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Black leadership in crisis.

The debacle of Ben Chavis's appointment and tenure at the NAACP, finally, mercifully ended, underscores the troubled state of the national civilrights and race-relations establishment. And, yes, there is no question but that forces outside the NAACP--foundations, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, and others--attempted in politically objectionable ways to fuel the pressure that brought Chavis down. Nonetheless, he was rightly dismissed for his transgressions against the board and the organization as well as for the flamboyant emptiness of his leadership--not because of the evil machinations of "forces outside the African-American community," as he has alleged in pathetic attempts to make himself a martyr of the movement. (His references to his "crucifixion" and "resurrection" suggested an unusually robust self-esteem, but shouldn't he have heard echoses of Clarence Thomas in calling his dismissal a "lynching"?)

Public attention to Chavis focused on allegations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination made against him, his apparent attempt to deceive the board about the exorbitant cash settlement he made with his accuser, and, of course, his pointless and silly posturing with black nationalist clowns, including protofascist Louis Farrakhan and other self-appointed "black leaders." At least equally disturbing, however, was his underhanded support for NAFTA, which included surreptitiously lobbying blacks in Congress even after the NAACP board declared its opposition to the trade agreement. Perhaps worse was Chavis's selling out of his main activist affiliation, the movement against environmental racism, by pimping for a group formed by oil and chemical companies to ease Superfund regulations.

Chavis was appointed in the hopes that his identification with grass-roots activism would energize the NAACP and broaden its appeal to politically alienated young people. Benjamin Hooks, his predecessor, had been hired for pretty much the same reasons twenty years ago.

This focus on image over both political substance and efficacy reflects the problem that the organization, like the civil-rights elite in general, has had in defining its mission since the defeat of de jure segregation. This problem has been exacerbated by the postwar NAACP's opposition to radicalism. It has only gotten worse as the Reagan/Bush/Clinton Administrations have turned away from managing race relations through insider negotiation. No more guaranteed access to the White House, no more automatic concessions to black interests (however defined).

The political circumstances require broad social vision and a concrete political agenda. Chavis has neither. Instead, he represents the worst devolution of 1960s activism--substituting symbolic gestures and the illusion of mass mobilization for a coherent political program.

In contrast to Chavis and the NAACP under his leadership, the Congressional Black Caucus has come closer to such a coherent political program. The Caucus has distinguished itself as a body by consistent identification with the most decent, reasonable, and humane options possible in the national political mainstream. The alternative budget the Caucus prepares annually emphasizes human needs and is a model of the premise that government can and should be a tool for making people's lives better and reducing inequality.

The Caucus's finest hours, though, may very well have come in response to Clarence Thomas's nomination to the Supreme Court and the NAFTA vote. While national civil-rights organizations temporized and the likes of Maya Angelou and Catharine MacKinnon speculated publicly that Thomas would turn out to be all right because he's black and used to be poor, the Caucus moved swiftly and aggressively to oppose his confirmation.

Representatives Craig Washington, John Conyers, and John Lewis argued eloquently and unambiguously at the Senate hearing that Thomas is unfit to serve on the highest court. Their testimony focused carefully on law and public policy and--calling racial opportunism by its name--emphatically rejected the sophistries about Thomas deserving a chance to serve on the Court because he had been a poor black child with a loving grandfather. Subsequent developments have shown how much better off the country would be if the Caucus's position had carried the day.

Similarly, a heavy majority of caucus members argued and voted against NAFTA. And they did so despite considerable pressure from the White House, which tried to reduce a welfare program for predatory multinationals and investment bankers to a matter of Clinton's supposed need for a legislative victory.

At its best, the Congressional Black Caucus brings to mind the black-led Reconstruction governments that gave the South its first blush of progressive state action (an accomplishment later undone by the white-supremacist Redeemer regimes). The Caucus in its best moments shows that, then as now, black citizens' political participation enriches democracy for the nation as a whole.

I remember just about a year ago watching Representative Craig Washington, Democrat of Texas, on one of the television news chat programs during the last flurry of debate around NAFTA. He was impressively forthright and clear in asserting and defending his opposition to the trade agreement while trying not to attack the Clinton Administration. In the process, he demonstrated the increasingly tight and uncomfortable position occupied by black progressives who are at the same time Democratic officials. (He lost his seat when the Houston business community mobilized against him because of his NAFTA vote, and won't be back in Congress next year.)

I understood and respected his position and commiserated with the difficulty of his situation, especially as he rejected interviewers' persistent attempts to link him to Republican criticisms and objectives. I was also thankful not to be constrained in the way that he was. Many of us on the Left don't have the stomach or the patience demanded by that kind of pragmatic politics, which requires spending a lot of time dealing with issues and alliances that most of us find distasteful. But it's necessary political work, and it's important for us to have people willing to do it. (I'm proud to note that two of my former college friends, Paul Wellstone and Melvin Watt, are among those doing it now, and a third, Ben Jones, tried to add sanity and decency to a suburban Atlanta Congressional district that couldn't stand the effort for very long.) There is, when all is said and done, no meaningful politics that does not connect with influencing governance and the exercise of state power.

Ironically, even as the Caucus has grown in size and visibility recently, its leverage and effectiveness are now seriously threatened. Supreme Court rulings challenging the legitimacy of majority black and Latino voting districts threaten to reduce the number of blacks in Congress. And the Clinton Administration's pellmell retreat from Democratic liberalism has the Caucus in a bind.

