NAACP's endorsement may not be the best move

WILEY A. HALL

July 06, 1993|By WILEY A. HALL

Let us not mince words: The NAACP put itself into a crazy, twisted situation last week when it endorsed Charlotte, N.C.'s bid for a National Football League franchise.

By doing this -- by seeming to put Charlotte's application over Baltimore's -- the organization rewarded its enemies and punished its friends. Its leaders refuse to back off or apologize or consider a middle ground.

Are they being small-minded?

Yes.

Are they being dumb?

Definitely.

Are they being short-sighted, inconsistent and inconsiderate? Are they squandering their fund of good will, shattering any semblance of black unity and ruining the organization's reputation by appearing to put profits over morals?

Goes without saying.

Charlotte's NFL group is headed by Jerry Richardson, who also happens to be one of the principal owners of the Denny's Restaurant chain. For nearly two years now, Denny's has been battling charges that its employees have been overtly rude and discriminatory toward black customers.

Many commentators have rushed to Denny's defense by claiming that the chain's employees are rude to everybody, regardless of their race, creed or color. But a Justice Department investigation of complaints in California last year makes it clear that blacks were singled out for especially obnoxious treatment.

Restaurant managers apparently maintained a kind of informal quota for what they considered an acceptable mixture of black and white customers in their dining areas, according to the Justice Department.

When the number of black customers reached that quota, the managers allegedly used the code "black out," which was a signal to employees to begin discouraging black patronage. Black customers were told they had to pay in advance for their meals. They were turned away at the door. They received particularly slow service with the hope that they would get disgusted and leave.

Last fall, the Justice Department decided the chain had violated Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In April, the restaurant signed a consent decree in which it agreed to halt such practices and "reaffirm and reinforce" the company's commitment to fair treatment.

But new charges of discriminatory treatment surfaced this summer in Denny's restaurants on the East Coast. Additional lawsuits are pending.

The systematic nature of the alleged discrimination, coupled with the persistence of the complaints, even in the face of a federal investigation, raise the suspicion that the chain's problems start at the very top -- with Mr. Richardson. That makes him a possible enemy of fairness, someone who appears to be antagonistic to the goals of the NAACP.

The NAACP can forgive this kind of behavior. It can attempt to turn a problem into something constructive. In fact, last week the NAACP and Richardson announced a Fair Share agreement in which Mr. Richardson pledged to increase minority participation not only in his restaurants but also in an NFL franchise.

But the NAACP went too far when it then called upon the NFL to award Charlotte the franchise. That amounted to a slap at Baltimore. It opened the organization to charges that it put profits over friendship.

Baltimore is a majority black city headed by a black mayor that serves as the NAACP's national headquarters. Black legislators, led by Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, D-Baltimore, have ensured that there would be significant minority participation in the construction of a new stadium for a Baltimore franchise. An official with the Baltimore NAACP told me yesterday that at least one of the local groups bidding for a NFL franchise has minority participation.

It would have been appropriate for NAACP leaders to seek fair share agreements with everyone seeking a franchise. It would have been fair if they had then made the NFL aware of those groups who were receptive to such agreements and those that were not.

But rewarding Mr. Richardson's group with an endorsement at this stage is not fair.

It is not even smart: Rewarding racist behavior is, at best, a very short-sighted policy for the NAACP to pursue.

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