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Black activism can't afford to go it alone

DIFFERENCES are not new in the black community, though they are receiving front-page attention -- the recent national meetings of the Urban League and the NAACP. Black leaders are openly discussing what their community must do to help solve such problems as high school dropouts, unemployed youth, unwed mothers, single-parent families, and declining college enrollments. Underlying this is a gnawing recognition that while much legal progress has come about since the the 1960s, it is far short of what was hoped for in the everyday life of blacks or of what Asian, European, and Middle Eastern immigrants were achieving without demonstrations, or ability to speak fluent English.

What's new is that differences over goals, strategies, and tactics are no longer confined to a few community or clerical leaders, but include growing numbers of intellectuals such as Thomas Sowell, Kenneth Clark, Glenn Loury, William Julius Wilson, and Bayard Rustin.

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Has something gone wrong? Yes and no -- depending on how the problem is defined. Since the '60s, more blacks than ever are ``making it,'' but instead of publicizing achievements, civil rights leaders mute them, as if ``the good news'' would undermine further progress.

Perhaps the reticence is due to the magnitude of the problems so many blacks face, or to the newness of success. Blacks in recent years have begun to enjoy the basic freedoms and bounties of voting, joining unions, entering college, and buying homes. That they have begun doing so is a reflection not only of their growing political power and achievements, but of the support they received from the federal government and legislation.

Early 20th-century European immigrants also underwent a melioristic process in which they won political position and socioeconomic security from nativist ``white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants.'' Since Martin Luther King Jr.'s death, however, too many black leaders have emphasized going it alone, only to win more headlines than bank accounts for their supporters. For all of Jesse Jackson's hoopla about a ``rainbow'' coalition, it proved an illusion, with black the dominant color and all but a total break with

other racial and ethnic groups.

The historical irony is that the race revolution was helped by white supporters, with blacks and whites knowing that in coalition they could win elections and bring about improvement.

Thus, in many large cities where blacks were not a minority or even a plurality, they won elections by attracting the support of other groups, as in the mayoral elections in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago.

One hopes that as black organizations publicly rethink their policies, other groups will do likewise, with both joining to resolve problems of mutual concern.

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The alternative is fragmentation, wherein needy groups waste their energies competing with each other, much to the glee of their united opponents.

Philip Perlmutter is executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Metropolitan Boston.

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