Housing Secretary Carves Out Role As a Lonely Clarion Against Racism

Special to The New York Times

WASHINGTON, July 7 - Henry G. Cisneros, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, has staked out a striking role: that of a Cabinet-level contrarian on the volatile question of race.

In an Administration that has been largely silent on the subject, Mr. Cisneros has gone out of his way to call racism a driving force behind many social ills, particularly urban poverty.

In a recent interview he criticized those he calls "quote, New Democrats," the party centrists being courted by President Clinton. He accuses them of "failing to acknowledge that the problems are as severe as they are." Mr. Cisneros called racism a "malignancy" and "the great Achilles' heel of our nation's future."

Change in Subsidized Housing

Mr. Cisneros's role is more than rhetorical. He is moving to reverse decades of Federal housing policy that he says has not just tolerated but promoted racial segregation. Most notably, he is trying to make subsidized housing less concentrated in central cities and more prevalent in white suburbs, an effort he acknowledges will be met with fierce local opposition.

"I'm not naive about how difficult this is," he said. "Suburban settings don't want to accept public housing."

Mr. Cisneros, as is his manner, has been careful to avoid criticizing his colleagues by name, though he has cited disagreements with the Democratic Leadership Council, the organizational umbrella of "New Democrats" that President Clinton once headed.

He has been careful to praise Mr. Clinton's racial sensibilities, saying, "I am perfectly respectful of where the President's instincts bring him out on this issue."

But Mr. Cisneros's critique of urban poverty places him at odds with a view endorsed by many Democrats, including some of the Administration's top appointees.

That view acknowledges the historic impact of racism. But it argues that the quandary of the black urban ghettos today stems more directly from other problems, like family break-up, drug abuse, educational failure and the economic shifts that have reduced the number of well-paying, low-skilled jobs.

By contrast, Mr. Cisneros insists that "race is at the core of the problems which confront America's urban areas" and says, "that is not a message that resonates well with some of the New Democrats."

Mr. Cisneros's housing proposals are also, in many regards, at odds with those of his predecessor, Jack F. Kemp. Mr. Kemp also criticized racial division and talked about the need for poor people and minorities to have choices in where they live. But he placed his greatest emphasis on plans to let inner-city residents improve, not flee, the ghettos, by buying their homes.

It is unclear how much support Mr. Cisneros will ultimately find at the White House. He said the President has been "very supportive" of his views, and in mid-April he gave a well-received presentation to senior White House aides.

But during Presidential campaign, Mr. Clinton sought an image of independence from minority advocacy groups, who, like Mr. Cisneros, have argued that racism remains a central fact of American life. And Mr. Clinton has been seeking to court the centrist and conservative legislators most likely to be skeptical of Mr. Cisneros's actions and views.

In a recent interview in his office, Mr. Cisneros summoned several top aides for what became a mini-seminar on race in America.

Recounting a night he had recently spent in the Ida B. Wells public housing development on the South Side of Chicago, Mr. Cisneros painted an eerie portrait of waking to morning fog and young corpses, victims of gang warfare.

In telling the story, he emphasized what he called the "spatial separation" of that public housing complex and others from the rest of society. That isolation, he said, keeps residents away from good jobs and good schools and breeds such problems as violence and drug abuse.

Conservative analysts have viewed the same circumstances and faulted inert public school bureaucracies, rampant teen-age pregnancy or leniency toward crime; Mr. Cisneros argues that the villain is racism.

Assails Apartment Policy

"This was deliberate," said Mr. Cisneros, contending that even now, Federal rules cause public housing to be concentrated in areas dominated by poor minorities. "This didn't just happen." He characterized the Government's historic attitude as, "Let's just put them on the other side of the tracks and keep them there."

One tangible result of his thinking can be seen in Dallas, where Mr. Cisneros has said he will reverse a previous HUD plan to expand a sprawling public housing development, arguing that it would concentrate too many poor people and minorities in one place.

Mr. Cisneros has also begun negotiations with some suburban governments, like those outside Detroit, to encourage them to accept a larger share of a metropolitan area's subsidized housing. The department may offer financial incentives, like increased block grant money, to governments that cooperate.

Similarly, Mr. Cisneros is looking to expand voucher programs that give public housing residents the opportunities to move to private apartments in the suburbs.

Beyond the area of subsidized housing, Mr. Cisneros has also pledged stricter enforcement of the nation's fair housing laws, which forbid discrimination at any income level.

And he is seeking greater Government scrutiny of banks and insurance companies to prevent discrimination against minority customers.

Some conservatives have accused Mr. Cisneros of reviving a bankrupt philosophy that attempts to portray poor minorities only as victims. In a recent article in Reason magazine, James P. Pinkerton, a domestic policy aide to President George Bush, assailed Mr. Cisneros as being "politically correct."

But many housing advocates are praising the new emphasis on race. "It's the most important shift in housing policy I've seen in 25 years," said Florence Roisman, a lawyer with the National Housing Law Center, which provides advice to lawyers for the poor.

At times, Mr. Cisneros's comments seem a bit puzzling. While he has criticized the Democratic Leadership Council, for instance, he has also adopted a good amount of the group's thought and language.

That is the case when he argues, as he almost always does, that the focus on race should not obscure "other questions of behavior and individual responsibility."

Mr. Cisneros also approvingly cites the work of William Julius Wilson, a sociologist at the University of Chicago, who has helped provide a theory of the black underclass that draws on both economic and social explanations. What is odd about the reference is that Mr. Wilson came to prominence by de-emphasizing the role of racism; he even wrote a book called "The Declining Significance of Race."

Mr. Cisneros responds by saying that he is simply trying to emphasize both parts of the equation, the role of racial discrimination and he importance of upright personal behavior.

The force of Mr. Cisneros's statements has invited the speculation that he may also be sending a subtle message beyond HUD, toward a President or a party that he may sense drifting toward the right.

Indeed, at one point in the interview, while discussing racial issues, Mr. Cisneros sounded as if he might be reprising some of the criticism leveled against Mr. Clinton during the Presidential campaign. For instance, he criticized unidentified people who "play the wedge politics of winning favor with one group by disparaging another."

That sounded very much like what Mr. Clinton's critics had said of him, after he appeared before a group of the Rev. Jesse Jackson's supporters and criticized the rap performer Sister Souljah.

But Mr. Cisneros is known for courting, not confronting, his patrons, and he added that the "particular genius of President Clinton is his ability to find the language that bridges."

He insists that his argument is not with the Administration but with the culture at large.

"1 know this is a difficult subject and that people tire of hearing of the role of race," he said. But he added: "It is so clear, the effect that it has in America's urban settings, that I think we have to deal with it."