Commentary Magazine

Benjamin Chavis & the NAACP

To the Editor:

Arch Puddington’s attack on Benjamin Chavis and the NAACP [“The NAACP Turns Left,” January] is, at best, puzzling.

I have worked on periodic projects with Benjamin Chavis over the past decade and have never heard him, whether in private or in public, say anything about Jews or Israel that even approximates the statements Mr. Puddington attributes to him. It is, therefore, difficult to assess the broadside attack on Chavis’s earlier statements. Although I cannot directly assess the accuracy or context of the quotes that Mr. Puddington attributes to Chavis, Mr. Pudding-ton’s “logic” is clearly suspect. Thus, for example, because Chavis admired the Sandinistas, “it can therefore be inferred” that he would have liked to import state socialism into the United States. Then, taking the inference as fact, Mr. Puddington goes on to attack Chavis for his subversive desire.

Mr. Puddington seems determined not to credit Chavis with any positive achievements. He repeatedly casts in sinister terms activities that most COMMENTARY readers would, I assume, support. Thus he describes Chavis’s campaign to bring Southern blacks to Chicago to help organize support for the late mayor, Harold Washington, as though it were something nefarious. What nonsense! Mayor Washington led an enlightened, biracial city government at a time when our society desperately needed such leadership. Extraordinarily popular among blacks and Jews, he consequently enjoyed significant support from outside the city. Many supporters, Jewish and black alike, sent money from afar; others traveled to Chicago to help.

Even more puzzling is Mr. Puddington’s attack on Chavis’s forceful and visionary articulation of the problems of “environmental racism”: i.e., that certain environmental problems, particularly the locating of toxic-waste dumps, disproportionately affect minority communities. An extraordinary array of mainstream environmental, religious, and political groups now accept this analysis—including the President, who signed an executive order on environmental racism in February. Benjamin Chavis has helped forge numerous mainstream Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish religious organizations into a coalition on this issue. Mr. Puddington implies that Chavis’s promise to lead protests at such sites in minority communities is radical. Good for Chavis.

Most alarming is Mr. Pudding-ton’s attack on Chavis’s work since assuming the reins of the NAACP. What are Mr. Puddington’s accusations? First, that Chavis wants to internationalize the organization, starting chapters in South Africa and the Caribbean, both areas with which many African-Americans have long and close ties. Mr. Puddington’s critique echoes writings unfriendly to Jews that point to B’nai B’rith chapters in 51 countries as evidence of an international Jewish conspiracy. Second, that Chavis facilitated a summit of gang leaders from across the country to talk about ending violence. This was an extraordinary accomplishment that forcefully addressed the problems of gang violence, yet Mr. Puddington damns him for it. Third, and most astonishing, Mr. Puddington condemns Chavis because Chavis “pushed an already existing project, the NAACP’s Fairshare campaign to pressure large corporations to hire more blacks and otherwise invest in the black community.” At a time when the Wall Street Journal, this past September, determined that only blacks had a net decrease in employment from the recession of the early 1990’s, it would have been irresponsible to abandon one of the organization’s most effective programs.

Mr. Puddington concludes from all this that,

under [Chavis’s] leadership, the NAACP, historically the most mainstream and biracial civil-rights organization, now espouses a position once held only by the most radical organizations and personalities in the black community.

Let me see if I have this straight. Let us use only Mr. Puddington’s own measure of Chavis’s accomplishments since assuming the directorship of the NAACP to assess his place in the political spectrum. Because Chavis continues a program created and implemented by his predecessor, Benjamin Hooks (whom Mr. Puddington describes as a “civil-rights moderate”), and because he continues to fight against disproportionate locating of toxic-waste dumps in minority communities, a position the President and Vice President both espouse, and because he brought gangs together to try to end violence, and because he wants to begin chapters in other countries, Benjamin Chavis has radicalized the NAACP?

Be fair, Mr. Puddington. Let Chavis be measured by what he does and says in this new position. So measuring, I have myself had occasional disagreements with him, most profoundly and strenuously over Minister Farrakhan. (And yet his was one of the most articulate, clear, and unequivocal public denunciations of Khalid Muhammed’s vile anti-Semitic diatribe.) But on the whole, Chavis is carrying the 85-year tradition of the NAACP into the 21st century with energy, vision, and creativity; not making it over in the image Mr. Puddington paints in his article. The NAACP remains the nation’s preeminent civil-rights organization, with over 2,200 chapters across America, that, day in and day out, under Chavis’s leadership, are involved in the nitty-gritty work of civil rights, of transforming America for the better.

Benjamin Chavis has shown every desire to continue to work with the traditional coalition of decency, and to continue its historic and strong alliance with the Jewish community. Unless and until he deviates from that stance, let us allow him to get on with the work of justice and fairness for all Americans, and to do so with the good will and the good wishes of American Jewry.

[Rabbi] David Saperstein
Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism
Washington, D.C.



Arch Puddington writes:

David Saperstein’s letter stands as a textbook case of the powers of liberal self-delusion. He clings desperately to the fiction of a permanent alliance of blacks and Jews despite overwhelming evidence of wide divergence between the political goals of the two groups. He then compounds his dilemma by rushing to the defense of Benjamin Chavis, whose past record suggests absolutely no interest in reforging Rabbi Saperstein’s “traditional coalition of decency,” and who, in his determined embrace of Louis Farrakhan, has given clear indication that racial power politics, and not alliance-building, is the order of the day for the civil-rights movement of the 90’s.

