At 100, NAACP Chief Weighs Group's Role

The NAACP turned 100 on Feb. 12. Benjamin Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, talks about being a part of a new generation of African-American leaders, as well as his take on leading the NAACP on its centenary.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is 100 years old this month. It's quite a milestone, and it comes as the civil rights organization faces quite a quandary. How does the NAACP avoid slipping into opalescence with a black president in the White House? And how does it attract a younger generation that often views the organization as a social dinosaur?

The NAACP's new president, Benjamin Todd Jealous, is trying to tackle those challenges. At 35, he has his own civil rights credentials, but many elders in the movement viewed him as an outsider when he was narrowly elected to his new role.

Jealous rejects the idea that we're in post-racial world.

Mr. BENJAMIN JEALOUS (President, NAACP): You know, I am looking forward to the NAACP going out business one day. I am looking forward to us being a post-racial society because race is a lie based on a (unintelligible). But at the day, we can't be post-racial until we're post-racism. And right now it's harder for a black man with no criminal record to get a job than a white man with a criminal record. So we ain't there yet.

NORRIS: Ben, your parents have been active in the civil rights movement going back to the 1950s. Your father is white, your mother is black...

Mr. JEALOUS: Yeah.

NORRIS: ...and you were raised in California. Does the fact that you come from a mixed-race marriage affect your vision or your plans for the organization?

Mr. JEALOUS: No, not at all. I mean the - my parents are civil rights activists to their core. And they, you know, raised me to understand many things including the fact that I, like generations in our family of people who are ultimately the product of a white father and a black mother, although in very different terms, was a black person.

The NAACP is a multi-racial family at the end of day. You know, so I tell folks we are not a black organization. Our first president was a white woman. We're merely a very black organization. That's sort of my, I guess my family is kind of the same way. We're a multi-racial, very black family.

NORRIS: I know that there are people who think that your racial background is not worth noting. I ask because, as you well know, there are people who have, who come from mixed families and sometimes straddle two worlds and don't find full acceptance in either.

And I was wondering if you might use your role and your history to lift up multi-culturalism, to talk about it in a new way.

Mr. JEALOUS: Well, you know, the reality is, is that all we have, as far as definitions of white and black are, you know, anachronistic state laws. You know, in the state that my family is from Virginia, you know, with the plantation we come off from, that's where my mom was born. Till the late 1980s, the law on the books - simply said that if you were 1/32 of African descent, you are black.

And essentially if you were pure European and or very, very close to it, you are white. And that one-drop rule is just repeated in different ways to beyond across the country, throughout the South.

I'm not really interested in sort of having more subtle racial categories. You know, if people look at somebody and they say, wow, you're so fair. You know, how can we call you black? Well, first of all, I've never met anybody who was actually black. I've never met anybody who's actually white. We're just all hues in between.

And if that makes them feel uncomfortable, let them be uncomfortable with the idea of race. Let them question that and really take it to its logical extent, which is we're all the same.

NORRIS: Ben, as you look toward the future and pushing the organization in a new direction, have you thought about any kind of symbolic change that might hearken a new day? I mean the name of the organization, for instance: The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a term you don't really hear a lot right now.

Mr. JEALOUS: Yeah. Well, you know, it's a term that's anachronistic, so it speaks to history and it feels out of place all at the same time. You know, I have let it be known and I've stand with the many people in the organization who will be fine with just calling us the NAACP, just like the AARP.

NORRIS: But retired people are still called retired people. They don't...

Mr. JEALOUS: But, yeah...

NORRIS: ...particularly have a new term applied to them.

Mr. JEALOUS: ...but their membership starts at 50 and they market to people who still work, because they realize that quite frankly for the boomers, like, retirement may not happen till they're 90.

So, you know, but I'm not really fixated on semantics. I want to get the work done. I want to see all kids go to a good school. I want to see us fix the problems of Back Street and not just focus on Main Street, which is still fairly segregated and where people still have different experiences whether they're black or they're white.

I want to see us really engage in the issue of mass incarceration in our society, and turns things around so that money goes to the schools, or to create jobs. And so that people who are drug addicted are treated like addicts and actually have their problems solved rather than trained to be hardened criminals.

NORRIS: Ben Jealous, by the way, happy anniversary.

Mr. JEALOUS: Thank you. It feels great to be 100.

NORRIS: It has been good talking to you. Thanks so much.

Mr. JEALOUS: All right. Thank you.

NORRIS: Ben Jealous, he's the president and CEO of the NAACP.

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