Naacp Risks Its Prestige On Questionable Liaisons

MANY long-time friends and admirers of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People have been pained by what has been happening to the NAACP in recent years. Its membership is only about half of what it was 30 years ago and it has allied itself with various extremists, of whom Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan has been taken as a symbol.

NAACP leader Benjamin Chavis has lent the NAACP's prestige to conferences of hoodlum gang leaders and to disreputable academics who promote anti-Semitism. Perhaps "lent" is the wrong word. It might be more accurate to say that he has risked the NAACP's prestige by his liaisons with such elements, who cannot be made respectable.

There was a time when the NAACP stood on the frontiers of the fight for human rights, on behalf of the most despised victims of intolerance. This took real courage - not rhetorical bravado - at a time when bombings and lynchings were the weapons of their enemies, and when many paid with their lives for standing up for what was right. The NAACP's fortitude and achievements under these conditions are carved in stone for all time, and nothing that Benjamin Chavis or anybody else can do will change that.

But in time even monuments can become overgrown by weeds and splattered by bird-droppings. Even a great crusade can degenerate into a hustle.

Why does this happen? Sometimes it is because of the law of diminishing returns.

When blacks were enslaved, the first priority was obviously freedom. And when blacks were freed, the next priority was to secure the rights that other Americans had. But, as more and more civil rights were added, there came a time when additional civil rights were not nearly as important as other things that needed to be done within the black community itself to build up the human capital of skills and experience in economic advancement.

Unfortunately, organizations tend to be specialized, whether they are business organizations, religious organizations or civil-rights organizations. It is no criticism of the NAACP to say that it has historically been specialized for legalistic and political activity. There was a time when such activity was a high priority. Today other things are needed - and no organization goes quietly to oblivion.

What has happened to the NAACP is in some ways symptomatic of what has happened to a whole generation of black leaders who have become specialized for addressing white people with complaints, demands and threats. There is only so much you can get that way - and most of it has already been gotten. Diminishing returns have long since set in. We may now be headed into negative returns, as more of the same tactics only provoke backlashes and encourage the growth of white extremists.

Yet, what else can the NAACP do? It has fulfilled its essential mission but it has to find something to do, not only to keep itself alive as an organization but also to maintain the morale and self-respect of its members and staff. As well justified as many of the criticisms of NAACP director Benjamin Chavis may be, he is a symptom of this desperate floundering around to find a role that will maintain visibility.

While Chavis and the NAACP have been hurt by their alliance with the black Muslims, ironically the black Muslims are one of the few groups to be bent on the internal development of the black community. Their promotion of black business enterprises, their inculcation of discipline and responsibility on their own members, their promotion of family and education, and their anti-drug and anti-crime efforts are all more promising roads to advancement than trying to make everything a civil right. If they were known only by their sober deeds, they would be much more respected than they are when known by their wild rhetoric.

Unfortunately, hate and envy are among the few things guaranteed to get a rise out of people - any people. Extremists have long known this and now extremism and irresponsibility are slowly creeping into once-respectable black organizations and into the rhetoric of mainstream black leadership.

For the black community itself, at this point in history, preoccupation with the sins of other people leads nowhere. Some of these sins are real, some are not. But most are distractions from the hard work that has to be done internally.

If the immigrant Jews had made the fight against anti-Semitism their number-one priority, their descendants would still be living in the lower east side slums - and there would still be anti-Semitism. Historically, Asian Americans spent very little time combatting the anti-Asian racism that was once rampant in this country. They were too busy advancing themselves economically.

The historic achievement of the NAACP was to have helped clear away many obstacles to black progress. Today, it is in danger of becoming an obstacle itself - or at least a distraction from the kind of hard work that still has to be done.

(Copyright, 1994, Creators Syndicate, Inc.)

Thomas Sowell's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times.