LEADING ARTICLE: Marching up to the White House

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Survey the current state of race relations in the United States and you could be forgiven for fearing the worst. A Republican Congress is driving through its "Contract With America", whose cuts in welfare and social programmes read like a contract on poor, black America. Affirmative Action is under challenge. The acquittal of OJ Simpson has appalled whites and exhilarated blacks, and spurred talk of a "white backlash". And now what may prove to be the biggest demonstration in the history of black America will be led by a man who has sneered at women and Catholics, described Jews as bloodsuckers and who is regarded by most whites (and many blacks) as the incarnation of racial intolerance and evil. And so is the Big Bang at hand? Not a bit of it. Paradoxically, Louis Farrakhan's "Million Man March" in Washington today may be just what America's anguished and guilt- ridden debate on race requires.

For one thing, the radical Nation of Islam movement, which he leads, is barely 50,000 strong, hardly a threat to American civilisation. Indisputably, Mr Farrakhan has a record of anti-Semitism, and certainly he sees the march as a means of increasing his stature in black politics. More important, however, he is a black "nationalist", dismayed at the condition of black society and convinced that since a white government cannot or will not help, blacks themselves must put their house in order. Hence the march's goal of black male "atonement" as a first step to rescuing their community from self-destruction by broken families, crime, drugs and illegitimacy.

It is also an historical watershed. Thirty-two years ago, Martin Luther King led his own march on Washington, to proclaim his dream of an integrated, colourblind society, in which blacks and whites lived in equality and harmony. Alas, a dream it has remained. Blacks have reached a dead end in the national political system, taken for granted by Democrats and ignored by a Republican Party rooted in the white suburbs. That, and not a special fondness for Mr Farrakhan, is why such disparate elements as the Black Congressional Caucus, several big city black mayors and the Rev Jackson himself, back the march. Things, they insist, must change. And change they may, though probably not as they might have foreseen.

Colin Powell will not be at the March. But if anyone has a chance of transforming the pyschology of black America, it is he. We do not know if the retired general will run for president, though the prospect grows steadily more likely. But if he does, as a Republican, he would be the favourite to win. Yes, he is a "whites' black" who arouses no fears and embodies the racial reconciliation which most Americans yearn for, and who is less popular among blacks than the white but Democratic Mr Clinton. But polls reveal something else: that a third of blacks would support a Republican for the White House were he General Powell. A black man in the Oval Office, head of state, commander-in-chief of the US armed forces, and supreme symbol of his nation for the entire world: if that comes about, the effect on black America would surely be electrifying. Compared with that, the Million Man March is a sideshow - but a sideshow that stands on its own merits.