MAXWELL: Repugnant bedfellows

8/14/1994 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper

My dictionary defines symbiosis as the “intimate living together of two dissimilar organisms in a mutually beneficial relationship.” Such an arrangement, perhaps one of the most repugnant in many years, was hatched in the U.S. Congress to block passage of President Clinton’s comprehensive crime bill.

The New York Times calls this mutation “a strange alliance of gun supporters, blacks and Republicans.” These lawmakers aim to gut, if not kill, the crime bill, not for mutually beneficial reasons but for ones of crass expediency that are as disparate as the groups’ fundamental agendas.

What on earth does the Congressional Black Caucus have in common with gun supporters, including 58 Democrats, who owe their souls to the National Rifle Association? Or with Republican ideologues who involuntarily oppose everything that boosts Clinton in the polls? Nothing, except that each group is holding the crime bill hostage for reasons that aren’t in the best interest of the overwhelming majority of average Americans who desperately want something done about crime.

As an African-American, I’m angry and ashamed that 28 of the 37-member black group _ even inadvertently _ slept with supporters of military-style assault weapons, with Republicans and with liberals to derail a measure that will benefit the country in general and crime-ridden black communities in particular. No one believes that the $33.2-billion package will solve all of the nation’s crime problems. But many savvy people nationwide say the bill can make a positive difference.

Among its provisions, the legislation earmarks $9-billion for community, job training and prevention programs in predominantly black inner-city areas; permits construction of state and local prisons; places 100,000 more cops on the nation’s streets; institutes tougher sentences for criminals; bans 19 assault weapons; and includes 50 new death penalties for federal crimes.

Neither the black lawmakers nor the right-wingers nor the liberals could stop the bill alone, so each teamed up with its enemy. The Black Caucus’ objections, for example, are all related to the legislation’s death penalty requirements that expand circumstances for applying death sentences and that eliminate a stipulation that helps death row inmates statistically prove racial bias. Paradoxically _ and herein lies the grotesqueness of this symbiotic marriage _ while blacks are seeking more prevention and treatment, Republicans and gun supporters are demanding that the death penalty conditions remain intact and that stiffer punishment for other crimes be added. On top of that, the conservatives showed contempt for blacks everywhere by invoking the code word “welfare” in describing the bill.

Yes, there’s putrefaction in this alliance, but what’s my gripe?

Obviously, power-brokering is essential to politics at all levels. And legislators have the right to barter their votes for or against initiatives. But as a baby boomer, I’m still idealistic enough to believe that life-or-death issues, such as health care and crime-fighting, should be off limits to partisanship and special-interest maneuvers.

Furthermore _ and this is the real point of this column _ as members of one of America’s most oppressed minority groups who constantly play the holier-than-thou game against whites, black elected officials have no business monkeying with the crime bill. They must maintain higher ethical standards than their white counterparts.

Of course, some caucus members are concerned about the death penalty on moral grounds. Practically, however, the benefits of the bill shouldn’t be scuttled because of death penalty provisions the courts will deal with anyway. In this light, black lawmakers should make sure that their motives are beyond reproach and that the language of their positions is clear, logical and honest.

Why do I demand more of black politicians? Because in fighting injustice and inequality, blacks always appeal to the moral authority and the unassailable rightness of their causes. The civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, for instance, was moral per se. As a result, its efficacy set in motion currents of freedom that changed the world.

In fairness to clear-thinking members of the Congressional Black Caucus, let’s not leave the impression that theirs is the only black group that often betrays the best interests of its constituents. In March, Florida’s Legislative Black Caucus played Judas by threatening to join Republicans in defeating Gov. Lawton Chiles’ health care plan if he didn’t help muster enough votes to pass the Rosewood compensation bill.

Rosewood, a black village on Florida’s Gulf Coast near Gainesville, was the site of a weeklong bloody rampage in 1923, in which a white mob sought to avenge the alleged rape of a white woman. Because government officials didn’t stop the attack, the bill, which the governor signed, requires the state to compensate the victims and their descendants and to establish a research position and minority scholarships at historically black Florida A&M University.

Like their Washington brethren, Florida’s black legislators chose a life-or-death issue to play games with. The greatest irony of holding the governor’s bill hostage was that a key part of the measure, which establishes a minimum standard of coverage for all health insurance, would help thousands of low-income blacks get needed coverage. The bill died in Tallahassee.

If the examples of these groups prove nothing else, they show that self-absorbed brinkmanship often does more harm than good. And by sleeping with obstructionist factions to defeat worthwhile measures, the Congressional Black Caucus and Florida’s Legislative Black Caucus fell from the moral high road and landed in a mire of narrow self-interests.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer for the Times.


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