Is The NAACP Still Relevant?

While the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, better known as the NAACP, helped end lynching and fought segregation and discrimination, some people are questioning its relevancy on its 100th anniversary.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LYNN NEARY, Host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington sitting in for Neil Conan. In the summer of 1908, race riots in Springfield, Illinois, the home of Abraham Lincoln, led to the lynching of at least one black man. Scores were injured and many blacks fled their homes. Partly in response to the violence, the NAACP was formed the following February on Abraham Lincoln's birthday. This month, as the civil rights organization celebrates its 100th anniversary, it also faces something of an identity crisis. With the election of the first black president of the United States, many Americans question the relevance of the organization. Some argue that the group achieved its goals and is no longer relevant, others say that the NAACP is needed to address the racial disparities that still exist, but say it should focus less on protesting discrimination and more on providing social services. What do you want from the NAACP as it heads into the next century - its' next century. We'd especially like to hear from our African-American listeners today. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our Email address is: talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog. It's at npr.org/blogofthenation. Later, on the opinion page, historians picked their favorite, now tell us who's your favorite president of all time? But first, the NAACP. Mark Anthony Neil is a professor at Duke University and he joins us now from the campus of Duke. Good to have you with us. I'm sorry, I'm afraid he's not with us, so we're going to be joined now by Julian Bond. Julian Bond is the Chairman of the NAACP and has been since 1998. Good to have you with us, Mr. Bond.

Mr. JULIAN BOND (Chairman, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People): Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Well, you heard what I was saying in that introduction that there are those who question the relevance of your organization, now. How do you respond to those charges?

Mr. BOND: Well, I reject that we're not relevant or that we're suffering any kind of identity crisis. We know who we are. We know what we do. We've done it successfully for 100 years and unfortunately, it looks as if we'll have to do it for many years more, because although we've helped make tremendous strides forward in racial relations and racial progress over the last hundred years, we know we're not yet a perfect union, and so we've got to keep at it.

NEARY: Let me read a quote to you. This is from the linguist John McWhorter, who asked this question, If the NAACP as it currently operates ceased to exist tomorrow, what significant effect would it have on black America? How would you answer that question?

Mr. BOND: Well, it would mean in about 2,000 communities across the country if you suffered an incident of racial discrimination, you'd not have a citizen's group poised and ready to address that for you, to help you, to guide you toward overcoming that method, that wrong that you had suffered. It would mean that there would be no headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, where a staff of trained professionals are equipped to deal with these kinds of problems. And it would mean that incidences of racial discrimination would pass by without anyone doing anything about them or without the most effective group doing something about them.

NEARY: But given the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States, given that there is now a black man in the White House, does that say that some of the goals of the NAACP should be different now?

Mr. BOND: Well, you know, we're not the National Association for the Advancement of One Colored Person. We are the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. And just because one man has reached this pinnacle, this great success for which we take some credit, doesn't mean that the fight we've been waging for all these years has ended. You know, we're not ready yet to claim victory.

NEARY: Do you think that we're now living in a post-racial United States and does that make things different?

Mr. BOND: No, I don't we are and I am surprised when I hear people say that, just as they say we're living in post-feminist world. I don't understand the basis for these statements or what they're supposed to mean. Does this mean that race as an issue doesn't exist in the United States anymore? Or that gender discrimination, for that matter, as an issue doesn't exist in the country? Well, I don't think anyone believes that.

NEARY: I'd like to bring Mark Anthony Neil into the discussion. Now, I believe he is with us now from Duke University. Good to have you with us, Professor Neal.

Dr. MARK ANTHONY NEAL (Professor of African and African-American Studies, Duke University): How are you doing, Lynn?

NEARY: Good, thanks. How would you say people - has the way people think about race changed since the beginning of the NAACP and since its heyday?

