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Affirmative Action Tops NAACP List

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 14, 1998; Page A03

ATLANTA, July, 13—Declaring that "race and skin color" still dominate every aspect of American life, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said today that protecting the nation's embattled affirmative action programs must remain at the top of the civil rights group's agenda.

Speaking before several thousand NAACP members gathered here for the organization's 89th annual convention, Mfume credited affirmative action with sparking the explosive growth of the black middle class in the past 30 years. Consequently, he said, efforts to eliminate the programs amount to an attack on black progress. "We are not going to let these years of progress be taken away from us without a fight," Mfume said.

Mfume also dismissed as "house Negroes" African Americans who stand in the forefront of efforts to dismantle affirmative action programs. Both Ward Connerly, who founded an organization to dismantle affirmative action programs nationwide, and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who has been steadfast in his opposition to affirmative action, are black and have been regularly criticized by civil rights leaders for their positions. But in comments to reporters following his speech, Mfume would not say to whom his comments were directed, saying only that they applied to whomever goes "out there" to oppose affirmative action as if representing all African Americans.

Mfume also had harsh words for the entire Supreme Court, calling the justices "hypocrites" for issuing rulings that minimize the need for affirmative action while showing little regard for racial diversity in their own hiring. Mfume said that only a small percentage of Supreme Court law clerks are minorities. Meanwhile, he said, the Supreme Court has issued a series of rulings that have limited many affirmative action programs.

"The Supreme Court ought to be ashamed of itself," Mfume said.

Mfume's comments underscored the importance the NAACP attaches to affirmative action, one of the nation's most contentious racial issues. They came one day after NAACP Chairman Julian Bond offered a spirited defense of affirmative action.

Many conservatives have attacked affirmative action programs, saying they only perpetuate the nation's long history of racial division.

The NAACP and its allies have been successful in defeating legislative attempts to end affirmative action in 14 states, according to the Southern Regional Council, a civil rights think tank. But affirmative action opponents have had one huge victory: the 1996 passage of Proposition 209, which outlawed most government affirmative action programs in California.

Affirmative action opponents also have succeeded in the nation's courts. Through rulings in recent years, the courts have ended some set-aside programs in government contracting, prompted new rules on minority procurement in the federal government and eliminated some affirmative action programs in higher education.

Mfume acknowledged that there is little the NAACP can do on that front except to attempt to embarrass jurists in "the court of public opinion." But he said the NAACP could redouble its advocacy efforts by registering voters, meeting with political candidates and joining in coalitions to protect affirmative action programs. For instance, he said, the group has given $50,000 to an effort to defeat an anti-affirmative action ballot initiative that goes before voters in Washington state in November.

Mfume called those efforts vital to the advancement of African Americans. Pointing to a long list of examples, from studies demonstrating that some black job applicants are given less consideration than whites, to the settlement of racial bias lawsuits against business giants Denny's Inc. and Texaco, Mfume said bigotry continues to thrive in America.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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