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Black Unity: Does it Exist? Can it Exist? Should it Exist?

It is quite obvious that blacks are a very diverse group, stratified along class, gender, age, regional, ethnic, country-of-origin or other lines. In addition, blacks are diverse in their opinions about issues, racial and otherwise. Nevertheless, blacks have historically been very unified when it comes to political and other matters affecting their well-being as a group (witness the continuing overwhelming support blacks show for the Democratic Party in presidential and most other elections). Blacks also demonstrate considerable unity of opinion when it comes to issues of racism and support of black institutions. To be sure, there is a practical difference between unified talk and actual unified practice (for example, while almost all blacks would agree with the aims of the NAACP, how many blacks are contributing members?).

The issues facing African Americans in 1994 are diverse, ranging from discrimination in housing and employment, to need for affirmative action programs, to health care and welfare reform, to economic development in central cities, to continued support of black institutions, including historically black colleges. While blacks are not 100 percent unified with respect to each of these and other issues, there are areas of agreement which would be widely held within black America. There is also clearly a lot of conservative white (and black) opposition to what might be called the "black position" on these matters (just as there is similar opposition to all parts of the so-called "liberal agenda").

There are issues on which blacks and conservatives would agree at least as to the statement of the problem. For example, most blacks would agree with former Vice President Quayle that there is a moral and spiritual crisis facing all of America. The impact of this crisis is devastatingly clear in poor black communities. The problem, of course, is that conservatives seem to emphasize "family values" as THE problem, the one and only problem, and to use crime, drugs, teenage pregnancy and other maladies as examples of inadequate morality in the black community, implicitly (and explicitly) denying that economic and other factors have any influence.

As might be expected, the question is what to do about these problems. It is important to note that a lot of things are already being done. The black church continues in its historic role, even as it faces a seemingly daunting task. The same can be said for many other civic, fraternal and social organizations and institutions. The same can be said of all the black families who are working, who are functioning to provide safety and nurturing and support for black children. The same can be said for the growing black business community. Still more needs to be done.

As in 1972, Ben Chavis and other black leaders -- notably Rep. Kweisi Mfume, Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus -- have been attempting to create a process whereby black organizations, black professionals, black religious and fraternal leaders can work together to develop a common approach to those issues where agreement can be found. This effort would have, no doubt, escaped general media attention and the disapprobation of Jewish and other groups but for the participation of Louis Farrakhan, both directly and as metaphor.

The Leadership Summit hosted by Chavis and the NAACP represents the most public outcome of this effort to date. Besides Chavis and Mfume, the Summit involved the participation of Jesse Jackson, NJ Rep. Donald M Payne, Baltimore Mayor Curt Schmoke, Cornel West, Haki Madhubuti, Ossie Davis, National Black United Front chairman Conrad Worrill, Lenora Fulani, and the leaders of the Masons, dentists, McDonalds' operators, black Greek organizations, etc. The press chose to concentrate virtually all of its attention on Farrakhan and, to a lesser extent, controversial figures like Leonard Jeffries and Sister Souljah. There were some notable names missing, of course, including Corretta Scott King, Joseph Lowery and most members of the CBC and other black elected officials.

As with the 1972 NBPC, the key test for this venture is whether it achieves anything of value. Ben Chavis announced the formation of three committees, one dealing with each of the three Summit agenda topics -- economic development, community and youth empowerment, and moral and spiritual renewal. These committees will meet in Baltimore in August, and further efforts will be made to broaden the participation by elected officials and other leaders.

The media is interested in controversy and in "hard news", thus the focus on Farrakhan on the one hand, and whether the Summit was a "success", on the other. The New York Times, in an editorial published shortly after the Summit, provides its answer to both issues:

Where is the N.A.A.C.P. headed under its president (sic), the Rev. Benjamin Chavis? That is a pressing question, given the fruits of the so-called "National African-American Leadership Summit" staged by Mr. Chavis this week in Baltimore.

Black elected officials, including all but one member of the 39-seat Congressional Black Caucus, avoided the meeting in droves. Also absent were some prominent non-government civil rights figures, including Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Many who stayed away did so for fear of being associated with the Nation of Islam leader, Louis Farrakhan, well known for his anti-Semitic railings and especially his description of Judaism as "a gutter religion." Also present was the anti-Semitic black supremacist Leonard Jeffries.

For all the noise and hurt feelings it caused, the meeting came forth with _nothing_. On education reform, economic development, crime control -- all matters of pressing importance to the African-American poor, trapped in the inner cities -- no new proposals were announced.

Chavis was quoted by the Washington Post as saying, "I know there are many African Americans waiting to hear something from the summit," emphasizing that it was a "victory" just to meet and "have constructive dialogue." Since the point of the meeting was to establish a process, to build a new approach involving representatives of the breadth of African American opinion, I believe success is something that can only be measured over time. As in Gary, this effort may fall flat. The other possibility is that something positive will flow from it. How can we judge now? As to Chavis' view that the summit was successful simply because it occurred in the face of widespread criticism from the media, Jews and some blacks, I can only say, having been at Gary, that my standards are a lot higher than that.

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Meanderings 1.06 -- June 11, 1994