Opinion Page: The Future of the NAACP Eddie Glaude Jr. talks about the op-ed which he co-wrote that lays out the future of the NAACP. It appeared in last Wednesday's Washington Post.
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Opinion Page: The Future of the NAACP

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Opinion Page: The Future of the NAACP

Opinion Page: The Future of the NAACP

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Time now for the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. When the head of the NAACP announced his resignation earlier this month after just 19 months on the job, it set off a tense debate among many African-Americans over the mission of this organization. Should it continue its political advocacy role, or is it time to focus on more practical solutions?

In an op-ed in last Wednesday's Washington Post, Eddie Glaude, Jr. and Ronald Sullivan, Jr. called this a critical impasse for the nation's oldest civil rights organization. They argue that we've entered a post civil rights age that requires new tactics, and they want the NAACP to move beyond its advocacy role to address what they call the social and moral crisis faced by African-American children.

Eddie Glaude, Jr. joins us in just a moment, but we want to hear also what you think. Is it time for the NAACP to direct more resources to social service programs, wealth building, tutoring, pregnancy counseling? Do you agree that we're in a post-civil-rights era? The number, as always, 800-989-8255 - 800-989-TALK. Or e-mail us, talk@npr.org.

Eddie Glaude, Jr. is a professor at Princeton University, a senior fellow at the Jamestown project. He joins us from our bureau in New York. And thanks very much for coming in today.

Professor EDDIE GLAUDE (Religion and African-American Studies, Princeton University): Thanks for having me.

CONAN: And you say it's time for new strategies, new tactics to address the problems many African-Americans face. What do you mean by that?

Prof. GLAUDE: Well, first of all, we shouldn't confuse principles with tactics. We can hold steadfast to the mission and vision that has formed the foundation of the NAACP over these years. But understand that situations and conditions change. I mean, when we say post-civil-rights era, we're not saying that we're post questions or issues or debates around civil rights. What we're saying is that the civil rights movement fundamentally changed the racial landscape of the United States. Its successes and failures impact the very ways in which we think about matters.

And if we continue to draw on strategies to imagine our responses in light of strategies and tactics developed under those conditions, we might wind up misdescribing and acting inappropriately to respond to the conditions we find ourselves in today.

CONAN: As you describe it, the NAACP's principle response all these years has been to go to government for solutions and to use same - similar kinds of tactics over and over again, tactics they would argue have proved successful.

Prof. GLAUDE: Well, they have, and - but part of what we want to do is to engage in a description of our contemporary moment. We've seen a shift in the political economy of the United States, is that right? We've seen increasing long-term unemployment in black communities. We know we see hyper concentrations of poverty.

We know there are these newfangled problems that complicate the very ways in which we conceive of racial politics in the United States, having everything to do with enormous success and extraordinary failure. That is to say you see an expansion among those of us who have access to mainstream American society. And you see an expansion of those of us who are locked out, who've fallen beyond the pale.

So part of what we're trying to say is not to choose between social advocacy and individual responsibility. That sort of binary opposition is old hat in our view.

What Professor Sullivan and I were trying to suggest is that if you're thinking that it's solely individual responsibility or you think it's solely governmental responsibility, then you're missing the point. What we need to do is be more creative and imaginative in addressing this problem.

Part of what we have, brother Neal, is this. I think we have a generational divide in the United States. I think we have a problem with a black political class that it was formed under specific conditions, whose temperament was shaped under those conditions, responding to particular realities that are just simply different - fundamentally different. And part of the challenge is for new voices, new personalities to emerge on the stage, to begin to offer new ways and new directions to struggle.

CONAN: You - this is my word and not yours - I don't mean…

Prof. GLAUDE: Sure.

CONAN: …to put it in your mouth but…

Prof. GLAUDE: That's okay.

CONAN: …as you describe the leadership of the organization, stultified is a term that did come to my mind. And at the same time, some of those leaders might read your piece and say, you know, we learned a lot more about civil rights and how to get it and how to achieve it than you will ever know.

Prof. GLAUDE: Well see, that's the problem, right? I mean, just by the mysteries of history I was born in 1968. I didn't have the opportunity to march with Martin Luther King, Jr. I didn't have the opportunity to organize with all of those fellow citizens who struck the blow for freedom in the 1960s.

