Chavis needs to focus on black self-destruction


August 22, 1993|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Some of us are not black. Some of us think that Rodney King is a victim of police brutality, which is not the same thing as being a hero. Some of us think the NAACP shouldn't worry so much about the business of professional football when so much of black America is self-destructing on the grand scale. Some of us wish to talk about this in public, but find ourselves pulling our punches because we are not black.

This is why there is such anger about Dr. Benjamin Chavis, the executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Last week he embraced Rodney King, which is fine, and then called him a proud symbol of fighting injustice, which is the point where Chavis loses many people.

It is one more case where he dances around something important but seems to miss the point. Chavis did this a few months ago, when he tried to strike a deal over pro football expansion. This was insulting, not merely because it inserted a knife into the NAACP's host city of Baltimore, the loser in such a deal, but because it put Chavis in the wrong rhetorical location.

He should put himself in the damaged streets of America's economic ghettos, instead of the plush executive boardrooms of professional sports teams.

He has every right (and duty) to wonder about the effects of pro football jobs on black Americans, but his first concern must be the conditions in the permanent underclass of black America, which is committing mass suicide while those like Benjamin Chavis talk of football and Rodney King.

King was victimized by police who then skirted fair punishment. These officers are not the only bullies in American police ranks. But the more routine reality is police who are overwhelmed by the violence they face each day, and some of them are coming apart at the seams.

The city of Baltimore is a microcosm of scores of American cities. A year ago, there were 335 people killed here, of whom 303 were black. Of 261 people arrested last year on homicide charges, 253 were black. In the first five months of 1993, there were 139 homicide victims, of whom 127 were black.

This is merely the arithmetic of death. It does not touch on the vast amounts of house breakings and car theft, and people mugged on the street, and the cloud of fear that now grips all of us in our routine lives.

And, because some of us are not black, we flinch about saying the kind of things that need to be said by those such as Benjamin Chavis, because such talk invites charges of racism, whichmuddy the waters even further.

But the underlying cause isn't race. It's class. It isn't race when millions of blacks, finally given equal opportunity in the past quarter-century, have become part of mainstream America.

The problem is this permanent underclass, which grows each day we fail to face it openly.

A few months ago, there was a letter in this newspaper from Robert C. Gumbs, secretary for the Baltimore NAACP's Committee on Crime. In it was all the language we should be hearing from Benjamin Chavis, who is too busy skirting the edges.

"We have to assume responsibility for our children and not think that social services departments, schools or courts are supposed to fulfill our responsibility as parents," Gumbs wrote. "Why do we have the staggering amount of out-of-wedlock births in our community? Is this situation encouraged by the present social welfare system? If it is, let's scrap the system.

"Also, there is something wrong with the way we raise our children, especially our male children. It is obvious when we look at last year's murder rates . . . that we in the African-American community have lost something in the child nurturing process -- we need to get it back.

"We have to educate ourselves. No one invests in a community whereon any given school day, thousands of students are roaming the streets as they are in Baltimore. Nor will they deal fairly and responsibly with an area where many people speak English as if it were an alien tongue."

I called Robert Gumbs last week, at the Baltimore NAACP headquarters. They said they'd never heard of him.

So I called the national NAACP headquarters, and they, too, said they'd never heard of him.

So I called Rodney Orange, president of the local chapter. Oh, yeah, he said after a few moments, Robert Gumbs. I'll have him call you. But he never did.

No matter: It's got to be more than Robert Gumbs saying these things. It's got to be Benjamin Chavis and others who can reach large numbers of people at a time, and they have to talk about this terrible thing that is happening: self-destruction on a grand scale, in which human beings are frightened, and cities die, while we worry about football expansion and embrace a Rodney King who is not precisely a hero.

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