Affirmative Action Still In Play, Says Departing LDF Leader

Theodore M. Shaw, president-director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund who is stepping down February 2008, talks to Diverse about his future plans and the ongoing fight to end inequality in education. He also has some choice words for anti-affirmative action advocate Ward Connerly.

 

Earlier this year, Theodore M. Shaw, president-director counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, announced that he was planning to step down in February 2008.

Shaw became the fifth person to lead the 67-year-old organization in May 2004. Shaw first joined the LDF in 1982, after working as a trial attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice under the Carter administration. There, he litigated civil rights cases throughout the country at the trial and appellate levels, and in the U.S. Supreme Court.

But when President Reagan was elected in 1981, the Columbia University-trained law school graduate knew that it was time for him to leave.  He felt that Reagan’s policies and record on civil rights was lacking and felt that he needed a forum to litigate around issues that affect people of color.

In 1990, Shaw left the LDF to join the faculty of the University of Michigan Law School, but returned after just three years to become the associate director-counsel of LDF. When Elaine Jones stepped down as director in 2004, Shaw took over the helm of the organization.

Diverse recently sat down with Shaw to talk with him about his career at LDF and the future of race relations.

 

Diverse: Why have you decided to step down from the Legal Defense and Education Fund?

 

TS:  I’ve been at the Legal Defense Fund for almost all of the last 25 years and I’ve been practicing civil rights law for almost 30 years. It’s a good chunk of time. I believe deeply that one should not stay in one place forever and particularly when one is in the leadership position. The truth of the matter is that the work I’ve loved more than anything else is litigation, wrestling with the issues. In this position, fund raising and administrative work is essential to the organization, but is not why I came here, and it’s not what I think my strength is, though I think it’s a necessity, and I’ve done it and I continue to do it. 

 

But more importantly, on a personal level, I’ve been thinking about the rest of my life and the opportunities that are open to me now that may not be open to me 10 years from now, and I think it’s important to pass it on and to know when to do that. I have no desire or intention to leave the issues that I care about. I can’t do that anymore than a leopard can change its spot. On the other hand, there may be another way to weigh in on these issues. I’ve spent some time in and out of academia in my career. The only three years I was away from the Legal Defense Fund were my three years teaching law school full-time at the University of Michigan. When I think about what I want to do, academia or a place to think and write is at the top of my list, but I haven’t decided yet.

 

Diverse: You’ve been involved in a wide range of issues from opposing the death penalty to voter registration. Yet, you are most often associated with the battle to preserve affirmative action. Where is our nation on this issue?

 

TS: A lot of people don’t really understand affirmative action, and too many people including people of color, Black people, are willing to cut and run, saying we lost that battle when this battle is still very much in play. They don’t understand what is at stake, and they think that the things that are very near and dear to them are safe when in fact they are in the cross hairs of our adversaries.

 

Diverse: What do you think of Ward Connerly and others who are fighting to eliminate race-conscious affirmative action programs?

 

TS: There are a lot of people who may be confused and people who in good faith struggle with affirmative action, but the people who are leading this fight are not confused about what they are doing, and many of them are pursuing an old agenda. It’s old wine in new bottles. The fact that you have someone like Ward Connerly serving that interest doesn’t in any way change or dilute what their agenda is. There have always been Black folks unfortunately who have been willing to serve their master. I think that what is most important for all Americans to understand is that if our adversaries get their way, nothing less than all voluntary attempts to address racial inequality would be illegal. You couldn’t have programs aimed at addressing this crisis among Black boys and Black young men because they are race conscious by definition. You couldn’t have scholarships for minority students. You couldn’t have mentoring programs that are specifically aimed at minority students.

 

Diverse: What are you most proud of during your time at LDF?

 

TS: I would like to think not so much about what I’ve done, but where we are with respect to the progress on issues of race and racial justice. I’m terribly conscious of the fact that we are in this era in which we are fighting a battle with very aggressive forces. It’s very difficult these days to prevail in the Supreme Court in particular, on issues of race. When I started practicing, our vision of what we could accomplish in this work was one that was defined by Brown vs. Board of Education and that legacy. That was the era of the civil rights movement and the courageous plaintiffs and their lawyers and federal judges who really changed America for the better. I’m so conscious of the fact that for much of the era in which I’ve done civil rights law beginning in 1980 with the election of President Reagan to the White House, we’ve been fighting against regressive forces.

– Jamal Watson

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