Our NAACP Problem

July 26, 2010  |  

It’s time that we as Black folks come to address our NAACP problem. As we’ve watched the news coverage of the Tea Party declaration and the Shirley Sherrod debacle, many of us have been thoroughly disappointed by the NAACP. However, even with this disappointment, we should be equally enraged by our response to the missteps made by the NAACP.

It’s time for us to admit that we’re comfortable criticizing the NAACP but not comfortable affirming the work they are doing. Challenging our leaders is important, but these critiques must come from an informed place so we can recognize strengths and weakness to build a better movement for equality.

101 years of fighting for the rights of Black people, in and of itself, should create a degree of reverence, but this is not always the case. Founded out of the Niagara Movement, the NAACP was one of the first multiracial progressive advocacy groups to tackle and impact social maladies ranging from lynching to education. The battles that the NAACP waged were monumental and their victories yielded changes. These very changes, in part, served to undercut the NAACP’s contemporary “relevance.”

Anthropologist John L. Jackson argues we are all governed by racial paranoia, which he describes as “the flipside of racism.” Racial paranoia centers on “fears people harbor about other groups potentially hating or mistreating them, gaining a leg up at their expense.”

We are in moment where the national dialogue around race hinges around the fear of Whites being taken advantage of by communities of color. Whether the discussion is Affirmative Action or immigration, increasingly it’s being suggested that Whites are the “true victims” of contemporary racism. This could be no further from the truth.

Black people and people of color remain disproportionately poor, locked out of quality neighborhoods and schools, and suffer from individual, structural, and institutional racism. While the election of Obama marked a watershed moment in coalition political participation, it neither erased nor filled-in the fault line of racial inequality.

When the NAACP called out the Tea Party and challenged them to oust their racist factions, it was much easier for the Tea Party and the Right to suggest the NAACP was racist and create examples of “Black racism” then deal with those in their ranks who are bigots. It is easier to shift blame than be accountable. It was an environment ripe with racial paranoia that created the opportunity for the NAACP and the USDA to respond in a knee jerk fashion to Andrew Breitbart’s spliced video of Shirley Sherrod.

In a world where information travels fast, and lies travel faster, the NAACP and USDA failed to gather all the evidence and forced Sherrod to resign. The NAACP provided rebuke, rather than support in a time of uncertainty. The NAACP was wrong; however, we must also be careful to not be equally wrong by rebuking the NAACP.

When the news about the NAACP’s declaration against the Tea Party broke, quickly the cries of the NAACP being “out of touch” began. I know that the NAACP has been an aging organization and didn’t help their cause by “burying the N word.” Instead they buried masses of young people who sought to be heard, not entombed. I do know that the NAACP was in huge financial trouble and concentrated its attention on policy issues that benefited the Black middle class more than the masses of Black people.

Despite these agreements and acknowledgements, I do not agree that is the case now. The narrative that the NAACP is “out of touch” is being shared by the Right and Black folks at large. Under the leadership of Ben Jealous, the organization is more “in touch” than many other organizations. Whether it is advocating to get Troy Davis off death row or to organizing for the extension of unemployment benefits, the NAACP is taking a leading advocacy role.

On issues ranging from education to health, the organization is incorporating mixes of netroots,  local chapter organizing, and multiracial coalitions to assure opportunities expand, not erode. While it is hypnotic to suggest the NAACP is “out of touch”, digging into their deeds reveals a different picture.

To be clear, I don’t think the NAACP is perfect; it is far from it. But the work it does should be acknowledged and supported. While not everyone will keep an active membership, we can sign petitions, attend local rallies, or disseminate information about critical civil rights issues. Even while doing this we can critique, but we must be accurate in our critique if we want to grow and continue to advocate for challenged civil rights. It is important to know the methods, goals, ideologies, and practices of an organization before you dismiss it. Doing otherwise would make us no different than the Tea Party.

R. L’Heureux Lewis is an Assistant Professor of Sociology and Black Studies at the City College of New York – CUNY. His research concentrates on issues of educational inequality, the role of race in contemporary society, and mental health well-being. He blogs regularly at www.uptownnotes.com and you can follow him on twitter @dumilewis

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