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Arguing for Nationalism

RANCOR over the presence of black nationalist Louis Farrakhan at last week's NAACP leadership summit in Baltimore bespeaks a larger confusion many in the black community feel about their leadership dilemma and the larger black agenda in American society.

If the new NAACP director Rev. Benjamin Chavis wanted to stir the pot and put his somewhat ailing organization into the news, he succeeded. Nation of Islam leader Farrakhan has long stood for what the NAACP has long stood against - separatism, anti-Semitism, and a politics of racial hatred. In the climate of the 1990s, with the heroics of the civil rights movement only a vague notion in the minds of many blacks, Mr. Farrakhan has used current social woes to stoke black anger, scapegoat Jews in particular, and capture the minds of many black youths.

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It is understandable why Mr. Chavis invited Farrakhan. The NAACP has lost some of its profile, has been criticized for resting on its laurels, and has had some scandals. Chavis understands the powerful sway nationalist black thinkers such as the late Malcolm X have on many of the brightest young blacks today. Farrakhan seeks to pick up that mantle of confrontation; and he does speak to many blacks who see continuing bigotry and inequities, and for whom the idea of an American melting pot seems meant only for European whites. For Chavis to invite Farrahkan is to show blacks that the NAACP can be hip and responsive. There is, however, a price to pay when a group known for integration invites a man who has praised Hitler's treatment of Jews.

African Americans such as Jesse Jackson and Cornel West argue that Farrakhan was invited for purposes of democratic dialogue. Yet dialogue is not the central issue. The NAACP can meet with Farrahkhan separately. The issue is finding a new way to enhance the principles of a genuinely multiethnic civil society. The dignity and importance of these ideas must be seen as powerful, not weak, in the more complex 1990s. The problem in Baltimore is that black leaders found themselves, for political reasons, having to defend him and attack other blacks who wanted to argue against nationalism and separatism. Farrakhan's racism operates as a cause. The NAACP ought to examine whether it is inadvertently legitimizing a nationalist cause.

Greatly needed are charismatic black leaders who can speak compellingly, as did Martin Luther King Jr., on integration in a more complex age.

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