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The NAACP at the crossroads.

The advent of Black History Month in February will bring the usual spurt of debates about civil rights. The problem with such reflection, however, is that, while it may be entertaining and useful for venting steam--like President Clinton's advisory panel on civil rights--it is unable to provide any comprehensive recommendations for solving worsening problems. The impasse lies with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. As it celebrates its eighty-eighth birthday on February 12, the NAACP remains a shadow of what was once an organization on the cutting edge of the movement.

The question prompting the current identity crisis is the same one that dichotomized the organization decades ago: how valid is integration as a civil rights goal? Frustrated by the intense attacks on civil rights by right-wing reactionaries, a growing number of the NAACP's leaders have recently expressed strong doubts about pursuing the goal. Like Booker T. Washington at the turn of the century and W. E. B. Du Bois in the 1930s, these African Americans have been drawing the wagons around themselves, feeling that the best strategy for survival in a racist society is self-segregation.

When the NAACP rejected self-segregation decades ago in a bitter battle that further defined the organization, Du Bois, one of its founders, was forced to resign as editor of the Crisis, its journal. So for the organization to today imply any doubt in its founding strategy is further indication of how severely it has been damaged by years of weak leadership and infighting.

This is the same NAACP which led the nineteen-year school desegregation movement that in 1954 won the unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education. The landmark case overturned the "separate but equal" doctrine established by the High Court in 1896, which relegated African Americans to second-class citizenship or worse. Brown cleared the way for the passage of the most comprehensive civil rights laws in the nation's history and for subsequent court orders to enforce and expand the decision.

Despite violent white opposition, the NAACP pressed for integration. Not even when African Americans themselves began questioning the busing of their children into hostile white areas of cities like Boston and Detroit did the organization waver in its course. For the NAACP knew, as one white woman spat, "it's not the bus but the niggers" that was the problem.

The extent of the NAACP's debate over integration today is best demonstrated by the differing positions of Dennis C. Hayes, the organization's general counsel, and his assistant Willie Abrams. Hayes believes the problem is caused by confusing integration with assimilation--a concept he firmly rejects because it is "built upon a philosophy of white supremacy." All versions of assimilation, Hayes insists, "operate under the implicit assumption that there is something wrong with the racial otherness of black folk." When discussing those blacks who want to segregate themselves, Hayes states:

While, theoretically, we might imagine that a racial minority

group might for positive reasons want to segregate

themselves even though there exists complete openness

from the dominant society, this is not the reality of racial

politics in this country. Indeed, when Booker T.

Washington called for segregation--in part because he

accepted the position that blacks were unfit and must

prove themselves to whites before segregation could

end--the reality was that many African Americans

adopted segregation as an accommodation to, and protection

from, white racism.

While this is understandable from a self-survival

point of view, it has been the NAACP's considered wisdom

over eighty-eight years that such an accommodation to

white racists ... does nothing to destabilize white hierarchy;

and it does nothing to destabilize the philosophy

of white supremacy.

Hayes maintains that true integration

creates and maintains a more inclusive society where

individuals and groups have opportunities to participate

equally in their communities. Inclusion then gives us

tools to build a democratic society, the ability to

approach complex issues from many perspectives....

and that's why we are for it.

Abrams, however, embraces a "plural but equal" concept, which he insists is different from "separate but equal." For him, "plural but equal" represents a voluntary separation of blacks in schools and communities. He says this is different from traditional forms of segregation because it will not "run out the white family that moves in." Neither, he maintains, will the white community run out blacks who enter. He thus believes that identifiable racial or ethnic communities are entitled to neighborhood schools because the "history of school integration really demonstrates that, in order to have viable schools, we must have some community" with parental input into them.

Like white segregationists, Abrams maintains that busing children long distances to schools outside their neighborhoods has been the real enemy to improving education for African Americans because it "destroys the main ingredient that is really needed to have good schools." He argues that a few children will indeed do well in any environment, as they did even in slavery. So, according to Abrams, "In situations where you have children being bussed out of their communities, you're going to find a few kids who are going to do well in those [integrated schools]." But by and large, he insists, the majority of children in these programs fail "because they are cut off from the parental and community support they need."


The relevance of the school integration debate was underscored last spring by a study conducted by Gary Orfield of Harvard University. It showed that, despite a generation of school desegregation progress in the eleven states of the Old Confederacy and six border states, resegregation in this region is rapidly increasing. Throughout the North, meanwhile, widespread demographic changes, reflected in the growth of the white suburban ring around black and Hispanic inner-city populations, have worsened segregation.

The profound social implications of these changes are evident in the almost total failure of many predominantly black school districts to properly educate their student populations; the chronic presence of guns, drugs, and related crime; the preponderance of blacks and Hispanics in prisons; and the further intensification of housing segregation. The resulting social pathology is worsened by the overseas flight of the types of factory and decent-paying unskilled jobs that once gave earlier poor white populations hope for a better future.

