A time to listen

President Clinton made a good speech in Austin last week on this country's worst problem. Clinton on race is always worth listening to; it's his best thing, and he does it as well as anyone walking.

For those who could see or switch between Clinton's speech and the Million Man March, there was a moving, awesome synchronicity as the white president with the cracker accent spoke in counterpoint to hundreds of thousands of black men who had come to testify with their feet that Something Is Terribly Wrong--and, as they say in the jargon of self-help, to accept their piece of it.

While Clinton was hitting his high note--Bringing It On Home: "What are YOU going to do?"--the masses in Washington moved in their vast number with grave dignity.

Clinton's speech was curiously low-affect; I've seen him charge harder on stuff he cares a lot less about. I suspect it was part of a deliberate effort to lower the level of this discussion so we can listen to each other. (Or maybe he's trying to save his voice.) Clinton's reminder that listening is as much a part of conversation as talking was both well-timed and something in which he sets a good example.

Clinton is a great listener, and he remembers.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Clinton's plea for national conversation about race is that millions of well-intentioned white Americans aren't going to have a clue about where to start because they just don't know any black people.

And if that doesn't give you a pretty fair idea of how serious this problem is, nothing will.

Of course, I am seized with antic visions of white women deciding to have serious conversations with their maids, like an American version of the South African cartoon strip "Madam and Eve." Golfers at the country clubs deciding to chat up their caddies, diners at elegant restaurants exchanging deep thoughts with waiters and busboys. Hint: It's hard to have a serious conversation about race with a black person who depends on your tips.

Working-class whites have the best chance of actually bringing off these conversations, there being any number of working-class blacks around to talk with. One can envision middle-class blacks being besieged around the office water cooler, petitioned to put on a show-and-tell: "Tell us, tell us, what does it feel like to be treated like dirt because of the color of your skin?" Well, no one ever said it was easy to be in the Talented Tenth.

At the briefing after Clinton's speech, the press--such a picky bunch--demanded to know why Clinton hadn't cited Louis Farrakhan and Mark Fuhrman by name. Because both are divisive and polarizing, of course, and Clinton's whole speech was about ending division and polarization.

It was a festive weekend for those in the commentating trade. Most of them commentated themselves into a snit. Here's Farrakhan promoting personal responsibility (which Jesse Jackson has been doing for years), and the pundits didn't know whether to puke or get cross-eyed. As Dave McNeely of the Austin American-Statesman observed, it's sort of like watching Jim Mattox have a good idea--hard to know what to do with it.

I forget which explainer compared Farrakhan and black men to Rush Limbaugh and white men, but I thought it was a nifty parallel: both speaking for a group disaffected, with cause; both blaming the wrong people.

The French expression "pater la bourgeoisie" means approximately what hippies used to mean when they talked about "freaking out the straights." If I were a black man, I think I would have found it hard to resist hopping on a bus to Washington just to watch all those talking white heads try to figure out what it meant.

It's always interesting to see racism in its minor forms rear its ugly head. One white commentator had occasion to quote a guy named Malik Shabazz, which I grant you is not your Joe Smith-type name. But I wish you could have heard the scorn that dripped out of his mouth as he enunciated "Mah-leek Sha-bazz" as though every syllable were an affront to him. Hey, easy there, Bubba; as I have observed before, if it weren't for black folks, there wouldn't be hardly any interesting names in this country. Think of it as a special gift to the melting pot, like jazz and rhythm and blues.

Call me a fool if you want, but I'm an optimist about all this. If we're not getting close to liberty and justice for all, at least we're getting closer.

Our biggest problem is the Republican notion that government doesn't have a big piece in this. Public policy does make a difference, and not just affirmative action.

Always, always, start with the children; if they don't get proper nutrition early, their brains don't develop right and they can't learn. If their teeth hurt all the time because they can't get dental care, they won't do well in school. If we don't spend money on their schools (check the dollars-per-student difference between your local suburban and inner-city schools), they won't have anything near equal opportunity.

Then check the relative costs of making better schools and building more prisons. Let the Republicans run their cost/benefit analysis on that one.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1994 Creators Syndicate, Inc.