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Path to racial unity divides

'08 ISSUES:

Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, while agreeing that quotas and government assistance alone won't solve lingering racial inequities in the country, would take far different paths to combat race-based discrimination if elected president.

The two major presidential candidates largely have downplayed the issue of race relations while on the campaign trail - a scenario all the more peculiar because Mr. Obama is the first black man to secure a major-party nomination for the White House.

But unlike past decades, when race-related issues such voting rights and school desegregation dominated elections, race is a far more subtle debate today - ingrained instead in broader issues such as health care, subprime mortgages and the criminal justice system.

"The biggest racial issues are inequities in public services," said Lorenzo Morris, chairman of political science at Washington's Howard University. "Civil rights issues and race-specific issues come in, but I think they are a little bit down the line. [Public service inequities] are more salient now."

Improving access to quality health care is the biggest issue facing minorities, Mr. Morris said.

Issues '08: The Washington Times takes a close look at an important issue every day before the elections.

A comparison of the candidates' health care platforms shows a stark difference.

Mr. Obama has proposed to expand health care access to Americans without medical insurance. His plan calls for expanding government provided health care programs such as the State Children's Health Insurance Program, or SCHIP, and Medicaid. Mr. McCain, rather, is pushing for more individually provided health insurance and generally is against more government participation and regulation.

An assessment by health care economists published last month in the journal Health Affairs estimated that Mr. McCain's plan would lead 20 million people to lose their employer-sponsored insurance. But it also found that 21 million people would gain coverage through the individual market.

The candidates' positions on fighting crime and criminal justice also takes on racial undertones.

Mr. Obama has criticized the disparity in the sentencing guidelines between offenses related to crack and those tied to powder-based cocaine as an example of institutional racism. Crack offenders, who tend to be black, get harsher sentences for the same amount of the drug than do powder offenders, who more often are white.

He also has called for an expanded use of drug courts that would offer first-time, nonviolent offenders a chance to serve their sentences, when appropriate, in drug rehabilitation programs.

Mr. McCain has supported the Second Chance Act, which funds programs - many of them religion-based - that provide job training, counseling and mentoring for prisoners released from incarceration.

But the senator from Arizona generally has taken a traditional, conservative approach to reduce crime, pushing for tougher punishments for sex offenders and repeat felons who commit crimes with firearms.

Both candidates supported an immigration measure that called for a path to citizenship for the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, who hail mostly from Mexico and Central America. The bill died in the Senate last year.

Mr. McCain since has said he cannot support citizenship for illegal immigrants until the American public is convinced that the border is secure. In the meantime, he says, the government must focus on enforcing existing immigration laws.

Mr. Obama also has listed several "civil rights" issues that he would tackle if elected president, including employment inequities among minorities and a ban on racial profiling by federal law enforcement agencies.

"We shouldn't ignore that race continues to matter," Mr. Obama wrote on a questionnaire given to presidential candidates by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). "To suggest that our racial attitudes play no part in the socio-economic disparities that we often observe turns a blind eye to both our history and our experience - and relieves us of the responsibility to make things right."

He supports the Fair Pay Act, which would reverse a Supreme Court decision that said a lawsuit charging wage discrimination had to be filed within 180 days of hiring.

The proposed legislation, which failed to advance in the Senate this year, would allow a "rolling" statute of limitations, with every new paycheck a new "Day One" because it represents a new act of discrimination, whether on the basis of race or other features such as sex or religion. It also would allow for class-action lawsuits to be filed and provides for compensatory and punitive damages.

Mr. McCain opposes the Fair Pay Act, saying it "opens us up for lawsuits, for all kinds of problems and difficulties."

On the hot-button issue of race-based affirmative action, the candidates generally hold party-line positions. Mr. McCain says he opposes hiring and school admission policies that include racial quotas, while Mr. Obama supports maintaining affirmative action programs.

Mr. McCain this summer endorsed a proposed a ballot initiative against affirmative action in his home state of Arizona backed by anti-quota crusader Ward Connerly. Ten years earlier, the senator opposed an Arizona initiative to end racial quotas on the ground that it was "divisive." This tougher stance on affirmative action scored points among his party's conservative voters, who long have viewed the senator's maverick nature with suspicion.

"The playing field is not level for everyone, but there are people of all colors and all groups at both ends of that field," Mr. McCain wrote in the NAACP questionnaire. "The affirmative action remedies designed forty years ago should be re-examined."

Mr. Obama has said that although race-based affirmative action programs are still needed, they are only a temporary solution to help solve the improving but lingering problem of racial inequality in the United States. He also has suggested the development of income-based affirmative action programs.

Mr. Obama also has suggested minority groups must look beyond the government and take responsibility themselves for helping improve their lot.

The senator, while addressing the NAACP's annual conference in July in Cincinnati, challenged blacks to "demand more from ourselves."

"In the end, it doesn't matter how much money we invest in our communities ... or how many government programs we launch," he said. "None of it will make any difference if we don't seize more responsibility in our own lives."

Mr. Obama said parents should provide guidance to their children by "turning off the TV, and putting away the video games."

But some black civic and religious leaders have accused Mr. Obama of not speaking to issues important to the black community.

"He's consistent with a lot of blacks but is not as supportive as many of the black leadership groups would be of something like affirmative action," Mr. Morris said.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson last summer accused Mr. Obama of "talking down to black people," among other critical comments. Mr. Jackson later apologized.

Mr. Obama's longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., became the center of a furor earlier this year when videos surfaced of his calling on God to smite the U.S. and claiming that the government invented AIDS as a weapon to use against racial minorities.

Mr. Obama quickly denounced Mr. Wright's comments and distanced himself from the retired pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. When the public furor failed to subside, Mr. Obama in March delivered a speech in Philadelphia rejecting Mr. Wright's racially charged comments while trying to explain the root of the pastor's remarks.

The speech helped quiet the Wright fuss, but it flared up again weeks later when Mr. Wright made a series of public appearances, including a television interview with Bill Moyers and speech at the National Press Club. Mr. Obama then spoke out more forcefully against Mr. Wright and resigned his membership at Trinity in May.

Mr. McCain also has stirred racial controversy on both sides of the black-white spectrum.

While a House member in 1983, he rejected the creation of a federal holiday for Martin Luther King - a stance for which he has since apologized.

Some white conservatives criticized Mr. McCain when, after campaigning in South Carolina during the 2000 presidential race, the senator suggested that the Confederate flag be removed from the state Capitol. Mr. McCain, who initially stayed out of the flag debate, later called his silence on the issue "probably the worst piece of advice I've ever given to myself."

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