Now or never for the NAACP

October 13, 1994|By Roger Wilkins

Washington -- IN DISMISSING its executive director, the Rev. Ben Chavis, the NAACP put on a show that we watched with the titillation and embarrassment that we would feel from a neighbor's loud, messy divorce.

The board meets today to begin seeking a new executive director.

But we now know enough about the scandal and debt that have dragged down the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to understand that a change of one individual at the top, although necessary, won't restore the association to what we need it to be.

Not all of the problems laid at Mr. Chavis' door began with him, but they all developed under the stewardship -- if it can be called that -- of the leaders of the board of directors.

No leaders who permitted a $3 million or possibly $4 million deficit to develop should remain in office.

This interracial organization's complex, arcane politics have produced a board that has become increasingly more ingrown and provincial and has developed a reputation for generous spending on itself.

The outmoded governing structure, including an unwieldy 64-member board, has long needed overhaul. The board ought to dismiss its officers and declare a voluntary trusteeship that would modernize the governing structure, restore the NAACP's credit and credibility and choose a new leader before relinquishing power.

The trustees might include such eminent citizens as Marian Wright Edelman, Leon A. Higginbotham Jr., Lani Guinier, Winifred Green, Colin L. Powell Jr., William L. Taylor, Angela Glover Blackwell, Harry Belafonte, Geoffrey Canada, David Hornbeck, Johnetta Cole, John Hope Franklin, Dorothy Height and William T. Coleman.

Many of these people -- some of them educators, some of them white and none of them now board members -- have spent a good portion of their careers dealing with young people and the grass roots of black America, with which the NAACP has been out of touch.

The organization is not merely of concern to African Americans. The NAACP has been -- and can be again -- a national treasure. The issues it should confront involve the quality of our national life and nature of our democracy.

All of its activities and capacities are urgently needed. Economic forces are tearing black America apart. The gaps in income and in life experience between the growing but still modest group of affluent African Americans and their most vulnerable brothers and sisters is enormous.

While economists trumpeted September's 5.9 percent unemployment rate as "effective full employment," the black jobless rate remained in double digits, where it has been for two decades.

The Urban Institute reported recently that in 1993, 53 percent of black males in the prime working and family-forming years -- the ages of 25 to 34 -- were jobless or employed with wages too low to raise a family of four out of poverty.

The incredible burst of prison construction, the harshness of welfare reform proposals and the unwillingness to put black economic distress on the national agenda are all evidence of the strength and pervasiveness of racism.

But the NAACP has almost disappeared from serious national dialogue about public policy.

We are experiencing a hardening of racial attitudes, a rising desperation among the black poor, a coarsening of the quality of urban life, a growing willingness to disregard the Bill of Rights when dealing with certain criminal defendants and an inability to debate our social ills honestly.

The nation needs the NAACP with its constructive traditions and its splendid nationwide network. The NAACP needs a renewal of the acute public-policy analyses for which it was once respected.

But the organization is in terrible condition and may disappear. It cannot be reinvented, but it can be repaired. The repair job should lie at the top of the board's agenda.

If the board is not up to the task, outsiders must put on the pressure needed to force it -- finally -- to do the right thing.

Roger Wilkins is professor of history at George Mason University.

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