PERSPECTIVES ON CIVIL RIGHTS : 'Self-Help' Just Won't Do It All : As long as the effects of white oppression exist and as long as racism lingers, affirmative action will be necessary.

Weary of colonial rule, the angry activists stood on the banks of Boston Harbor on a cold December evening, lugged about 340 crates to the river's edge and pitched more than $10,000 worth of tea into the brisk, bustling waters.

The action of American patriots at the Boston Tea Party--which helped launch the American Revolution--was, incredibly, a pitch for affirmative action.

America's 18th-Century revolutionaries were affirming their right to self-determination and equal opportunity. Surely, we have not forgotten their rallying call, "No taxation without representation." Or Patrick Henry's impassioned, noble cry, "Give me liberty or give me death."

This is why we bristle at the current "controversy" over the value and benefits of modern-day affirmative action.

Affirmative-action critics suggest that such policies have not benefited poor blacks, have impeded the development of coalitions for social programs and have inhibited black Americans through a deep sense of inferiority.

These notions would be comical if they weren't so dangerous.

The irony is that these well-trained--if misguided--academicians have the opportunity to espouse such nonsense is itself due to affirmative action.

Would they have been trained at some of the nation's leading colleges without it? Would they be professors at predominantly white universities? Would they not feel the racist sting of Jim Crow's piercing whip? Would they be published in some of America's most influential periodicals?

They fail to realize that affirmative action is simply any action taken to ensure, or affirm, equal opportunity for oppressed or previously disadvantaged groups.

What's wrong with that? If a society discriminates against a people for centuries--enslaves them, lynches them, oppresses them, denies them access to jobs, homes, a good education, the political process, etc.--the just way to offer remedy is to give that people an equal opportunity.

The affirmative-action debate often gets mired in the issue of numerical goals and timetables, which are often disparagingly called quotas by critics and opponents.

The NAACP has never promoted the concept of so-called quotas. In fact, goals and timetables would never have been necessary if corporate and municipal leaders had been willing to follow the letter and spirit of the law.

Goals and timetables came about because of the failure of parties to be sincere in their efforts to provide equal opportunity. They were built in by judges who tired of the stances of interposition and nullification. The "we can't find any" argument was most often an attempt by corporate and municipal leaders to skirt the law. So judges had to construct goals and timetables to keep parties from making a mockery of the federal court. Critics who negate or ignore white America's duty to help solve black America's problems misrepresent the issue, mislead the public and subvert the struggle.

While we recognize that heightened "self-help" efforts among blacks will lessen our plight--and we at the NAACP promote such efforts--we believe what the Kerner Commission said more than 20 years ago still rings true:

"What white Americans have never fully understood--but what the Negro can never forget--is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it and white society condones it."

In their near-exclusive focus on what blacks should do, critics largely overlook the responsibility of government, big business and the courts in what is purported to be a fair and democratic society.

When blacks have done all they can to save themselves, white society must still do the right thing. If racism, discrimination and unequal opportunity pervade, lone efforts by blacks will remain virtually ineffective.

Certainly, critics who suggest that black Americans need to develop their individual skills and must not eternally regard themselves as victims are not totally wrong. Neither are they wrong when they urge young blacks to study, be disciplined and conscientious, and to reject the notion that achievement somehow diminishes blackness.

But they are totally wrong when they suggest, implicitly or otherwise, that acknowledged black leaders are not pushing these concepts as well. We are. So, at best, these critics are doing no more than parroting our views.

I make hundreds of speeches a year in which I preach the gospel of hard work, discipline and achievement. Other leaders do the same. To suggest otherwise is a gross distortion and disservice.

While self-responsibility and self-determination must play heightened roles in our communities, we believe government cannot shirk its role.

I hasten to add that I am curious as to how this issue evolved as a controversy in the first place. Goals and timetables are as American as apple pie.

You must pay your taxes by April 15. You must not drive more than the posted speed limit. You must register to vote or apply for a passport by certain dates. Car manufacturers must ensure their cars meet certain emissions standards by certain times.

America operates by goals and timetables--and we all acknowledge and accept that. It is only when it comes to human resources that we bristle at this concept.

Naturally, we at the NAACP promote the concept of self-help. And the fact is that blacks have committed to self-help since the slave ships first docked on America's shores.

In 1990 America, we see the benefits of that self-help concept and affirmative action efforts. We have black mayors, elected officials, police officers, firefighters, journalists, judges, doctors, lawyers, captains of industry and thousands of other professionals.

More importantly, we have office clerks, secretaries, laborers, court employees and literally millions of everyday working people whose jobs are indirectly and directly linked to affirmative action and self-help.

These would have been the people mired inextricably in poverty and despair were it not for coalition-building and affirmative action.

The critics who benefited from but oppose affirmative action obscure the legacy of exclusion and discrimination that prompted such remedial efforts. They should be ashamed.

As the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights once noted, just as medical treatment is based on the diagnosis of an illness, affirmative action stems from diagnosis of a social sickness.

The remedy cannot be divorced from the illness. Critics write much about some "corrosive effect" of affirmative action but very little about the racism, oppression and discrimination that necessitates it--and which is much more corrosive and destructive.

We shall at the NAACP always promote self-help, but will never waver in our push to insist that government play its role and do its part. For how long? For as long as necessary.

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