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Plural but Equal: A CRITICAL STUDY OF BLACKS AND MINORITIES AND AMERICA' PLURAL SOCIETY by Harold Cruse (Morrow: $18.95; 480 pp.)

May 24, 1987|Herbert Hill | Hill is professor of Afro-American studies and industrial relations at the University of Wisconsin. He is the author of "Black Labor and the American Legal System" (University of Wisconsin Press).

Harold Cruse's first book, "The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual" (1967), a trenchant criticism of leading black cultural figures such as Paul Robeson and Richard Wright, provoked heated debate. Demonstrating the disastrous consequences of Communist Party influence upon certain black intellectuals from the 1930s to the 1960s, Cruse was equally critical of the corrupting influence of "white liberalism" and the Philistinism and opportunism of black organizational life. His new book, "Plural but Equal: A Critical Study of Blacks and Minorities and America's Plural Society," is certain to be no less controversial.

Cruse, professor emeritus of history and Afro-American studies at the University of Michigan, begins by asking "What happened to the black civil rights movement after the high point of its 1960s thrust and accomplishments?" Recalling "the first civil rights cycle," the Reconstruction Period that began after the Civil War and decisively ended in 1896 with the Supreme Court's decision upholding state-imposed racial segregation, Cruse claims history is now repeating itself, and once again the hopes and aspirations of blacks are being crushed.

Seeking an answer to the important question he poses, Cruse examines the history of black protest movements in the United States and explores fascinating, if little known, aspects of that history, such as the role of the National Afro-American League (founded in 1887) which, though it failed under T. Thomas Fortune to achieve its goals, "led to the founding of the NAACP, which was destined to become the major civil rights organization in the United States in the 20th Century."

But by the 1960s, according to Cruse, "the NAACP was even more obsolete than the National Urban League," having conducted "a flawed civil rights policy that from the 1920s to the 1980s would mar its effectiveness, haunt its future, and compromise its legitimacy." He concludes, furthermore, that after 1965, the NAACP had become a "programmatic anachronism . . . increasingly beset by problems of dwindling membership, inadequate staff, decreased funding and internal disorganization."

The NAACP is not Cruse's only target. Critical of virtually every black institution, he located the major flaw of the black struggle in the ideologies of black leadership, especially the NAACP's embrace of integration as a strategy and as an end in itself. He declares that "The fault lay in the philosophy of liberalism itself, in its application to the emergent 20th-Century problems of blacks as the largest nonwhite racial minority in the United States."

As a former member of the NAACP national staff for more than 25 years, I find much of Cruse's criticism of the NAACP to be pertinent and his general analysis, especially of the current situation, valuable. The association should be criticized for its failure after 1954 to develop other supplemental programs, for its simplistic perception of the racial situation and for its failure to recognize the inadequacy of integration as a panacea. Between its victory in Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954 and the adoption of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the NAACP should have undergone a major programmatic and organizational transformation. That it did not and moreover gives no indication of doing so may well be fatal.

But Cruse is wrong on an issue of fundamental importance. The 1896 decision of the Supreme Court in Plessy vs. Ferguson, established the doctrine of separate-but-equal that became the legal cornerstone of a broad structure of segregation and discrimination relegating blacks to an inferior status in the law and throughout American society. The NAACP's attack against the separate-but-equal doctrine was absolutely necessary, and its great achievement in reversing Plessy in 1954 was crucial to further black progress.

Given the bitter resistance to racial integration in the North as well as in the South, Cruse's analysis of the failure of the integrationist policy of traditional civil rights organizations must be given serious attention. Because the Afro-American community is one of several competing groups in the American pluralistic pattern, Cruse argues, recognition of the group imperatives of the society requires the creation of independent black community institutions that will successfully compete with those of other ethnic and racial groups. Such a program of racial unification on political and economic fronts will, he claims, lead to black empowerment.

Interestingly, Cruse insists that his is not a separatist position, but rather a recognition of the existing ethnic pattern in American society. In order to succeed, blacks will have to reject established black leadership characterized by "inherited incapacities born of a tradition of faulty strategies and limited social perceptions."

"Plural but Equal" provides a critical framework for an understanding of the civil rights movement of the past and a potential agenda for the civil rights movement of the future. Despite some factual errors (the Bakke case for example, was decided on statutory not constitutional grounds), repetitious polemical digressions and absurdities such as the reference to "the white Protestant liberals who ran the NAACP" (the powerful black executive directors and board chairmen would have been surprised to learn that they did not control the organization), this is an important book.

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