At 100, NAACP Shifts Focus From Rights To Justice President Obama's speech to the NAACP on the group's 100th anniversary comes at a pivotal time for the organization. Kai Wright, a senior writer for the online magazine The Root, says that under its new chairman, Benjamin Jealous, the civil rights group is turning the conversation to criminal justice reform.
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At 100, NAACP Shifts Focus From Rights To Justice

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At 100, NAACP Shifts Focus From Rights To Justice

At 100, NAACP Shifts Focus From Rights To Justice

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President Obama addressed the NAACP today at its annual convention. It's the 100th anniversary of the nation's oldest civil rights group. So how does the NAACP fit in the Obama era?

Kai Wright of the online magazine "The Root" is here now. And, Kai, this 100-year anniversary is getting lots of play, lots of media attention. What does the NAACP do when it's not holding big celebrations?

Mr. KAI WRIGHT (Senior Writer, "The Root"): Well, that's been the big question, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WRIGHT: I think that anybody - I'm 35 years old - anybody in my generation and down that actually cares about race and race politics in a substantive way, if you ask them about the NAACP for the last several years, you're going to get some level of an eye roll. And that's because it's had this reputation as having a shingle out, but not really doing much.

I think what was significant for me in this week's conference, listening to what the new director, Ben Jealous, is talking about is they're actually now articulating an agenda that I think is quite relevant.

BRAND: This new leader that you mentioned, Ben Jealous, he's your age. He's 36.

Mr. WRIGHT: That's right.

BRAND: He's the youngest leader ever for the NAACP. And interestingly, he, like the president, is a product of a mixed-race marriage - his dad is white, his mom is black, and he gave the keynote address on Monday. So, how did he position the organization for the Obama era? And how's he being received by the older members?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, first off, in his, you know, his speech was not very good in terms of its oratory. Ben Jealous is many things, but a wonderful preacher, he is not. And that's unfortunate, because his message, actually, is really quite, I think, cutting edge. I mean, what he is saying is that the future of the NAACP is not about rights, which is the way we have focused our conversation around race for so long, it's about justice.

And so he's very particularly concerned with criminal justice, I mean criminal justice reform. I think he's dead right that that is probably one of the greatest questions when we start talking about racial politics today, is how the criminal justice system works.

BRAND: Yeah, he has this line where he calls it the school to prison pipeline.

Mr. WRIGHT: Right. Young African-Americans that are going through the criminal justice system are deprived of a lot of due process. And the numbers bare it out when you look at the share that black people have of who are incarcerated. And it's a hard sell to go out and tell people his message, which is tough on crime is stupid. You have to be smart on crime. And, you know, it's a hard case to make that the NAACP's agenda at the top of their list should be getting a fair deal for people who end up arrested.

BRAND: Well, isn't there a desire these days, on the part of whites at least and on the part of others perhaps, to think that we're in a post-racial society, that these battles have already been fought and largely settled?

Mr. WRIGHT: Absolutely.

BRAND: And that this is more of a class issue than a race issue.

Mr. WRIGHT: It's a desire for everybody, I mean, and probably most of all for black people. I mean, it is terribly soul-crushing to think that after all we've been through, that race can still determine the outcome. That is a terribly debilitating thing to think about as an African-American. And when you look at things like rights, yes, you can say that we can declare victory and move on. Black people have the right to vote and have elected black leadership in the highest office in land.

But when you look at things like opportunity, when you look at the fact that a quarter of African-Americans live in poverty, then it's very clear that race continues to overlap deeply with class. And so it remains relevant, but the question is how do we get everybody, black people included, willing to talk about the fact that it remains relevant?

BRAND: So would you say, then, that is the role of the NAACP in making that relevant, it actually makes itself relevant as it moves into its next 100 years?

Mr. WRIGHT: Absolutely. And I think the conversation about whether the NAACP is relevant is a proxy for the conversation about whether race is relevant. And so that is absolutely the NAACP's goal.

BRAND: Kai Wright is a senior writer for His article about the NAACP is posted there.

Kai, thank you.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thank you for having me.

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