Dr. NEAL: I think absolutely. Yeah, I'm one who - I don't really subscribe to this notion of a post-racist society, but it doesn't mean that there aren't any significant amount of people in the culture who do. And I think particularly at this particular moment with the election of Barack Obama, it's really changes the natures of how we think about the black-white race relations, and I think becomes incredibly difficulty to use paradigm that the NAACP so brilliantly has used over the last century to go forward, when the new commander-in-chief, you know, looks like the very people that make up the NAACP. So, I think it's this kind of moment of how do we think about this incredible history of race relations, this incredible history of the role that NAACP has played in terms of progressive politics and now apply that to a new strategy that looks at a range of progressive political issues that can actually galvanize, not just the African-American community, but other communities. I think even in terms of the black community, you know, we're not talking about a kind of traditional African-American southern-based, Christian-based black community. The black community in 2009 is so much more reflective of a global black diaspora. When I look at elite students in places like Duke or Harvard or Princeton, more than likely, we're not talking about African-American students but we're talking about first and second generation, you know, African nationals. You know, who are Americanized because they were born here but are dealing with realities from their parents' history, their grandparents' history, and I think that really does change the nature of how race relations is articulated at this point in time.

NEARY: Well, I know you have said that the organization should try and attract a different kind of core audience, but can you define what you mean by that core audience? Are you saying that the NAACP should appeal to people of all color not just African-Americans or…?

Dr. NEAL: I think the NAACP needs to remain issue-oriented but look at progressive issues that really cut across (unintelligible) something an African-American constituency. And it's not to say that the NAACP hasn't done that to some extent in the past, but I think the more broadly they look at issues like fair wages and health care and health insurance and gender equality, gay and lesbian politics, I mean, all those range of things that can generate a more progressive core, particularly at this kind of moment, you know, where I think so much of the movement that needs to occur in this country needs to be more broadly racial. It needs to be more trans-racial, as oppose to just be seen as politics that are emanating from particular group. And I think because the NAACP has a long legacy or history of doing progressive organization on that level, that in fact, at this moment, they can play an incredible leadership role in terms of bringing together a progressive group of - groups of folks together to do politics that speaks to specific issues.

NEARY: We're talking about the relevance of the NAACP as it celebrates its 100th anniversary and heads into its second century. If you'd like to join the discussion, the number is 989-8255, and we are going to take a call from Eunice(ph) who is calling from Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, Eunice.

EUNICE (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call and I would like to agree with the gentlemen with regards to the politics aspect, but I'm more concerned about the NAACP focusing on black-on-black crime. It is an absolute outrage, the amount of youth that have been killed in the last couple of years, and no one seems to want to address this issue. You look at the amount of death in the Iraq war, I mean, if you total the amount of death in this country in the last two years, just black youth alone is absolutely staggering. Let alone Chicago, where kids are afraid to go to school and ride the bus and, you know, and I don't hear anything from the NAACP. I think we, as African-Americans, we need to take to the streets and say, You know what? We're not going to stand for this, and parents need to be accountable.

NEARY: Julian Bond, I'd love to hear you respond to that. This is a tough subject for the NAACP to take on. You know, the NAACP has its Image Awards where it tries to show the positive side of being African-American, but this is one of these tougher subjects not such a positive side. Should the NAACP be taking it on?

Mr. BOND: We should be taking it on, we are taking it on. You know, we like to think that everything we have done over the past 100 years is aimed at improving life chances for people of color and improving their life chances of course means trying to lessen the appalling rate of homicide that you see in black communities, and we've done all we can to make sure that that rate goes down. We have fought against the proliferation of guns in our neighborhood. We've had non-violent workshops in our communities. We've worked with gangs. We've done all of the things, I think, that people would want us to do and to some success, not enough, of course, but with some success.

NEARY: Eunice, what would you like to see the NAACP do on this issue more than has been done in the past?

