An Old Mission for the NAACP

October 04, 1994|By DENTON L. WATSON

FREEPORT, NEW YORK — Freeport, New York. -- Despite the dismissal of the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis as executive director, his short tenure continues to haunt the NAACP. Its lawsuit to get him to repay the organization for the $82,400 he used to settle a sexual-discrimination claim by his former assistant is only a continuing tremor from their ruptured relations. Also haunting the NAACP is the $3 million-plus debt in which he left the organization.

But nothing now threatens the NAACP more than the general lack of confidence in its mission. Brent Staples of the New York Times, for example, recently suggested that the NAACP was suffering from a ''crisis of purpose'' and needed to find a new mission because the black middle class was thriving. Such myopia misrepresents history and reality.

Ironically, many of the NAACP's problems result from its earlier leaders' faith that Americans would obey laws meant to protect the constitutional rights of blacks. In struggling especially to get the Supreme Court to overturn the ''separate but equal'' doctrine that had given constitutional sanction to the South's state-imposed segregation, the NAACP had argued that Jim Crow violated the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment because segregation was discrimination. The Supreme Court upheld the NAACP's argument in its landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school-desegregation decision.

Central to the NAACP's struggle was its humanitarian and constitutional (egalitarian) philosophy, grounded in the principles of equality inherent in the Declaration of Independence. With the victory in Brown, a euphoric NAACP shifted its primary focus from seeking political and social equality to the goal of integration, which became synonymous with its founding egalitarian philosophy. Not only did the NAACP see integration as the most expedient way to gain equality, but the goal was attractive because it presented a picture of America without racial distinctions.

Indeed, integration was the only appropriate and thus the most effective response to the South's Jim Crow system. It freed both blacks and whites in the South from segregation, and it also gave blacks a sense of social freedom they never had before.

Initially, however, the NAACP did not realize the extent to which discrimination still could be practiced under integration. So it overlooked the determination of northerners as well as southerners to continue racial discrimination and thus to perpetuate the feelings of racial inferiority in blacks that Brown was meant to remove.

Consequently, at times the NAACP's resolute quest for integration has undermined its founding egalitarian philosophy by confusing appearances of social acceptance for full political and social equality, the type that it sought to reaffirm under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. To enforce the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment should not necessarily be tantamount to seeking integration, which implies acceptance by whites. Integration is a social concept, while equality under the law is a constitutional concept. Consequently, without obtaining additional resources to support integration, that goal can be counterproductive, as is so evident in urban America.

In many instances, therefore, the confusion of the goal of integration for equality under the Constitution opened up the opportunity for the NAACP's enemies to undercut the strategies that had made it the flagship of the civil-rights movement. Those efforts notably were led by presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush. Many blacks like Mr. Staples, too, thus argue that because some blacks have benefited from integration, there is no longer any need for the NAACP.

The NAACP has further reinforced beliefs that the civil-rights struggle is over because it has yet to devise an effective program and strategy for the next phase of the civil-rights movement, whose epicenter is the North. The challenge for the next NAACP executive director will be to develop a program, rooted in the law, that focuses on racial problems in the North. Its primary focus should be on:

* Developing new legal programs for combating systemic discrimination, such as the ''glass ceiling'' in the workplace and residential red-lining.

* Creating an urban Marshall Plan to address the abysmal state of inner-city education and to provide meaningful jobs in those areas.

* Overcoming the genocidal use of the criminal-justice system against blacks, especially young black males. (This program should seek the immediate correction of the most racially egregious aspects of President Clinton's just-adopted crime program by redirecting funds from prisons to such programs as the building of inner-city schools and recreation centers.)

* Reasserting the original mission of the United States Civil Rights Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department, which were created to advance civil-rights goals.

* Launching a massive program to include the teaching of NAACP history in public schools and at higher-education institutions to ensure that Americans understand the intrinsic value of the NAACP's egalitarian philosophy, which has benefited not only African-Americans, but also women, senior citizens, the handicapped, Jews, American Indians, Japanese-Americans, Hispanics and other ethnic groups.

Only by quickly developing such a program can the NAACP end the sense of doom that now hangs over the organization.

Mr. Watson is author of ''Lion in the Lobby, Clarence Mitchell, Jr.'s Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws'' (Morrow 1990).

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