But it so happens to be the case that I am the child of those who struggled, the child of those - I am the beneficiary, in fact, of those who struggled. I wouldn't be possible, that is a tenured professor at Princeton University, without those struggles.

So what is it - what do we mean when we say that in order to authenticate your voice, to legitimate your position as a leader, that somehow you have to show some kind of personal biographical experience with the 1960s? That just seems to me flat-out wrong.

The challenge of today's black leadership class, it seems to me, is to open itself up to imaginative struggles, imaginative strategies, to begin to rethink its tactics, to begin to address the new-fangled problems that we confront. If not, they're going to seal the fate of their organizations and new organizations will just simply crop up.

CONAN: We'll get callers on in just a moment, but I do want to ask - this piece came out last week. What's been the response?

Prof. GLAUDE: Well, the response has been really interesting. Among, shall we say, folk 40 and under, they've been really excited. They tend to agree without position. And remember, our position is that - Professor Sullivan and my position is that no matter where you stand on the issue with regards to Bruce Gordon resigning, the question is that the NAACP must reconsider its orientation.

That is to say if its mission is to ensure educational and political and economic equality and to eradicate racial discrimination and hatred, it must understand that the conditions under which those sorts of problems emerge changed, and as a result your strategies must change.

So that's been one issue. One response has been very, very, very good. The other has been, of course, you're young and you don't know much about the situation that's going on here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Perhaps not the first time you've heard that in your life.

Prof. GLAUDE: Not at all, not at all.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. If you'd like to join us, our phone number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Fred is on the line, Fred with us from Monterey in California.

FRED (Caller): I think that the NAACP has missed the boat. Civil rights as an issue is alive and well, not only in this country, in the world. What you see in Afghanistan and Iraq is a continuing attempt at niggerization of the world. I mean, that's a reality, and it's gotten to the point where race as an issue is so plasticized that we don't even want to look at it, so we turn our heads away as though someone had made a bad smell and we go on with a lot of intellectual assertions.

Essence magazine was created in 1968-'69 because the magazines of the time had plasticized the black experience, and I see the NAACP as being in the same mode. They're looking at economic progress, education, and the root cause of all of the problems in America, in fact the world - racism - you know, has not been addressed fully, and we continue to turn out heads aside.

And I think what we need to do in America as Americans is stand up and say we won't tolerate this good-old-boy racism that is trying to infect the world. We have to stand up and call it what it is. The niggerization of the world must stop.

CONAN: So in terms of the NAACP, Fred, I have to say - where should it go? Should it stick to its…

FRED: It should speak to that. It should say the words. Stop niggerization of the world. They should be up in Washington and demanding an end to this abortion in Iraq and in Afghanistan. You know, am I missing something?

Prof. GLAUDE: Well, I think it's very important to understand that the NAACP has committed its scarce resources to addressing racial inequality and discrimination in the United States. They have done extraordinary work in regards to addressing not only policy issues but legal issues that in some significant sort of way reinforce what you say - I think Cornell West lays it out very clearly - about this process of niggerization.

But what we're talking about is expanding its conception of its task, of its self-conception. And that is to say, when we begin to think about the implications of race in the lives of Americans, we understand that it's quite nuanced, that the experiences of black folk in the United States have fundamentally transformed in light of the successes - and I keep saying this -and failures of the civil-rights movement, and in light of the increasing place of the United States on the global stage.

And so part of what I hear the caller saying is that the NAACP must understand itself in a global context, understand the significance and centrality of the experiences of black folk in the history of the United States and in its present, and understand that as shaping its role and function in responding to these global realities.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get another caller in. This is Clemente(ph), Clemente with us from Spring Light(ph), Michigan, is that right?

CLEMENTE (Caller): That's right.

CONAN: Okay, please go ahead.

CLEMENTE: Yeah, I think as I understand what you're saying, is you're not just going to cut off the civil actions here, but you want to expand into the social structures of communities and things, which is all good. But I think we have so many social groups and organizations and departments that are created not only by our government but our local communities to help in these factors that I think, you know, it would be - you would just be wasting time, effort and money to overlap all these other organizations, which contribute now to that aspect of - well, would be the black - I imagine what you're concerned with is the black.

