The real issues for black leaders

June 14, 1994

NAACP director Benjamin Chavis probably knew he was going out on a limb when he planned the leadership conference his group is sponsoring in Baltimore this week. Across the country African American communities are facing a crisis of unemployment, violent crime, poor schools and broken families. It's difficult enough to try to tackle those problems without the added burden of controversy introduced by the presence of extremists like the Nation of Islam's Minister Louis Farrakhan. Yet Mr. Chavis has insisted all along that it's not who attends his summit, but what gets done. That is also how history will judge this gathering.

A generation ago, activists meeting in Gary, Ind., mapped out a comprehensive strategy for exploiting the political opportunities for blacks inherent in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. From their initial efforts were forged the nuts and bolts machinery of hundreds of campaigns for elected office that over the next 20 years gave practical meaning to the rallying cry of black political power.

Today, economic empowerment rather than political enfranchisement is the most pressing issue affecting the African American community. The gains of the past are in danger of being lost unless blacks can consolidate their earlier civil rights victories into some form of economic parity with whites. Yet in many ways, the problem is far more complicated, and the solutions more elusive, than the struggle against the blatant segregation and discrimination of the 1960s.

For example, crime is often said to be a result of poverty but once crime gets out of control, as it has in many cities, it also becomes a factor in creating more poverty as businesses and jobs are driven away, leaving residents of poor communities even more dependent on welfare programs. Or take education: The poor quality of many urban school systems means many children leave school without the skills necessary to make their way in the workplace. Poor schools lead to unemployment, which exacerbates poverty. So does bias in the workplace.

Achieving economic parity is about more than slogans touting the virtues of black capitalism. It is about preventing family breakups and out-of-wedlock births, about effective education and employment training, about safe neighborhoods and strong communities. That's a tall order for any group to deal with over the course of a couple of days. Mr. Chavis has drawn leaders of every shade of opinion to tackle the problem. Now that they're here, let us hope the conference participants are keeping their eyes on the prize -- producing results, not rhetoric.

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