The NAACP at 100: Separate but Equal, the Sequel

By Julianne Hing Jul 17, 2009

Kai Wright over at The Root discussing Ben Jealous’s debut at this year’s NAACP 100th Anniversary, gets straight to the point. The NAACP may be struggling to define its role in 2009, but when it comes to articulating the agenda for racial justice today, ain’t we all on an uphill climb? Wright says:

Given how much pain and sacrifice black America endured to kill Jim Crow, it’s tough to accept a clear truth: Securing rights and breaking color lines was the easy part. But equal rights and equal opportunity are not the same thing. The latter demands a far more complex battle in which we must fight villains—the broken criminal justice system, predatory lending, crappy schools—that utterly consume the poorest of us while remaining abstractions to many, many others. The fact that a quarter of black Americans live in poverty is a problem, but it’s one that the 15 million of us who are middle-class can go all day without noticing.

Which is why advocates for racial justice were failing to make their case long before Barack Obama came along and forced the question of their relevance. The NAACP has no doubt been crippled by its own failings—the financial troubles, the internal squabbles and scandals, the reluctance to meaningfully engage younger generations. But the problem is both broader than one group and more consequential than organizational shortcomings. The right has been winning the debate over race for more than a generation because it’s saying what everybody actually wants to hear: The civil rights movement was a towering success, so let’s all move on.

Ain’t that the truth. But it’s more than that people are tiiiiired talking about race. Race surfaces regularly these days in the national dialogue, but it’s still confined to acts of individual bias and bigotry or the outsized and clearly delirious comments of crotchety old white men (Lindsey Graham, anyone?). And so shifting the conversation to a larger structural focus is not easy; people are afraid of implicating themselves by acknowledge racism’s structural roots. We’re up against a presidential administration that has been great at placing people of color and women in prominent positions, but can’t bring themselves to talk about race explicitly on the issues. Racism today may seem like a shape-shifting, amorphous concept. But it’s real and visible. This is the challenge for all of us today: to show people the reality that is in front of all of us. The NAACP’s struggle is not theirs alone. It’s just a little harder ’cause they a little older than the rest of us.