Whitman Remark Triggers Another Skirmish On Race She Said Out-of-wedlock Births Were A Sign Of Pride Among Black Males. She Apologized - Fast.

Posted: April 14, 1995

TRENTON — One day before she was to leave on a trade mission to London, Gov. Whitman yesterday found herself mired in another controversy involving race.

At a Statehouse news conference, the governor apologized for remarks she made to a British newspaper that suggested black males deserve inordinate blame for the problem of children born out of wedlock.

Whitman's remarks appeared in an article in the Independent of London, which had interviewed her in advance of her trip today.

The governor made those remarks while stating that she was opposed to Republican proposals in Congress to deny welfare payments to unwed teenage mothers.

"And as regards to unwed mothers, there's a game called 'jewels in the crown' that young black males have, and it's how many children you can sire outside of wedlock," Whitman told the newspaper. "You can't legislate against that."

Yesterday, she said she regretted the remark.

"As soon as I read it, I knew it was a problem," she said. "I knew exactly what was going to happen because it did single out a population, which is always inappropriate to do. I would certainly apologize if anyone were to presume that I was implying that it was only one community that suffered from the problem. That is certainly not the case, and I know better than that."

Whitman said she never intended to suggest that black males, or any other group, are alone responsible for children born to single mothers.

"I was at a home for young children with AIDS, talking to some of the parents who were there; they, the African American parents, talked to me about a game called 'jewels in the crown,' " Whitman said. "They identified this as a problem, and I asked a social worker who worked with the population, 'Is this something real?' and they said, 'yes.'

"But the problem of unwed mothers is not relegated to the African- American community by any stretch of the imagination," she said.

Whitman's remarks to the Independent were denounced by some African Americans.

"A comment of this venomous character would not be unexpected from shock- radio disk jockeys or hate-inspired talk show hosts," said State Sen. Wayne Bryant (D., Camden) in a letter to Whitman. "But it is beneath the dignity of the person holding the office of governor of the state of New Jersey. The governor's own rhetoric is playing to racial stereotypes, causing further divisions and perpetuating social biases. Unfortunately, this is not the first example of insensitivity, but I certainly hope it is the last."

A longtime Whitman critic, Walter Fields, political director of the New Jersey branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, called the remarks racist. And, he contended, they fit a long pattern of racially hostile actions by the governor.

"Considering the track record of this governor, I can't say she misspoke," Fields said. In a reference to Whitman's patrician background, Fields added: "I think there clearly is a racist streak in this governor, and I don't feel bashful about saying it. Her whole upbringing, her whole background does not suggest having had a prior constructive relationship with black people."

But one prominent black leader, the Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, pastor of the St. Matthew A.M.E. Church in Orange, defended the governor, saying she was simply trying to speak honestly about the issue.

"I'm very comfortable with the governor as she relates to race issues," Jackson said. "I don't think she intended to malign the African- American community. I think she repeated what she was told by African-American women. If we are going to move beyond the issue of who is racist, we have to be genuine and frank and communicate with one another."

In Camden, mention of the game triggered no recognition from community workers interviewed yesterday.

Jeannette King, coordinator of Youth Service Commission in Camden, said she had never heard of the 'jewels in the crown' game mentioned by Gov. Whitman.

And Delores Gray, who is substance-abuse coordinator for the 20,000-student Camden School District and executive director of the Camden Youth Activity Center, said she had never heard of such a thing in that community, either.

Whitman has been hounded by controversies involving race since her November 1993 election. After her victory, her former campaign manager, Ed Rollins, boasted that the campaign paid off black ministers in exchange for promises that they would refrain from urging their parishioners to vote in the election.

Rollins later recanted the remarks, but some black leaders took them as a sign that Whitman and her fellow Republicans were not friendly to their agenda.

There was also the matter of New York radio talk-show host Bob Grant, who occasionally has had Whitman on as a guest. Grant and Whitman had a falling- out late last year when the governor declined to appear on Grant's program after black leaders objected to his characterization of black rioters in Los Angeles as "savages" and other racially inflammatory remarks. Whitman reversed herself a short time later, agreeing to appear on the program to discuss the issue of racism.

Whitman has also been criticized for dedicating a rest stop on Interstate 295 in Burlington County to another talk-show host: Howard Stern. Stern sprinkles his talk show with scatological humor, lewd commentary, vulgar characterizations of women and degrading references to minorities.

Earlier this week, a Hispanic organization charged in a complaint with the state Division on Civil Rights that the Whitman administration as well as the state judiciary have discriminated against Hispanic job-seekers.

It was unclear yesterday whether Whitman's remarks would damage her standing as a potential vice presidential candidate in 1996. Whitman has repeatedly denied she wants to run on the national ticket.

But her enormous popularity in New Jersey, her tax-cutting agenda, her liberal views on social issues and pleasant public persona have fueled speculation that she will be selected as the vice-presidential nominee.

"This is a problem," said Ross Baker, a Rutgers University political science professor, of the latest controversy. "It falls into this general pattern that began with Rollins and continues to dog her."

Baker said the suggestion that her remarks are racially insensitive might actually gain Whitman favor among some white voters. But he said they could do damage, too.

"I don't for a minute deny the sincerity of her (apology)," Baker said. ''But when you get tagged, it's a controversy that causes you to have to explain, and that diverts you from things you would rather be doing."

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