The NAACP and the Supreme Court's 'Black Seat' On Politics Today

Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

August 01, 1991|By Jack W.Germond and Jules Witcover

Washington -- IN ANNOUNCING its decision to oppose the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Clarence Thomas, the NAACP appears to be holding out what is a very unrealistic hope -- that if Thomas is rejected President Bush will choose another black for the vacancy.

Dr. William F. Gibson chairman of the NAACP board said the organization " will continue to fight until an appropriate replacement who embodies the views of the majority of black Americans is nominated and confirmed," and later, responding to a question, said there "should be at least one minority black" on the court.

Bush, however, has already stated emphatically, in nominating Thomas, that he does not subscribe to the notion that the seat vacated byThurgood Marshall, the first black on the court, has now become a "black seat." In fact, he has strenuously resisted the allegation that in naming Thomas he has met a racial quota -- at precisely the time he is trumpeting his opposition to racial quotas that he insists are part of the civil rights legislation he says he will veto.

For Bush to select another black in the event that Thomas is not confirmed, the president would be contradicting himself.

Much more likely, if he can't get Thomas he will fall back on the Hispanic-American also interviewed when Marshall announced his retirement, Judge Emilio Garza, or another Hispanic.

Such a choice would have the political virtue of appealing to another ethnic minority group that Bush has long been courting, and it would serve to blunt much of the criticism from blacks that would result if he tried to fill Marshall's old seat with a white male. So, to a degree, would be the naming of a woman, such as

Judge Edith Jones, who also was on Bush's last short list.

As a result, the NAACP's decision to oppose Thomas probably means that the organization's board of directors has unwittingly voted toreplace a black nominee not to their liking with an Hispanic or a white woman who like Thomas also has a record as a conservative, and hence also not to their liking.

While the NAACP's opposition to Thomas undoubtedly strengthens greatly the hand of those against him, the effort will be, as executive director Benjamin Hooks acknowledged, distinctly an "uphill fight, as most battles of civil-rights organizations are."

With Republican Sen. John Danforth rallying his party colleagues behind Thomas, a former Danforth aide, the White House will need only seven Democratic votes to go with the 43 Republicans in the Senate. Much will depend on how Thomas fares in his confirmation hearings next month, with much of the same coalition that beat Robert Bork's nomination against him.

One NAACP board member, former Georgia state senator Julian Bond, said President Bush, regardless of what he says about there not being a black seat on the court, has indicated that he recognizes that there is, by the very fact that he selected Thomas, whose only clear qualification for the appointment -- in Bond's view -- is that he is black.

Gibson and Hooks both said that they had not been asked by the White House for the names of other qualified blacks, but that they were prepared to do so. Neither sounded, however, as if he expected the phone at NAACP headquarters to be ringing anytime soon.

What no doubt intensifies the NAACP board's opposition to Thomas is the fact that he is in line to replace not just any black on the court but Marshall, the organization's icon. "It is particularly disturbing," Gibson said of Thomas, "that one who has himself so benefitted from affirmative action now denegrates it and would deny these opportunities to other blacks."

When Gibson was asked why he wasn't willing to take a chance that Thomas, once he had lifetime tenure on the bench, might adopt positions more acceptable to the NAACP, replied: "I'm not a gambler. I don't go to Las Vegas and I don't go to Atlantic City....It's too big a gamble."

But it appears to be an even bigger gamble to hope that President Bush, if his choice of Clarence Thomas is rejected, will select another black for the Marshall vacancy. Doing so not only would force Bush to eat his own words, but would make a mockery of his opposition to anything resembling racial quotas in job hiring -- opposition that he figures will bring him a heavy FTC white blue-collar vote next year.

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