EUNICE: We need to stand from (unintelligible). When you look at the amount of kids that - or adults that are incarcerated, they come - the percentage is 70 percent when it comes from a one-parent home. I think, you know, we need to look at the father aspect thing, you know, and President Obama has mentioned this in the past, you know, fathers need to step up to the plate. And then no one wants to address this because, you know, it's none of - something we want to look at. But for me, I look at my two young sons and I have to tell them, you know, there's an order. You know, you get married, you have these children and that's not always the case, but we look at the amount of children that are born out of wedlock in our community, and when you don't have the father there, I would dare say that when the father is in the home, and you have to come home, you know, you get a bad grade or something happens at school and, you know, you have to look at your father's face and address it, you're going to be more likely to take a second chance and go: You know what? Do I really want to do this? You know, is it worth getting into these gangs? I think that's part of the problem, you know, this family unit and particularly marriage.

NEARY: All right, well, thanks so much for calling in, Eunice.

EUNICE: Yeah, thank you for your time.

NEARY: And I'm going to ask Julian Bond to just respond to that point which is kind of a second point that relates to the first that Eunice made and that is talking about the family and the role of fatherhood.

Mr. BOND: Well, of course, we have always supported strong families. We have provided - we've pushed employers to hire people of color where they wouldn't and now they do more often than not. We've pushed for better schools in our communities and in some places with success. So, you know, the kinds of things she's talking about, the things - I think everybody agrees ought to be done. But some of them border on social service, and while there are many, many organizations in the country that provides social service - and thank God they do - we're one of the very few that provides social justice.

NEARY: All right, I'm going to ask you to hold that thought. We're going to talk a little bit more about that when we return from a short break. We're discussing the NAACP, as it celebrates its 100th anniversary with Julian Bond and Mark Anthony Neal. We'll continue our discussion after a short break. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. I'm Lynn Neary. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

The NAACP played a key role in ending lynching in the United States and fighting discrimination. Now, the organization faces a new round of criticism that it's fighting a battle it already won, that in 2009, it is no longer relevant. We are talking about the future of the NAACP. What do you want from the organization as it heads into the next - its next century? Again, we'd especially like to hear from our African-American listeners today. Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255 and our Email address is: talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog, it's at npr.org/blogofthenation. We're talking with Julian Bond. He's the current Chairman of the NAACP, and I hope we'll soon have Mark Anthony Neal - is with us again. We've been having a little trouble with his connection to the show. He teaches African-American Studies at Duke University and you're there with us?

Dr. NEAL: Yes, I am.

NEARY: Prof. Neal…

Dr. NEAL: Yes.

NEARY: On the phone with us now from Duke University. Professor Neal, we just had a call from a young woman who has two young sons saying she's concerned about issues like the role that fathers would play in a black family, concerned about black-on-black violence…

Dr. NEAL: Mm hmm.

NEARY: Are these the issues of the younger generation?

Dr. NEAL: I don't think they are issues of the younger generation. I mean, I think a lot of people see them as post-civil right era issues, you know, in that, you know, this kind of mythology about the black family falling apart, you know, over the last 30 or 40 years. I think in some ways, the NAACP is in an unenviable position in that, you know, it's such a recognizable brand that I think there are many folks, particularly African-Americans, that think that the NAACP really can respond to all the kind of crisis and trauma that exist within the black community. And the reality is that no one organization can do that. I mean that's work that has to be taken on obviously by local institutions and local individuals, and, you know, building upon national networks, I mean, I think that's the beauty now, for instance, you know, many of these social networking sites, you have a generation of folks now who realize that you don't physically have to be in the same place anymore to network and do the kind of progressive organizing that needs to occur at this particular moment in time. But I think also this pressure to speak to things more inwardly within the black community, also I think captures one of the fundamental issues that the NAACP has to deal with at this particular moment. In that historically, so much of the energy has come from dealing with issues of racism and white supremacy and black folks being disenfranchised both from the political process, but obviously in terms of economics in a range of corporate entities, in the range of other things. You know, how does it now go forward and really do the kind of self-scrutiny that needs to occur within the context of the black community? And I think that's the kind of work that's not as sexy. I mean, that's the kind of work that a lot of folks don't get excited about because it really is calling to the carpet in a very public way the kind of dysfunctional issues that we need to deal with within the context of the black community.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call now from Willy(ph) who is calling from Orangeburg, South Carolina. Hi, Willy.

WILLY (Caller): Hello. How are you doing?

