Newsday

Aim the Race Dialogue at the Poor

Honest and thoughtful citizens of all racial backgrounds can agree about two things. First, on the whole, working and middle-class African Americans are vastly better off than we were 40 or more years ago. Jim Crow is long deceased, and most black citizens enjoy both mundane social access and genuine opportunity to an extent that would have seemed absurd fantasy in the 1950s.

Second, despite dramatic positive change, all is not yet well, either within black America or in black-white relations. The bottom-most rungs of the African-American community endure a depressingly familiar litany of problems, including crime, joblessness, disease, inadequate housing, inferior education and social isolation.

The Clinton administration's traveling talkfest, the much-ballyhooed "race initiative," is likely doomed to achieve little in this regard. What we most lack is not President Bill Clinton's desired "racial dialogue" (satisfying though it can be) but two far more elusive prizes: policy-relevant knowledge and a political consensus for dramatic action.

In important ways, we are uncertain how to uplift African Americans left behind by the civil rights movement and affirmative action. To take one recent example, a study of the federal Job Training and Partnership Act shows that despite years of effort, experts have not found a way to increase employment prospects among high school dropouts.

Also eluding us is the sheer political will to support ambitious policy initiatives. Even with a receding federal deficit, neither Congress nor the public is inclined toward new check-writing targeted at the poor.

It's hard to see how franker interracial talk will spur much improvement. If anyone can lead a national seminar on race, our endlessly empathetic president from Little Rock should be that person. But even he knows that presidents are most likely to spark successful discussion when there is a precise goal at stake, such as passage of a civil rights act.

The best possible outcome of the White House-sponsored "conversation on race" would be further exploration of (and maybe even some agreement about) the contentious questions of affirmative action and multiculturalism. This might assist middle-class African Americans like myself (i.e. an affirmative-action beneficiary who matriculates at a prestigious campus where identity politics is all the rage).

But such a result offers little to low-income African-American citizens who are mired in disorganization and despair. It is their interests, not mine, that most desperately require the president's limited attention and the nation's conversational energy.

How do we propel sustained discussion along these lines? We can start by recognizing why it isn't happening. The poor are isolated, anonymous and widely perceived as undeserving. Many of us don't see why we should care.

This implies two complementary principles. First, we must work harder to put a living and sympathetic human face on poverty. The urban poor are citizens, not statistics. Second, we must heighten awareness of the likely (and possibly frightful) shared costs of further neglect.

As in everyday discussion among friends, a blend of sympathy and collective interest offers a promising basis for helpful conversation.