The trend was ensured when the Reagan administration destroyed the remnants of school desegregation programs. In the 1980s, the Justice Department opposed many pending cases that had been brought by the NAACP and its offspring, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund. This opposition prompted Congress to end the federal desegregation assistance program in the 1981 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act. The Bush administration remained committed to the reversal. And even though President Clinton has vowed to work toward racial and ethnic reconciliation, his administration has felt no meaningful pressure from the NAACP to correct the previous twelve years of reversal on school desegregation.

Consequently, Clinton has embraced charter schools as an alternative to the traditional public schools for providing quality education. Indeed, his administration has included funds in the federal budget to create 3,000 charter schools by the year 2001. Clinton insists these schools "give parents in local communities the flexibility to create performance-based schools open to everyone, and they work." But for whom?

That the NAACP has yet to take an official position on charter schools is another indication of how much its policy-making systems are in disarray. Chartered by state and local school boards, these schools are supposed to provide choice for parents and to serve as market models for the traditional public schools.

But Delphina B. Brisco of the Pittsburgh public school system regards charter schools as "nefarious." She insists, "They are not about education for the most part [but] about money, power and politics." In other words, those with all of the above reap the benefits. But the most obvious drawback, she says, is that "more money will be lost to the public schools." She cites Pennsylvania as an ideal example of the problem. There, she says, "The governor has cut and cut [funding for public schools] just so we can establish charter schools."

Other important questions raised by charter schools, opponents insist, involve salary levels and the number of teachers who will be employed; the appropriateness of curriculums for all children; the accountability of parents and community for educational programs; the quality of physical plants; the recruitment and admission of students; and the manner of teaching students with special needs.

Another crucial question for the NAACP is the inherent likelihood that the federal government will reimpose the "separate but equal" doctrine. Unless charter schools serve more as magnet schools for including students of all races and ethnic backgrounds than as "market models," they will be modern versions of the private academies that sprang up in the South in rebellion against enforcing Brown.

The danger of the NAACP's ambivalence over charter schools is reinforced by its silence on its own metropolitan school desegregation program in St. Louis, Missouri--an ideal, working desegregation model. With 13,000 African American students participating in this program and several thousand others in desegregated magnet schools in the city, it is the largest of several models in the nation. Others are in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Nashville, Tennessee.

The St. Louis program was negotiated for the NAACP in 1983 by William L. Taylor, a Washington lawyer who is vice-chair of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a lobbying organization the NAACP created in 1950. Taylor is battling intense opposition to the program from Jay Nixon, Missouri's attorney general, who maintains that African Americans are no longer interested in desegregation. Yet 13,000-plus parents voluntarily put their children on buses each day to attend these schools.


In 1974, Clarence Mitchell Jr., the late director of the NAACP Washington Bureau, recognized the urgent need for the organization to revamp its programs and shift its focus from the South to the North in order to address new types of civil rights problems that resulted rom systemic or institutional discrimination. Despite his legendary status on Capitol Hill that won him the popular moniker "101st senator," he encountered bitter opposition from some of those who earlier had been his strongest allies.

The root of the problem was that, as the strategy for the school desegregation campaign developed and the NAACP concentrated its legal resources on attacking the "separate but equal" doctrine, focus shifted overridingly to the goal of integration. With the Brown victory, integration became the NAACP's grail, and the term became synonymous with full political and social equality because its achievement was regarded as being the most expedient way to implement the organization's egalitarian philosophy. The idea was also very attractive because, as Michael Sussman, a former member of the NAACP's legal staff who handled the organizations recent school desegregation case in Yonkers, New York, argues, "Integration is the best indication [of] what kind of society we aspire [to for our children] and what kinds of values we want to transmit [to them]."

Indeed, integration was the only appropriate, and thus the most effective, response to the South's state-imposed Jim Crow system. It destroyed a system that had imprisoned not only the oppressed blacks but also the whites in the region. It broke down the color line and gave southern blacks a sense of social freedom they never had. Its achievement was intended to eradicate all sense of racial inferiority, which was inherent in segregation. And where the courts closely monitored the implementation of its orders, integration worked.

Yet, initially the NAACP and other black leader's did not realize the extent to which discrimination still could be practiced under integration. That was the reason Robert H. Johnson, president of the Bergen County (New Jersey) NAACP Branch, gave for opposing a school desegregation plan there. Like Willie Abrams, he insisted that "racial balance is not the important. factor here; equal and quality education is."

Johnson pointed to studies that "show that an integrated school does not necessarily provide quality education." That has been because of the common practices of tracking black students in avowedly integrated schools or placing them in special education programs, thus segregating them from whites in order to provide them with inferior education. Another example is the pervasive glass ceiling in the workplace that limits the advancement of minorities and women to higher-level jobs.

By shifting its emphasis overridingly to integration, the NAACP overlooked the extent to which northerners as well as southerners were determined to continue racial discrimination at any cost and, thus, to perpetuate in the victims of racism the feelings of inferiority. This is the problem that bothers blacks like Abrams.

