Clinton and the colour of crime

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DURHAM, North Carolina - Last weekend, President Clinton was in a black church in Washington talking to black clergymen about black crime. This audience was enthusiastic about his message, which concerned the need for the black community itself to fight black crime.

This was something of a breakthrough in race relations generally. It was also an unprecedented step for a Democratic leader, and represented the reversal of a pattern of Democratic handling of racist issues established over the past 30 years. Traditionally, Democrats don't talk about black crime. Indeed, they don't talk about crime at all. Republicans talk about crime, meaning black crime, using it as a coded, racist political pitch. But Mr Clinton, with his experience as Governor of Arkansas and his proven success in garnering black and white votes, first statewide and then nationwide, has a surer touch on racial matters than any previous Democratic leader.

Indeed, he has a surer touch on racial matters than any previous president of the United States. The previous president that came closest in that matter was Jimmy Carter. But Carter, once elected, devoted his considerable energies mainly to his quest for a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East: something that not only eluded him, but rebounded on him. In the early months of his presidency, Mr Clinton showed similar inclinations - over Haiti, over Somalia, over Bosnia. He may have been lucky to get his fingers burnt on those issues so early in his presidency. At present, he is giving priority to issues of material and pressing concern to Americans: especially jobs and crime.

On jobs, the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta), while technically a foreign-policy issue, was debated almost exclusively in terms of its presumed impact, positive or negative, on American jobs. Mr Clinton's victory in pushing the agreement through Congress, and by a larger margin than expected, has greatly strengthened his standing at home. On crime, there is a limited, but highly significant sense, in which he may be starting to win - not certainly, the war against crime, but the debate on crime.

He is winning in the sense that, with support from within the black community, he is causing the crime issue to be viewed no longer in terms of a division between whites and blacks, but between criminals and law-abiding people in both communities. True, most of the criminals are black, but so are most of their victims. The black community has a far higher stake in crime prevention than the white community has. The message of a common interest in crime prevention is beginning to get across, as against the insidious racist message, skilfully and subliminally exploited by Republican strategists.

Gifted though he is, in this particular domain especially, Mr Clinton alone could never have got that message across, unless a black leader had first paved the way. It is Jesse Jackson - unexpected in the light of some of his past record - who has been giving that lead. I wrote in this space a few weeks ago about Mr Jackson's protracted tour of the black high schools of the nation, indefatigably preaching the gospel of the need for blacks to co- operate with initiatives against black criminals. What he is fighting, essentially, is something that he has sometimes exploited in the past: the idea of black racial solidarity transcending all other categories, including those of criminality and law observance.

During the election campaign, Mr Clinton rightly snubbed Mr Jackson for having tolerated black racism as a component in his rainbow coalition. That snub helped Mr Clinton be elected. But now, the two men are allies in the matter of a non-racial approach to crime. Mr Clinton would not, I think, have had that cordial reception for his message from those black preachers, had they not already had essentially the same message from the best-known and most charismatic of black leaders.

In the war against crime in the inner cities, it is still the criminals who seem to be winning. But at least there is some hope of reversing this, as the defeat of the criminals is seen as a common interest of the majority of Americans and no longer as an interest of whites against blacks.

An increasing number of whites (as well as blacks) are already prepared for that message. The presence of a black middle class is increasingly salient in many areas, and whites in daily contact with their black neighbours in such areas can see for themselves how irrelevant colour is as a presumptive criterion of social


As it happens, we are living in such an area: the Research Triangle of North Carolina, a region of high technology, with research and development sections of such businesses as IBM, DuPont, Glaxo and Burroughs Wellcome scattered here and there among the woods. The population consists partly of scientists and other academics, but mainly of technicians and skilled workers and their families. It is a racially mixed population of blacks and whites and Asians, with blacks probably in a majority. Nobody is rich, though the splendid mansions of the tobacco barons are not far away. Nobody is rich, but above all, nobody is dangerously poor. We have been living here for more than two months and have yet to observe the slightest sign of racial tension.

The American Hallowe'en can sometimes be disconcerting: in a case mentioned by Mr Clinton, the Hallowe'en celebrations in Baltimore this year included a murder. A 13-year- old boy, on a dare by a 14-year- old, shot an 18-year-old dead. In any areas that are jumpy at night all the time, Hallowe'en, with gangs of people roaming the streets, can be especially jumpy. But in our part of North Carolina, the celebration of Hallowe'en was idyllic, with bands of children of all races knocking confidently on the doors of households of all races and all the doors opening with corresponding and justified confidence. For us, who are old enough to have known Dixie in the days before desegregation, this was a heart- warming experience and it is typical of this community.

The community itself obviously is not typical (any more than a ghetto is typical), but it is not wholly unrepresentative either. Race relations, bad as they still are in many places, have improved enormously since the middle of the century. And the recognition of a common interest in fighting crime can improve them still further.

(Photograph omitted)