WASHINGTON — CIVIL RIGHTS organizations and black leaders are risking their credibility -- and perhaps their future effectiveness -- by temporizing on President Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court. It is laughable to imagine that such groups as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People wouldn't already have gone on record against Thomas if he were not black. He is not only outspokenly opposed to their whole approach to civil rights but has spent seven years proving it as an official of hostile Republican administrations. The comparisons with Thurgood Marshall, whom Thomas has been nominated to succeed, are obviously odious. If Thomas were white, he would have been written off instantly.
None of this is a secret to civil rights leaders, but their response seems to be to find a way to avoid facing facts. As William Gibson, chairman of the NAACP, put it, "The fact is, we are so unfavorably impressed with his known record that we are forced to look further" -- meaning apparently that there must be some hidden virtues there if they can just be found. The NAACP is insisting on a meeting with Thomas, which he can legitimately reject as inappropriate for any nominee.
If the civil rights groups continue to temporize, the threat to the liberal coalition that led the opposition to Robert Bork is obvious. Supporters of abortion rights are trying to turn the focus of the confirmation process on Thomas' toward their issue in the hope that it can make it easier for liberal Democrats in the Senate to vote against him. But they cannot hope to succeed unless black leaders give those white politicians some cover by themselves opposing confirmation.
The notion that Thomas might be stopped on the abortion question alone is wishful thinking. Pro-choice groups and a few liberal senators are proclaiming loudly that they will insist on Thomas being examined more closely on Roe v. Wade than was Justice David H. Souter when he breezed through the confirmation process. But there is no legitimate way to force any nominee to the court to discuss any pending case, and Thomas surely will be schooled adequately enough to avoid that trap.
Quite beyond the threat to liberal solidarity, the attitude of the NAACP plays into the hands of President Bush and those opposed to the civil rights bill of 1991. On the face of it, Bush seems to be vulnerable to the charge by Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell that he is "against quotas for every position except the Supreme Court." But presidents have a way of brazening out inconsistencies. And what better "evidence" could there be that blacks are seeking reverse discrimination than their willingness to swallow an unacceptable candidate solely because of his race. No one imagines this 43-year-old lawyer with 15 months on the federal bench is the "best man" available for the nation's highest court.
There are, of course, valid practical concerns for the civil rights leaders. The most obvious is the fact that if Thomas were rejected, the White House surely would produce a replacement candidate -- perhaps a Hispanic-American -- just as opposed to affirmative action as Thomas has been and just as hostile to abortion rights as he appears to be. But the suspicion is inevitable that the black leaders' reluctance grows largely out of the instant public opinion polls that showed most black voters supporting the nomination. Civil rights leaders know those findings are essentially meaningless and could be changed in a few days. But they apparently cannot ignore them.
Neither can the Democrats whose votes are needed if Thomas is to be challenged in any serious way. Many of those with the most formidable campaigns ahead next year -- especially but not solely in the South -- need solid black support to be reelected.
In the long run, the decision of the NAACP and other leading black organizations probably won't make much difference. Unless Thomas blunders in his hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee or some smoking gun is discovered in his previous writing and speaking, the nominee almost certainly will be confirmed by the Senate, probably by a wide margin. President Bush will be able to get away with his little fairy tale about how race wasn't a factor in the choice. And a Supreme Court already conspicuously conservative may become markedly more so for the next 20 or 30 years.
But advocates of civil rights who walk away from this awkward decision will never have the same credibility.