President Clinton intends to help heal the nation's current rift over race by fighting to preserve social programs, his chief of staff said Sunday as blacks and conservatives urged the President to make a stronger statement.
"If we pass a budget that gets rid of affirmative action, that cuts into the very programs that help to educate children . . . that's the worst thing we can do in terms of dividing the races in this country," White House Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta said in an appearance on NBC-TV's "Meet the Press."
The debate over racial tension in the United States grew hotter and louder after the acquittal Tuesday of O.J. Simpson in the slayings of his ex-wife and one of her friends.
Last week, the President said he hoped the nation would not use the Simpson verdict as a reason to deepen the racial divide.
There was more evidence of that divide Sunday in a poll that found that a majority of white respondents harbor misperceptions about blacks--mainly that they make up a greater share of the U.S. population and benefit more from the federal government than they actually do.
The poll of 1,970 adults, conducted by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, found 58% of white respondents believe that average black Americans have better jobs than their white counterparts, even though 22.5% of working blacks hold low-end service jobs and earned an average of $15,000 less a year than whites.
The poll, with a margin of error of 3 percentage points, suggests that such perceptions may lead many whites to embrace drastic cutbacks in social spending and affirmative action policies.
Conservatives said Sunday it is unrealistic for Clinton to avoid acknowledging the race problem, given the magnitude of the debate and growing poverty among African Americans.
"There's the two Americas: One is macro-democratic and capitalist . . . the other is an economy that is almost a Third World socialist model. There is a solution the President ought to be talking about and frankly, he's not," former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp said on "Meet the Press."
Clinton would have an opportunity to frame the debate next week, courtesy of a march on Washington organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and former NAACP Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. as a call to personal responsibility for black men.