Reports and opinion pieces in the mainstream press heralded speeches on the urban crisis given in March 1992 by Senators Bill Bradley and John F. Kerry as “courageous and important,” “straight talk” that expressed “bravery and candor.” (New Republic, 4/27/92; U.S. News & World Report, 4/20/92; New York Times, 3/29/92) New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal (4/21/92) saw the senators’ “clear and courageous thought” as proof that American politics is not an “intellectual wasteland.” Washington Post columnist David Broder (4/5/92) wrote that Bradley and Kerry had not “minced words” as the presidential candidates do.
In the Senate, Bradley described cities as “poorer, sicker, less educated and more violent” than ever before in his memory. Kerry, at Yale, called the urban environment a “violent, drug-ridden, rat-infested reality…ruled not simply by poverty, but by savagery.” What was so special, so brave and courageous, about this? Did the senators introduce new proposals to check the “downward spiral” of poverty, unemployment, underfunded or nonexistent social services and abandonment they so colorfully evoked?
Unfortunately not. Both Bradley and Kerry spoke in vague terms about “a new politics of change” or “a new social contract.” But their substantive solutions were the same programs that have floated around for years.
What was different, and what the press found so provocative, was the senators’ subsuming of myriad inner-city problems under the ill-defined but highly charged rubric of “the problem of race.” The speeches introduced two “new” elements into the liberal discourse on race and urban poverty. First, they evoked poor blacks’ “responsibility” for their own poverty, and the “inexcusability” of “self-destructive behavior” (understood to range from crime and drug abuse to “out-of-wedlock births”). Second, the senators emphasized the need to appease both white “perceptions” of “reverse discrimination” and white fear of black people generally. These were the angles that several major papers picked up on and celebrated in their coverage.
A March 29 New York Times editorial, for example, cited positively Bradley’s “blunt reminder” that the issue of race is crucial to the future of American cities because “the economic future of the children of white Americans will increasingly depend on the talents of non-white Americans.” This narrow vision is not problematic for the Times; for them the only “flaws” in Bradley’s speech were his failure to mention the black middle class and his overemphasis on enterprise zones.
Both the March 29 editorial and an April 13 article in the New York Times recited Bradley’s claim that “many white Americans” seem to be saying of “some young black males, ‘You litter the street and deface the subway, and no one, white or black, says stop…. You rob a store, rape a jogger, shoot a tourist, and when they catch you, if they catch you…you cry racism.'” For reporter Sam Roberts, these constituted “the most candid comments on race and its consequences.”
The excerpts the press selected accurately reflect the crude picture Bradley drew of black welfare recipients and white taxpayers, black criminals and white victims. But considering the obvious potential for misinterpretation, press accounts also might have included other comments he made which rang differently.
Only readers of the full speech (or the extended excerpt in the May 12 Chicago Tribune) would know, for example, that Bradley suggested that the “absence of meaning” he decried in the lives of the black underclass was in part “derived from overt and subtle attacks from racist quarters over many years and furthered by an increasing pessimism about the possibility of justice.” Or that Bradley said that for the country’s poorest “calls to ‘just say no’ to drugs or to ‘study hard’ for 16 years so you can get an $18,000-a-year job are laughable.”
In the case of Senator Kerry’s comments on affirmative action, however, the spin of some coverage approaches distortion. In his speech at Yale, Kerry did say that affirmative action should not be the overriding focus of a civil rights agenda, because workplace gains do not necessarily touch the lives of those most in need.
But he also said, “I want to be clear here. I do support affirmative action, not rhetorically but really.” The “negative side” of the policy was, for Kerry, the “perception” it engendered in many whites: He cited a poll by People for the American Way that indicated white people believe they are more discriminated against than minorities. Congress, Kerry said, has an obligation “to correct whatever false data or preconceptions have fed the belief that is evidenced in this poll.”
Affirmative action, Kerry said, has “made our country a better, fairer place to live,” but public misunderstanding of the policy–which Kerry acknowledged has been “exaggerated and exploited by politicians eager to use it” –has created an “obstacle” to interracial communication.
In the press, however, Kerry was “daring to challenge the liberal dogma on…affirmative action.” (Boston Globe, 4/3/92) An April 5 Boston Globe piece began, “When Sen. John Kerry delivered his critique of affirmative action at Yale….” Kerry was to be congratulated for exposing the “liberal affirmative action obsession,” the New Republic editorialized (4/27/92), although he “has not bitten the bullet yet: a rejection of affirmative action.”
John Leo at U.S. News & World Report (4/20/92) welcomed Kerry’s and Bradley’s speeches as signs that the liberal “orthodoxy” was breaking down. Leo called Bradley and Kerry “political harbingers” of a new school of thought about race that “assumes that old strategies have been exhausted and something new must be tried.” In fact, the tenor of both speeches was that many possible strategies had not been seriously tried, due to political infighting and a lack of consensus and public will. And both senators emphasized the importance of shoring up, not abandoning, existing community organizations and programs like Head Start.
Two Boston Globe articles went beyond unqualified celebration of this “fresh approach” to racial questions and included dissenting points of view. John Aloysius Farrell’s April 3 report acknowledged that some people think the emphasis on “personal responsibility” and a “tough anticrime message may be just “an easy way for politicians to win votes from resentful white voters while not advancing any other alternatives.”
Anthony Flint’s April 5 article in the Globe focused mainly on proponents of what has been termed “civic liberalism”–emphasizing poor people’s responsibility for their own problems. But it also included the skeptical responses of Two Nations‘ author Andrew Hacker (“It really means veering to the right”) and civil rights advocate Roger Wilkins:
Senator Bradley mentioned “sensational news stories” as contributing to whites’ fears of blacks. Indeed, skewed coverage of welfare recipients, crime and drug addiction does contribute to racial tensions. Whether the press can shift from being part of the problem to part of the solution remains to be seen, although headlines like “No Place Seems Safe” and “Race Meets Race, But Fear Is Faster” (New York Times, 3/29/92, 4/13/92) do not bode well.
For a real new dialogue about race and class, the media must make more of an effort to include disparate points of view, to critically examine loaded terms like “black criminality” and “welfare dependency,” and to make difficult but important distinctions, like that between personal prejudices and institutionalized racism. The press needs to be as interested in the crafting of urban and social policy as they are in fiery speeches. And they need to air the views, not only of the politicians who already have easy access to the media, but of the inhabitants of the “rat-infested reality” who want to speak for themselves.