NEARY: Good. Go ahead.

WILLY: I think there is still a need for the NAACP without a shadow of a doubt. First, well, let me give you a scenario. I suggest that any person who thinks we are not needed - give them a good cosmetic job as a black person and let them live a year just throughout the nation and especially in the south and a lot of the northern states. And I think when they - when this is up, and when the term is up in a year, they will come back, and they will say without a shadow of a doubt, this organization is still needed. First of all, if you look at the public school systems in black communities, we have the life of equity in funding. When you think about the Jews who not have the problems that we've had, you'll have a national organization and I know is very much needed because discrimination has not died, it has taken a different turn. Where it used to be very visible, it's not that visible anymore, but it still exists. Equal opportunities and jobs and provide equal pay for what you do still is a problem. I know we have a lot of social issues which I think we are responsible for and we are addressing those social issues.

NEARY: All right, Willy, thanks very much.

WILLY: OK.

NEARY: Appreciate your call. And I wanted to follow up what Willy said with this Email because it gets to a point that Julian Bond was making just before we took that break earlier. This is from Kaye(ph) in Detroit. The NAACP's purpose was to use the existing legal and judicial system to ensure African-Americans enjoyed full citizenship. It did that regarding criminal justice, voting segregation, et cetera, and still works on these issues today unbeknownst to many Americans. The association's work stops when the legal aspects of racism ends. Obama's election doesn't end the issues of discrimination in employment, housing, credit and health. And Julian Bond, that gets to the point that you were making as we took our break which is, you still see this more as, I think you were saying, a social justice organization rather than say an organization that deals with…

Mr. BOND: (unintelligible) yes, I had been saying that there are literally hundreds of thousands of groups in the country that provide social service and they're much needed and deserve all our praise and thanks for doing so. There are relatively few that address issues of social justice and we are a social justice organization. We've always said if our people have social justice, they won't need social service.

NEARY: But do you see a need at all right now to maintain focus on those issues of social justice? And, of course, the NAACP has been very successful in taking many cases of discrimination to the courts continuing that work, but also shifting the mission in any way as you face…?

Mr. BOND: No.

NEARY: No. OK.

Mr. BOND: No.

NEARY: Why not?

Mr. BOND: Not because we're opposed to social service. We value social service. In fact, we engage in social service activities, but because we are one of the few that work on social justice, we don't want to diminish our efforts in that regard in any way.

NEARY: And what about the whole idea of encompassing more than just African-Americans that…?

Mr. BOND: We have always been an inter-racial, multi-racial organization. Our founders were predominantly white. Our membership today is white, black, Asian, Hispanic, of all races and colors. We like to say in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, colored people come in all colors. Anybody who shares our values is more than welcome.

NEARY: All right, because I wanted to read this email from Kumar(ph) in Oakland, California. Both of your panelists have alluded the NAACP's relevance to colored people beyond African-Americans, but I'm curious if they would describe how the NAACP is relevant to this broader range of minorities in America? As a South Asian American, I consider myself a person of color, but I'm not sure the NAACP is relevant to me. How are other persons of color helped by the NAACP? Antidiscrimination against brown men in airports. How about anti-Chinese sentiment? I'll ask you…

Mr. BOND: Well…

NEARY: First, Julian Bond, and then maybe, Mark Anthony Neal, you can get involved.

Mr. BOND: The past 100 years, when we've won a lawsuit ending racial discrimination, that affects everyone in the United States, whatever their ethnicity or race or the color of their skin. And so, an advance for John Smith black man in the courts is a victory for John Brown who may be Asian, who may be Hispanic, who may be of some other ethnicity. So, it's not as if we're saying, listen, we're only helping black people. We've never said that and we don't do that now.

NEARY: Mark Anthony Neal, do you see a room for a sort of broader umbrella under the NAACP or…?

