There is a thin line between tough bargaining tactics and intimidation. And the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is walking it.
The NAACP has not toppled over the line yet. Nor can it ever afford to.
The organization is uniquely dependent on its credibility -- on moral authority -- to accomplish its mission. Lose that, and it becomes just another special-interest group.
So, consider this a wake-up call to Executive Director Benjamin F. Chavis and the NAACP leadership: Moral authority is a fragile thing. Hard to acquire. Easy to lose. To keep it, you can't just do the right thing. You also have to explain what you are trying to accomplish and why -- and do this again and again.
At issue is the way in which the NAACP injected itself into two cases of alleged corporate misbehavior, by Denny's Restaurants and by AT&T;, and bargained with those companies using the implied threat of lost revenue from black America.
In both cases, NAACP officials took advantage of allegations of racism against the corporations to leverage promises that the companies will increase minority recruitment and promotions, do business with minority firms, and contribute to minority scholarships. All of this is in keeping with the executive director's promise to focus on discriminatory practices of corporate America.
"I have a list on my desk of America's Fortune 500 companies," said Dr. Chavis in a recent interview. "I plan to visit the CEOs of all 500 to negotiate a new social contract on behalf of African Americans, Latino Americans, and other people of color."
There is no doubt "people of color" need this kind of aggressive campaigning on their behalf. Several recent studies have shown that blacks and Hispanics still are "the last hired, first fired" in corporate America. And blacks and Hispanics trail all other "minorities," including women, when it comes to advancement into the executive ranks.
It also makes sense, from the standpoint of publicity, for the NAACP to approach companies already under fire. But the group's speed in taking advantage of opportunities leaves it open to charges of opportunism.
The Denny's restaurant chain was accused last year of a range of discriminatory practices that allegedly were designed to discourage blacks from eating there. The U.S. Justice Department found merit in the complaints and by this spring had negotiated a consent decree. But new allegations arose; six black Secret Service agents complained that they were denied service at a restaurant in Annapolis. Those agents have filed suit against the Denny's chain.
Meanwhile, national NAACP leaders negotiated their own "settlement" with Flagstar Cos, Inc., owner of the chain. Flagstar agreed to hire 325 new black managers by the year 2000, award 53 franchises to black businessmen by 1997, direct 10 percent of its marketing budget and 12 percent of its operating budget to black-owned firms, and add a black to its board of directors. The deal also appeared to include a little something for the NAACP and a little something for Jerry Richardson, Flagstar's chairman. Flagstar agreed to donate money toward a computer and telephone system for the NAACP, while NAACP officials endorsed -- or appeared to endorse -- Mr. Richardson's bid for an NFL franchise in Charlotte, N.C. Later, after widespread complaints from members and supporters in other cities, NAACP denied there had been any endorsement of Charlotte.
AT&T; came under fire last month when a company publication ran a racist illustration, in which Africans were represented by a cartoon gorilla while other peoples of the world were represented by drawings of humans. Monday, AT&T; and NAACP officials announced they would hold discussions on issues such as minority recruitment and promotion, scholarships, and purchasing from minority-owned firms. But many people, including both blacks and whites, wonder if the NAACP is trying to take advantage of AT&T;'s vulnerability.
The answer to that question, of course, is yes. But whether this is good or bad depends on the final deal. So here's my warning to the NAACP: Don't make the deal too sweet for your own organization. It will look bad. It will seem too self-serving.