United black community doesn't exist, shouldn't

April 12, 1994|By WILEY A. HALL

I am as quixotic as the next guy, but I gave up on the dream of a unified black community several years ago. And now, I find life much less stressful.

The idea that black Americans could unite behind a common purpose, move in a single direction, and speak with one voice was an alluring one. I have been told, for instance, that the combined income of every black American in the country would rival the wealth of a large and powerful nation. Wouldn't it be nice if we pooled our resources and wielded that wealth like a sword?

But, humans just may be the most contrary creatures on Earth; and not even the shared legacy of slavery and discrimination can overcome human nature -- something the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. may be discovering after a year as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Dr. Chavis has sought to rejuvenate the venerable civil rights organization by reaching out to a broad spectrum of groups within the black community. In his short time in office, Dr. Chavis has supped with corporate executives and slept in housing tenements. He has held summits with heads of state in West Africa, gang leaders in Chicago and black elected officials in Washington, D.C. And he has entered into a "sacred covenant" of unity with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.

Each of those outreach attempts proved perilous -- particularly the overture to Minister Farrakhan, who promptly put Dr. Chavis on the spot by endorsing the anti-Semitic remarks made by a Nation of Islam official.

Last weekend, Dr. Chavis attempted to convene a motley crew of black political celebrities of the past and present, including Angela Davis, Kwame Toure (once known as Stokely Carmichael) and Maulana Ron Karenga.

The session reportedly angered members of the NAACP's board of directors, who felt they should have been consulted before the meeting.

Despite the controversies, Dr. Chavis remains committed to his vision of the NAACP as a big tent with room for many views and perspectives.

"The NAACP is the only national organization other than the black church that has the capacity to broadly represent the diversity within the African American people," said Dr. Chavis in an interview in The Sun. "The question is: Can you have that kind of diversity in one organization? For me, the answer is yes. In fact, I think it is necessary."

But I'm not so sure he is right.

For one thing, I fear Dr. Chavis' quest to unify blacks under the banner of the NAACP is doomed to fail. There are too many agendas, too many vested interests that certain leaders will defend at any cost. In fact, his attempt is symptomatic of the larger problem: Why should the NAACP be the organization that leads? Why not the Urban League or the Nation of Islam? And who says the NAACP has the capacity to represent everyone? Dr. Chavis?

More important, however, I do not believe such unity is even necessary. A rough consensus already exists behind two goals: Most leaders agree on the need to focus on developing black-owned businesses and institutions, and to attack the social ills of teen pregnancy, broken homes, drug abuse, and low educational achievement.

Leaders disagree on who will lead this effort (most believe it should be themselves), and on how those goals can be achieved. While they wrangle among themselves for power and headlines and corporate donations, many of their followers are drifting away to join organizations that seem more immediate to their needs: neighborhood groups and Parent Teacher Associations, and professional guilds. Remember that the traditional civil rights organizations were created at a time when traditional institutions refused to recognize black interests. Today, people can have their views represented by working on behalf of their favorite candidate.

It is time we recognized the alphabet soup of black organizations as a strength rather than a weakness. It is time leaders of the traditional groups spent less energy in summits searching for an elusive consensus -- and more time identifying a specific mission and communicating it to the grass roots, the constituents.

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