Dr. NEAL: I mean, I think, Mr. Bond is absolutely correct. You know, whenever social justice issues have addressed the condition to black folks in this country inevitably, it addressed the issues of a broad range of folks. But I think we also need to make a distinction between the makeup of their organization as opposed to the broader message and mission of the organization. And I think there is room particularly now as the NAACP thinks about the re-branding of itself. And again, to make a distinction - I'm not saying that we're in a post-racial society, but definitely there's a discourse of post-raciality that organizations like the NAACP or the Congressional Black Caucus have to address in order to be viewed as remaining relevant. And I think it would be a critical component of this new re-branding process, if you will, to really take on issues that aren't thought of being exclusively African-American, or exclusively related to the black community, but really do transcend a broad range of communities.

NEARY: We are talking about the NAACP as it celebrates its 100th anniversary. What do you want from the NAACP now? We're especially hoping to hear from our African-American listeners, give us a call at 800-989-8255, or send us an Email to talk@npr.org. And we're going to take a call now from Damien(ph) in Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Damien.

DAMIEN (Caller): Hi there.

NEARY: Go ahead.

DAMIEN: I've been a long-time listener and have been trying to get in, you know, through all the conversations for various subjects. But this subject here, is a subject that like, was said previous shows that just went off that it's going to be a long time coming before, you know, the NAACP will not be needed, and when I mean a long-time coming, I mean, generations to come. Because as long as there are people out there that are being discriminated against - on whatever level - age, you know, sexual preference, social stature or whatever it is, there's going to be people like the NAACP - an organization like NAACP needed, because if no one's out there to fight for these people then their cause is lost.

NEARY: What do you want to see the NAACP do for you at this point?

DAMIEN: For me?

NEARY: Yeah.

DAMIEN: Personally myself?

NEARY: Yeah.

DAMIEN: Like I told the guy on the phone, there's nothing really that NAACP can do, you know, to further, you know, my situation. I was in the military for 15 years and I'm out now and I'm going to school and trying to get a bachelor degree in computer science, and I'm pretty much well taken care of.

NEARY: All right. But, in general, what would you like to see the goals of the organization be at this point?

DAMIEN: Just to continue to fight. I mean, the struggle isn't over. Yes, sure there is an African-American in the White House but that doesn't mean that the struggle is over. There's still lots that can need to be done. You know, people that are out there with the current economic crisis right now don't have jobs. They don't have a place to live and they don't have, you know, hope for anything and I believe NAACP is a beacon for people like that if, you know, they choose to use it, you know, in that manner, that the NAACP can do things to further help the economy, you know. I'm a little tongue-tied I'm not sure if you understand what I mean.

NEARY: I do. I do understand. Thank you so much for calling, Damien.

DAMIEN: You're welcome.

NEARY: All right. And I just wanted to ask Julian Bond while we're on the subject of what the organization should be doing now. Of course, there's a very new young leader of the organization, Ben Jealous, I think, he's 36-years old, is that right?

DAMIEN: That's right, just turned 36.

NEARY: So, of course, he brings a very youthful perspective to this organization. What are his main goals for the NAACP?

Mr. BOND: His main goals are to ensure that we're financially healthy, that our membership grows, that we use modern tools to fight this old, old enemy, that we continue the course we've been on adopting new tools, new methods, as we can. That we broaden our reach, that we talk to more people, that we do everything a growing organization wants to do. And by the way, for Damien, we do have a group of scholarships that he might be interested in applying for, if he goes to our Website, naacp.org, he can find some of those scholarships.

NEARY: You know, I wanted to ask you about you recently just - I alluded to this earlier but you celebrated the annual Images Award in Los Angeles last week…

Mr. BOND: Right.

NEARY: Which is a great thing to do, basically celebrating positive images of African-Americans. Is that kind of thing still meaningful or as we've doing to see - is NAACP a little afraid to take on more provocative images of what it means to be black and the challenges that go along with that?

Mr. BOND: I don't believe so. I'm sure there's somebody listening out there who does, but I don't believe so. I don't believe we're afraid to tackle any issues that affects people of color.

NEARY: Mark Anthony Neal, what do you think about that?