Clinton's perfidy on issues of social justice and racial equality puts the Caucus in a situation comparable to that which faced black Republicans after Reconstruction. The President demands blacks' acquiescence to basically racist initiatives--in part with threats that disloyalty will push him further into the arms of the racist Right, in part with vague promises of payoffs down the road.

Clinton highlights his roots as a Southern cracker politician in his appalling efforts to represent the Administration's patently anti-black policies on welfare reform and crime as somehow in black Americans' interest. His staging of photoops at black churches and his fawning over black homicide victims' families to sell his draconian crime bill bring to mind J.K. Vardaman's and Ben Tillman's insistence a hundred years ago that disfranchisement and Jim Crow were good for black Mississippians and South Carolinians. Clinton's incessant references to the need to cultivate "personal responsibility," especially in what is usually described as socialwelfare policy, are only thinly coded reassurances for whites that he's not inclined to coddle blacks.

Clinton dropped, without a fight, his one half-hearted concession to black and civil-rights concerns about the crime bill--the Racial Justice Amendment, which would have allowed death-row inmates to challenge their capital sentences as motivated by racial bias. Nevertheless, he pressed the members of the Caucus to support the bill anyway, presumably in the name of party loyalty, the Administration's need for a legislative victory, and, no doubt, special promises to individuals.

Despite all the recent chatter in the news about the Caucus's clout, its members did not stand firm against Clinton's capitulation. Only twelve of the thirty-seven black Democrats who vote in the House voted against the bill, and at least three of those--Charles Rangel of New York, Cleo Fields of Louisiana, and John Lewis of Georgia--wavered before the final vote. Rangel absurdly announced that he would consider switching his position if "religious leaders" persuaded him that the bill's sweeping anti-crime provisions could outweigh his opposition to the death penalty. President Piggly Wiggly, on cue, produced a statement signed by forty black clergymen supporting the bill. Fields and Lewis announced assurances from Janet Reno that the Justice Department would put in place procedures to prevent discriminatory application of the new Federal capital sentences.

When it came down to it, though, all three stood their ground. Others who held fast were: William Clay (Missouri), John Conyers (Michigan), Ron Dellums (California), Earl Hilliard (Alabama), Donald Payne (New Jersey), Robert Scott (Virginia), Louis Stokes (Ohio), Maxine Waters (California), and Melvin Watt (North Carolina). Texas's Craig Washington, who had actively opposed the measure in previous votes, was absent for the final consideration.

The fact that fewer than a third of Caucus Democrats opposed the crime bill also may indicate the extent to which the Caucus members are demoralized and hemmed in by this Administration. This is an environment in which the Caucus and, by extension, black Americans' interests in national politics, can only lose. It may well be time for the Caucus to undertake such dramatic action as staging a strategic walk-out or other disruption of normal affairs in the House, or drawing a line in the dirt and withholding support from Piggly Wiggly's program. They could also resuscitate a tactic from Adam Clayton Powell Jr.'s old play book and insist on adding racial-justice riders to any and every bill that comes before the body. The point of this kind of action is not so much to persuade the Administration to attend to black citizens' needs. Rather, it is to use public office as a bully pulpit.

It's not very likely that the Caucus will pursue such a course. Its members are a diverse lot. All are constrained by the idiosyncratic politics of their districts. Some genuinely support the White House's politics, and some have to toe the Administration's line because they need its support for one thing or another. (The welfare-reform package, steeped as it is in victimblaming "underclass" discourse, promises to bring out the worst ideological tendencies in the group.) Although Caucus chair Kweisi Mfume has attained cachet as a force to be reckoned with in the House, he cannot impose discipline on the Caucus's members. Besides, for all his photo-ops with Farrakhan, he consistently votes the White House's agenda anyway.

But as Clinton makes it ever clearer that black Americans figure into his social vision only as a population to be demonized and disciplined, we may find ourselves at the limit of what can be accomplished through normal politics. And there is no black presence in national politics besides the Congressional Black Caucus that is capable at this juncture of responding appropriately to the ominous challenge posed by the collapse of Democratic liberalism.

The bleakness of the alternatives is evident not only in the Chavis debacle, but also in the wave of public enthusiasm for a recent speech by Hugh Price, the new National Urban League head and a career insider/race-relations technician. In the speech, Price attributes black Americans' difficulties to a race-neutral "global economic shift" that lies beyond our intervention. This requires, he claims, that "selfhelp" efforts take priority over fighting for racial equality. Like Booker T. Washington, Price proposes that equality should follow correction of supposed pathologies among the black poor.

I am haunted by the image of the last cohort of black Southern state legislators waiting to be driven out of office after the restoration of white supremacy a century ago. Their pathetic efforts to fashion compromises with an increasingly obdurate tyranny are a poignant reminder that at times the greatest danger lies in not standing on principle. The advantage we have over our predecessors in responding to the threats from a regressive Government is that we can still imagine mobilizing popular political action--something unthinkable in an era of more thorough racist domination. But how long we can retain that advantage without using it?
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Title Annotation:NAACP; Congressional Black Caucus
Author:Reed, Adolph Jr.
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Column
Date:Oct 1, 1994
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