MAXWELL:  An important battle awaits black lobby here at home

3/26/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


No one accuses Randall Robinson of being timid. As executive director of TransAfrica, the black lobby for African and the Carribean issues, Robinson knows how, when, where and with whom to pick a fight.

His most dramatic battle, which translated into a major coup for him and his supporters in the Congressional Black Caucus, was with President Clinton and the administration’s ineffectual Haiti policy. Robinson staged a 27-day hunger strike last spring that helped to persuade Clinton to use military force to return democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to power in the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation.

Today, Robinson is picking another fight, one I hope means that TransAfrica is finally becoming the broad-based, colorblind force it should have been all along. Robinson is asking the world community to “isolate Nigeria, politically, socially and economically.” Evidence shows that, in addition to supplying narcotics to U.S. markets and personally cashing in on Nigeria’s rich oil industry, Gen. Sani Abacha, the country’s “absolute dictator,” and his goons are slaughtering their countrymen.

“You change the color and there is not much distinction between the South African situation of the past and Nigeria today, except that you don’t have people discriminated against as a group simply on the basis of their skin color,” Robinson told the New York Times.

Until now, TransAfrica, founded in 1977 to pull American blacks into foreign affairs, had never sought to “isolate” a black government. Sure, the organization complained, for example, about black-on-black atrocities in Angola, Ethiopia and Zaire but had always stopped short of the kind of action it advocated in Haiti and is now calling for in Nigeria.

For me, this lack of vigorous attack against black cutthroats always has been TransAfrica’s biggest moral failing. Dead blacks are no less dead because they are killed by other blacks. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Africans _ generations of them _ have been annihilated by their own people while TransAfrica chased after white perpetrators.

I do not know what changed Robinson’s mind. But I am glad he did. I am also glad to see that his Nigeria effort has been joined by other black notables, such as novelist Alice Walker, poet Maya Angelou, Today Show host Bryant Gumbel, actor Danny Glover and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Years ago, when a few black journalists, including me, suggested that TransAfrica support the ouster of vicious black leaders, we were dismissed.

Well, I am back with another suggestion for TransAfrica: When the Nigerian campaign is finished and Abacha has been dispatched, Robinson and his supporters should turn all of their attention to black life in America.

I have never understood the urgency of solving the problems of people thousands of miles away when, right next door, families are not eating well; our schoolchildren are selling drugs to one another; our males are killing one another; our girls are getting pregnant; unemployment is killing the spirit of our young men. I suspect that Robinson and many other famous blacks battle windmills in exotic places because such crusades are easier than solving problems in our inner cities. Here, the work is down-and-dirty, requiring more time and effort than most of us are willing to invest.

Dream for a moment, however, about the possibility of Robinson, Angelou, Walker and others bringing their considerable skills and talents, their network of friends and business associates and their personal wealth to bear on the problems black teenagers experience in, say, Miami’s Liberty City or Chicago’s Southside.

Imagine a new, creative energy in these long-neglected places.

Robinson and others should speak boldly and honestly about black problems here just as they are now doing with Nigeria. Influential blacks like Angelou, for instance, must stop romanticizing everything about black culture. Why not “isolate” drug dealers and other thugs in housing projects in the Bronx or Harlem or Watts? Silence on the faults of African-Americans is self-defeating. We cannot cure a disease that we do not admit to having in the first place.

Among the famous blacks supporting TransAfrica’s Nigerian policy, Jesse Jackson is the only one who consistently challenges black America to stop its self-destructive ways. Precious few other black leaders anywhere in the nation _ not the Congressional Black Caucus, not the NAACP, not the Southern Christian Leadership Conference _ are standing with Jackson. This lack of courage has produced a crisis of leadership in black America.

Robinson’s hunger strikes produce results. Why not stage a series of them in selected cities where black boys stand a better chance of going to prison than going to college? Where young children are already selecting their coffins and burial attire because they expect to be gunned down before their next birthday?

Why not give our own children hope?

TransAfrica does not need to travel abroad to pick a fight. It can find plenty of good fights in any black community. I do not intend to disparage TransAfrica but to suggest that black leadership here is working at cross purposes, spread too thinly.

Serving others in faraway lands is noble. But black Americans _ one of the world’s most beleaguered groups _ need to stay home. We need to marshal our forces and turn every ounce of positive energy inward to solve our own problems. I doubt that TransAfrica could pick a better fight.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.