Dr. NEAL: Yeah. I think it's been mixed. I think just the idea of the Image Awards is wonderful because it's an opportunity for black institutions to celebrate, you know, black talent and black genius, but at the same time, it is an award that's pivoted to a kind of politics of respectability, you know. What kind of images make us look best as a community? And I think that doesn't always fully capture the complexity of what our experiences are particularly in terms of the artistic realms and things of that nature. You know, going back to Damien's earlier point, I mean, I think the question is not about whether or not the NAACP is necessary. I think, most folks would agree with that, but the question is how effective the NAACP is going to be going forward? You know, if it continues the paradigm that's connecting it to an old racial politics.

NEARY: Why do you think this question of relevance is even there? I mean, why would it be there if there weren't some reason for it, I guess?

Dr. NEAL: I mean, I think if you think about, for instance, the last eight years of the Bush administration and the way that the Bush administration was able to marginalize the effectiveness of the NAACP by not engaging it. And this at the same time that the Bush administration is engaged in fundamentally gutting the Justice Department around issues of civil rights, and it's not to say that the NAACP, for instance, wasn't vigilant in terms of challenging those kind of dynamics, but at the same time, in terms of the court of public opinion, the NAACP is not seen as being on the ground. And I think it's not just a battle what the NAACP does in terms of its true effectiveness, but it is a battle about public image and public perception of what the organization is doing. You know, when organizations get involved in things like, you know, symbolic, you know, funerals for the N word, I think it speaks on some level to how out of touch some organizations there might be.

NEARY: What do you mean by that? Can you explain that a little bit more?

Dr. NEAL: I think, you know, the idea that any kind of political capital would be expanded, you know, to address the use of a word that has had a rich use, you know, throughout 200 years of African-American life at the same time that same kind of political capital could be more broadly used to address very specific issues that had impact in the black community I think, it speaks to the perception that most folks, some folks might think it's not being - that the organization is not being as effective as it could be.

NEARY: How could it had been more - what is something it could have taken on that would have been more effective than that particular issue, for example?

Dr. NEAL: I think, you know, issues of gender, for instance, you know, which I think has always taken the back seat in main stream black politics. The way that we deal with, for instance, issues of domestic abuse and I understand when Mr. Bond says that this is not an organization that's specifically dealing with, you know, social issues in that regard but dealing with issues of social justice, but in what ways do issues, for instance, of misogyny and sexism and homophobia, you know, transcend into an area of social justice. You know, the same way that negative stereotypes in the use of problematic, you know, words like, the N word would also impact upon issues of social justice.

NEARY: Ah, Julian Bond, I'm just wondering how you respond to some of what you're hearing Mark Anthony Neal say and whether any of that's being incorporated into the NAACP as this point?

Mr. BOND: Well, first, we find the N word to be offensive and spent, let's see - a morning during our convention in Detroit a couple of years ago having a symbolic burial of this word. Didn't take a tremendous amount of effort, but it didn't stop us from doing any of the others things we did, and I was surprised that the people who thought that was a waste of time. We thought it was worthwhile. But as for our relevance and public opinion polls, we rank up at the top of all groups that do what we do. You just look at - here's a poll from two years ago - this 2007 - we had the highest favorability rating of 17 organizations working in civil rights, most black people, 94 percent, including 70 percent who see us as very favorable. Three-quarters of the general public sees us favorably. So, you know, we're not immune from criticism. We do some things that, looking back on them I wish we hadn't done, there's some things we should have done that I wish we had done. But it's because we're a hundred years old, because we're so well-known, that we're the favorite organization people love to pick at, and this question about relevance, you know, I think if we hadn't had our hundredth birthday, if this were our 95th birthday, I don't think you'd be hearing these questions.

NEARY: (Laughing) OK.

Mr. BOND: It's a nice hook to hang them on.

NEARY: All right. Well, thanks so much for joining us today, Julian Bond. Julian Bond is Chairman of the NAACP since 1998. We were also joined by Mark Anthony Neal, Professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University. Coming up, the top 10 presidents of all time. Who's your favorite? Call us at 800-989-8255. It's Talk of the Nation.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.