The NAACP just concluded a rousing convention in New York City, rallying strongly around opposition to President Reagan's nomination of U.S. Appeals Court Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court. "We will fight it all the way until hell freezes over," NAACP Executive Director Benjamin L. Hooks declared to wild applause.
Contending with a heavy dose of Democratic presidential hopefuls who spoke at the convention, the NAACP's haste in joining the expanding anti-Bork coalition was laudable. So, too, was the civil rights organization's success in getting more minority non-playing employment with the National Basketball Association.
But I wish they'd given more time at their conference to putting out new messages.
The most important message would have been directed at black youth. And it concerns the all-important issue of jobs: While the unemployment rate of blacks is twice that of whites, a dramatic trend is developing. In the next 12 years, the traditional U.S. work force dominated by white males will grow more slowly than it has in the past several decades. This development will create more room for blacks, women and other minorities to enter the work force. "The estimation is that 80 percent of the new work force entrants will be women, minorities and immigrants between now and the year 2000," says Shirley Dennis, director of the U.S. Labor Department's Women's Bureau.
But there's a Catch-22 to this projected change: Most of the jobs will be in service and communications categories and will require more skills. Simply put, blacks will be sought after for the labor force, but they must be prepared. Therein lies a challenge for black leadership.
Responding to this development in a long-range plan, "Toward the Year 2000," which it unveiled at the convention, the NAACP declared that the new pace of the work force "poses additional problems for the black worker . . . . " But how about declaring the glass half full for a change and saying blacks can acquire the skills necessary to enter the work force?
As the NAACP blueprint noted, blacks historically have gained entry into the work force at lower levels of manufacturing trades. This meant that before the 1960s, blacks who did not finish high school could find low-level jobs that provided them the wherewithal to raise families and maintain a decent life. In 1957, black youth unemployment was 18 percent and white youth joblessness was 15 percent. "Black teen unemployment was not a phenomenon before the 1960s," says Dennis of the Women's Bureau.
But in the past two decades, a period of decline in manufacturing and other changes in the country's economic picture, black youth unemployment dramatically shot up to 40 percent while white youth joblessness remained somewhat stable. This means that today there are large numbers of people, some in their thirties and forties, who never became a solid part of the labor force.
This has prompted a new malaise that causes many to freeze with fear when told that more skills are necessary to qualify for jobs. It's almost a loss of confidence that they can learn what is needed. In addition, we now hear of peer pressure by some young blacks to dissuade their friends from achieving by convincing them that those who work hard are "acting white."
Just a couple of decades ago, letting blacks know that jobs would be available if they acquired the skills would have been all that was needed. Now we must face the relatively new fear of some blacks that they may even lack the ability to be a part of this new society.
But since new opportunity may exist for blacks to reenter the labor force in massive numbers, black leadership must help turn these defeatist attitudes around. Part of the challenge is to reignite the vision that once existed of what the black community could be, and to plant it in our young people: a dream of black achievement, the need to apply themselves, be disciplined, do their best and meet all competition. They also must understand that the work force is not composed of geniuses but primarily of people with the self-confidence to apply themselves.
This will not be an easy or quick task. But if groups such as the NAACP add this message to their lists of priorities, it might result in bringing some light at the end of the tunnel, after all.