At times, the resolute quest for integration undermined the NAACP's founding philosophy by confusing appearances of social acceptance for full political and social equality--the type that the NAACP sought to reaffirm under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause should not have been tantamount to simple race mixing. To be equal there has to be mutual respect for each group's heritage and culture.

But neither could the NAACP alter its historical quest for an integrated society without destroying its own raison d'etre. In readjusting its programs to meet new needs, it should have been mindful that integration is a social concept while equality under the law is grounded in the Constitution. Consequently, without obtaining additional resources to support meaningful integration--that is, the transformation of institutions and social attitudes--the goal could be counterproductive, such as spurring white flight.

In many instances, therefore, the confusion of the goal of integration with the broader goal of equality opened up the opportunity for the NAACP's enemies to severely undercut its legal and political strategies by simply changing the rules. President Nixon, for one, with his southern strategy, whiplashed the NAACP mercilessly in the early 1970s around the busing issue. But as Nixon aide John Ehrlichman acknowledged some time ago, Nixon's design was not to take back all of the civil rights gains, only some. Ehrlichman's explanation was intended to distance the Nixon administration from that of President Reagan. Reagan, Ehrlichman noted, was determined to destroy all civil rights progress. So was President Bush.

The reason the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush administrations succeeded in attacking civil rights to the extent they did was due in large measure to the NAACP not stressing enough that integration was simply a tool for achieving equality. Thus, there is merit in Abrams' argument that African Americans do need to protect and strengthen their institutions. However, they cannot do so in a manner that undermines the equal protection foundations of Brown.

In the 1972 battle to bar the use of federal funds for school busing, Mitchell sensed the problem but was unable to adjust his strategy because he was locked into the integration policy. For him to have attempted to shift strategies then would have played into his enemies' hands. In Congress, the battle was led by Representative Edith S. Green (Democrat--Oregon), one of Mitchell's foremost allies during the struggle for passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with its Title VI, to facilitate school desegregation, and Title VII, barring discrimination in employment.

At the very outset, Green supported school integration. She was angered, however, that the NAACP was pressing for integration before using the civil rights laws to improve all-black or predominantly black schools as a route to school desegregation. Consequently, she and other former allies from the North led the battle to weaken some of the laws they themselves had helped to pass. The result was that the NAACP suffered its first decisive defeat since the 1950s.

Similarly, California's recent Proposition 209 and other intense attacks on affirmative action are determined attempts to cripple Title VII. Because Titles VI and VII were firmly undergirded by the Fourteenth Amendment, however, they are still effective in many cases when enforced. The problem today, nevertheless, is that the nation has no coherent civil rights program, and African Americans are confused because the NAACP is confused over strategy.

After the decisive defeat, Mitchell proposed a new, comprehensive program for the NAACP in 1973 that would have combatted the systemic causes of discrimination. However, an exhausted Roy Wilkins, then executive director, ignored the proposal, preferring instead to create day care, prison, and other superficial programs. Mitchell's program, rooted in the law, would have shifted the organization back to the goal of seeking equality by, for example, utilizing the rapidly increasing strength of the black vote and the increasing number of black elected officials to address the civil rights problems of the North. His program also would have aided blacks in developing businesses, as well as creating other economic benefits.

The challenge for the NAACP therefore is to develop a comprehensive program that is firmly rooted in the organization's founding egalitarian philosophy and within the context of its demonstrated legal and political strategies. It has to rebuild its legal department and reinvest in the general counsel the required autonomy that made the organization a giant of social change, as well as adopt elements of Mitchell's proposals which are still relevant. Furthermore, it should:

* Develop new legal programs for combatting systemic discrimination, which is practiced through residential redlining and other forms of housing segregation.

* Get Congress to address the abysmal state of urban education by creating an urban Marshall Plan that is based on the magnet school concept and provides decent-paying jobs in the inner cities for residents there.

* Eliminate the genocidal use of the criminal justice system against African Americans, especially young males.

* Fully enforce the civil rights laws, including reasserting the original mission of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

* Launch a national program to include the teaching of civil rights history as a standard requirement in public schools to ensure that all Americans understand the intrinsic of the struggle for equality.

The NAACP has a moral responsibility to play a potent, effective role in redefining America in the new millennium. President Clinton is providing the leadership on civil rights that Mitchell and other leaders had sought throughout the NAACP's history by creating the civil rights advisory panel, headed by the distinguished historian John Hope Franklin. Unless the NAACP resumes its flagship role in this mission, those aspirations "to find ways to celebrate our differences" will be doomed to compromise. That is a tragedy America cannot afford.

Denton L. Watson, former director of public relations for the NAACP, is author of Lion in the Lobby: Clarence Mitchell Jr.'s Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws.
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Title Annotation:organization no longer effective in addressing discrimination
Author:Watson, Denton L.
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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