NAACP set to tackle new issues and old

March 08, 1998|By Roger Wilkins

FAIRFAX, Va. -- In the days since the election of Julian Bond as national chairman of the NAACP board of directors, I have been asked repeatedly whether the organization had imploded -- as it appeared it was going to do under the leadership of Dr. William F. Gibson and the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis a few years ago.

It has an almost 90-year tradition of struggle for justice, a network of 2,200 local branches across the country and almost 500,000 active members.

That is an enormous asset for people of all colors who yearn for a more just United States. Its loss would have been incalculable, and would have signaled a total breakdown of spirit in the black community.

In that connection, it is hard to heap too much praise on outgoing Chairwoman Myrlie Evers-Williams. When she took the job, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was faction-ridden, debt-saddled, dispirited and a smoldering embarrassment to the civil rights movement.

Under her leadership, Kweisi Mfume was hired as president, pride and spirit were developed, stability achieved and fiscal soundness restored.

Those who think the NAACP is no longer needed must either believe, with columnist George F. Will, that race is no longer "salient" factor in American life, or that contemporary racial problems are too complex to be defined and attacked successfully by blacks and their allies.

In order to believe as Mr. Will does, one must be in deep denial about the centrality of race in America, have an utter lack of regard for the truth or have such a profound belief in black inferiority that the life experience of blacks is entirely irrelevant.

To accept the argument that our racial problems are too complex for the NAACP is to misperceive both the nature of the problems and the adaptability of black people.

Old problems

Many of the problems black people face are neither complex nor new. Blacks still face police misconduct and inequities in the criminal-justice system. The old watchdog and legal redress strategies are still required for such problems. Disparate disciplinary treatment of black children in educational and juvenile justice settings continues to trouble us. Discrimination in housing and employment still abound.

But life has changed, and therefore the organization does face new problems. Many of the statistics measuring the lesser opportunities available to blacks are influenced heavily by the plight of the black poor.

The lives of the poor are damaged by three new powerful forces piled on top of racism. One is the new technological world of work, and the second is the "globalization" of the economy. Both have snatched away the ladder to the middle class that blue-collar work used to provide underclasses of all colors. The third is the new great wave of immigration, which has created a fierce, unequal scramble at the bottom of the economy for the unskilled jobs the poor need so desperately.

All of that contributes to the fact that 30 years after key civil rights and anti-poverty legislation were enacted, 40 percent of black children are growing up in poverty, many of them enrolled in malfunctioning and segregated schools and being raised by jobless people.

Some people would argue that all this arises from class and bad behavior, not race, and thus the NAACP is irrelevant. But these are problems of both race and class, and they require solutions crafted by groups and people who have a clear view of the enormous racial component at the root of it all.

Ultimately, the problem is how to achieve old basic goals dating back to Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois -- jobs, good education and the sturdy character needed to live in a racist society.

The contemporary issues involve sorting out the roads to the goals: educational desegregation or educational excellence; self-help community building or pressures for jobs; coalition building with other minorities of growing strength or black goals alone. All must be worked on simultaneously.

Coming to agreement on priorities and mixes of activities are hard problems, but being black has always been hard. One of the great assets of the NAACP is its richness of grass-roots activists with whom the central office must have a continuing thick discussion as it refines the most promising approaches.

Fortunately, Julian Bond and Kweisi Mfume are just the men to lead the effort. They are smart, seasoned and eloquent. And Mr. Bond's biography -- a child of the black elite who has devoted his life to the struggle -- contains a powerful lesson for black Americans: None of us has it made, and all of us are needed in the struggle for as long as it takes. And our NAACP history teaches us that though we have come a long way, we have yet a long, long way to go.

Roger Wilkins, a former official in the U.S. departments of State and Justice, is a professor of history at George Mason University.

Pub Date: 3/08/98

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