clinton to Colin L. Powell to Louis Farrakhan, all the leading voices who spoke out Monday wrestled with the same question: Is discrimination or personal behavior the primary explanation for the economic and social gaps between white and black Americans?

Polls show that blacks largely believe that discrimination explains many of the problems within their community, while whites most often point the finger at a failure of personal responsibility among blacks themselves.

In different ways, many of the speakers around the nation sought to balance those competing explanations, leading to some intriguing hints of common ground between blacks and whites around the idea of self-reliance and individual responsibility. But while Clinton and Powell in particular envision a new social contract based on government assistance linked to greater personal responsibility among blacks, Farrakhan called for blacks to take greater control of their own lives with the purpose of receding from white society.

The Clinton/Powell vision points to convergence of the races around common values, while the Farrakhan view leads to a black community whose fate is increasingly untethered from white influence.

"A lot of them were saying similar things, but there were some very different emphases," said Ronald Walters, a political scientist at Howard University.

To a large extent Farrakhan's message embodies the doubts many blacks feel about their ability to advance in a white-dominated society. As the verdicts in the O.J. Simpson trial so powerfully demonstrated, blacks and whites often hold antithetical views about the fairness of basic American institutions, such as the courts and the police. And polling suggests the gap in their perceptions about American life is even more fundamental.

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While whites tend to believe that individuals rise or fall on their own merit, blacks see a society still embedded with structural obstacles for minorities, polls show. In surveys, African Americans are much more likely than whites to say that an individual's success or failure is determined by forces outside his control. In one 1994 survey by the Times Mirror Center for the People & the Press, blacks earning more than $50,000 a year were less likely than low-income whites to agree with the proposition that "everyone has the power to succeed" in America.

In that same survey, just 29% of whites said racial discrimination explained most of the problems facing the black community, while 62% said blacks were primarily responsible for their own condition. The black response was almost inverted: 56% primarily blamed discrimination, while 34% pointed inward.

Paul Sniderman, a Stanford University professor of political science who has extensively studied racial attitudes, says that whites and blacks retain a potentially larger area of agreement than findings such as those suggest. In more open-ended surveys, he says, whites and blacks alike express the belief that many African Americans live in conditions "that don't give them a fair chance to succeed."

But, Sniderman argued, the political meaning of those feelings tend to be shaped by how the arguments are phrased. "Very large numbers of whites recognize that blacks have been dealt lousy hands," he says. "But if it is put in the manner of it is [whites'] fault, they tend to [recoil]."

On the flip side, Monday's march made clear that many blacks are reaching a peak of frustration over the persistence of problems confronting the black community 30 years after the dismantling of legal segregation. Farrakhan drew loud applause during a speech in which he insisted that "the real evil in America is the idea that undergirds the setup of the Western world, and that idea is called white supremacy."

Such sharp rhetoric, Sniderman and others argued Tuesday, seems guaranteed to provoke white resentment and escalate a cycle of backlash.

In his speech Monday to students at the University of Texas, Clinton tried to rally whites and blacks around a common commitment to what he called "old-fashioned American values" of work, personal responsibility and non-discrimination.

Clinton sought to sketch out a path toward racial reconciliation rooted in changes in attitudes and behavior among both blacks and whites. To a greater degree than he had earlier in his presidency, Clinton argued that white racism in police forces and other public institutions contributes to the problems facing blacks. "We must clean the house of white America of racism," he declared.

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