To address several of Rabbi Saperstein’s specific points.

  1. Nowhere did I say or infer anything remotely critical of the late Chicago mayor, Harold Washington. Washington, in fact, appears to have been a better-than-average urban mayor, and certainly was regarded as a hero by his black constituents. On the other hand, I do regard Chavis’s project of importing black “reverse freedom riders” from the South to participate in Washington’s reelection campaign as signaling an embarrassing misunderstanding of the nature of American democracy. Chicago is not Selma; Harold Washington was the product of urban machine politics, not a civil-rights crusader. Chavis’s obliviousness to these distinctions, which he again displayed during last year’s New York mayoral election with yet another reverse freedom-rider campaign, betrays a frame of mind which sees black political participation through the prism of the era of civil-rights protest. To Chavis, electoral politics is yet another manifestation of a broader racial-power contest. The consequences of this kind of thinking were vividly on display during the decline and fall of former District of Columbia mayor, Marion Barry, when many leading blacks, Chavis most definitely included, insisted that Barry’s troubles stemmed from a white conspiracy to subvert strong black political leaders.
  2. On the question of environmental racism, there is no consensus among environmental scientists as to whether minority neighborhoods are disproportionately targeted as the dumping grounds for toxic wastes and other pollutants. There is, on the other hand, indisputable evidence that minority organizations have profited through government contracts since the cry of environmental racism was raised. While I cannot attest to Chavis’s grasp of the intricacies of environmental control, I am prepared to acknowledge that he fully understands how racial politics is played in America today. Whether this is good for America or, for that matter, for blacks is another matter entirely.
  3. Chavis’s plan to “internationalize” the NAACP by establishing chapters in other countries bothers me precisely because of his history of sympathy for radical and pro-Communist parties and movements throughout the third world. Like other blacks who share his third-worldist perspective, Chavis ignored brutality and repression when practiced by “progressive” regimes like Guinea or Ethiopia, while at the same time obsessively focusing his anger on Israel. Here, as in his view of domestic politics, Chavis views the world as driven by racial struggle, with America and other powerful white countries, including Israel, engaged in the systematic oppression of the world’s darker-skinned peoples. This is a world view that has retarded black political progress in America and has proved absolutely devastating for Africans and other third-world peoples who suffer from the oppression of the state.
  4. As I noted in my article, past efforts to reward or “empower” black youth gangs have almost always ended in catastrophe. It is, of course, always possible that Chavis will succeed where so many others failed. But Rabbi Saperstein should be aware that Chavis was prominent among those black leaders who seemed to deny the existence of a black-on-black crime epidemic until the problem became so acute, and the outrage of ordinary black citizens grew so insistent, that the traditional response of blaming white racism was deemed no longer sufficient. Given this background, a little skepticism about Chavis’s credentials as a crime fighter is more than warranted.
  5. Rabbi Saperstein seems reluctant to accept my carefully detailed account of Chavis’s anti-Israel activism. I can assure him that the information is a matter of public record. Not once or twice, but repeatedly, Chavis attacked Israel through paid advertisements, jointly-signed statements, and demonstrations. At the same time, there is no record of his having uttered a word of rebuke to the PLO for its acts of terrorism. Such has been his obsession with Israel that he justified his highly vocal opposition to the Gulf war on the grounds that Israel’s mistreatment of the Palestinians represented the real key to Middle East peace. I leave it to Rabbi Saperstein to judge what this record of anti-Israel animus says about Chavis’s political and moral judgment.
  6. That Chavis issued a condemnation of Khalid Muhammad’s Kean College speech leaves me unimpressed. The real issue, after all, was not Chavis’s reaction to Muhammad’s disgraceful diatribe, but his relationship with Louis Farrakhan. On this issue, Chavis has made it clear that he will tolerate a certain level of anti-Semitism so long as it is not couched in the kind of crude language which characterizes the speeches of Khalid Muhammad. Chavis’s flat assertion that Farrakhan is not anti-Semitic is in fact contradicted by the Nation of Islam leader’s frequent declarations about the pervasive influence of Jews in American life and Jewish efforts to maintain blacks in a subordinate position. Indeed, hostility to whites and to Jews in particular is fundamental to Farrakhan’s appeal, a fact which is surely understood by Chavis.

By choosing to include Farrakhan in the ranks of black leadership, Chavis is, among other things, making an important statement about his vision of the terms under which civil-rights politics will be waged in the future. More recently, he reinforced this message by organizing a meeting, convened without the knowledge of other NAACP leaders, designed to enhance the radical Left’s influence within the traditionally liberal civil-rights organization. Those invited ranged from Angela Davis to Alton Maddox to Lenora Fulani to Sister Souljah—a veritable rogues’ gallery of racial demagoguery and a list which includes a number of shrill enemies of Israel.

Rabbi Saperstein may convince himself that there is a place for Jews and for integrationist-minded whites generally in a coalition whose members include anti-Semites, partisans of the “anti-Zionist” struggle, and those who tolerate anti-Semites. Others will not so easily succumb to self-deception.

Benjamin Chavis has left little doubt of his intention to take the lead in reshaping racial politics in America along lines certain to alienate moderate blacks as well as the civil-rights movement’s traditional white supporters. Rabbi Saperstein is obviously annoyed at my pointing out these difficult facts. My advice to him is to prepare himself for future, and quite possibly much angrier, controversies that are destined to come.

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