But myself, I see the NAACP as an organization that has helped all races, even the so-called Anglo white race. Because you have - there were so many things passed and there were so many movements, I mean - and when you go back in time to Martin Luther King and the '60s and the riots, you know, there were not only black people in those riots and in those walks, in those peace chants, there were Latinos, there were Asians. You know, there were American native - Native Americans. There were all different colors and races.

CONAN: Does expanding the mission, Eddie Glaude, does it risk diffusing it?

Prof. GLAUDE: Well, I think that's an excellent question. I mean, when you have scarce resources, you have to be very deliberate about how you distribute those resources. I take that to be an excellent point, but it seems to me that if your mission - and the mission of the NAACP since 1909 has been to ensure education - educational, political, economic and social equality for all peoples and to eradicate racial discrimination and hatred.

If we want to talk about the persistence of inequality, right, we have to begin to think about education. We have to begin to think about the prison industrial complex. We have to begin to think about long-term unemployment within particular communities, particularly African-American communities, and we have to think about these problems, right, children growing up in poverty.

We have to begin to think about these problems not only in terms of law and policy, we also have to think about them in terms of individual choices, in terms of community resources that can be deployed in order to address them.

Now, I'm not trying to make a conservative, quote-unquote, "pitch." I'm trying to say that we need to get beyond the sorts of thinking about solely, you know, petitioning government to respond to problems and solely talking about individual responsibility.

We know that education and the well being of our children are crucial. I think the NAACP, given what Bruce Gordon was trying to do, was to move the organization to address these social-service questions because they're absolutely crucial to this particular community of experience.

CONAN: Clemente, thanks very much for the call.

CLEMENTE: You're welcome.

CONAN: We're speaking with Eddie Glaude, Jr., about his op-ed that he re-wrote - he didn't re-write it. He wrote it along with another professor, part of the Jamestown Project. And if you'd like to read the op-ed, you can go to our Web site at npr.org/talk. You can also learn how to download the Opinion Page as a podcast. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from npr.org.

And NPR News too. Let's get another caller on the line. This is Billy(ph), Billy with us from Bethany Beach in Delaware.

BILLY (Caller): Yeah, I think one of the most important things that we really need to do as a country and as a people is to really be strong enough to admit that we still have a huge racial issue in this country. I think it's a problem. I think that people are unwilling to look at what's been done, what we've done to people over the years, what we're doing now to Arabic people.

You know, there's a huge host of problems, and I think a lot of people are saying well look how far we've come. And that's true, but that's not really the issue. The issue is that as Americans, don't we strive to do better and want more and want better from our country?

Prof. GLAUDE: Absolutely. I think part of where the confusion lies is when we use words like - phrases like post-civil rights era or post-soul politics, as I use it. Part of the misunderstanding is that some folk think we mean that the questions or issues around civil rights are no longer pertinent or important.

That's not the point. The point really is to mark a different historic moment with different sets of conditions that complicate the very ways in which we talk about race. Part of - what does it mean, for example, that over the last eight years the face of America to the world has been black? That is to say, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell.

That suggests a level of inclusion that we've never seen before. Now, I don't have the same politics as Colin Powell or Condoleezza Rice, but I want to suggest that it represents a particular shift. And part of what I'm suggesting is that the old racial politics, the theater of racial politics that has defined the way in which we have engaged the problem is no longer - not necessarily relevant - but is no longer effective in addressing the complexity.

Now, if you can't agree with that, then we have ourselves a serious debate, and that's what we're trying to inaugurate. That's what we're trying to initiate, for us to begin to have that kind of conversation.

BILLY: Yeah, and I feel that, you know, we've kind of almost become, like, counter-progressive on the issue.

Prof. GLAUDE: That's right.

BILLY: That is to say, you know, saying that this isn't a problem anymore, you know, it doesn't take someone to be of color to know that there is a problem, you know. And I think that the sooner people are willing to own up to mistakes that we've made, to correct things and to make this a great country, then we will be a great country because we can stand on our feet and say we're okay with making mistakes because we now know how to correct them and how to go about that process. And as a young person, I feel it's just especially important for all of us to realize this isn't a black issue or an Iraqi issue or a Chinese issue. It's a human issue, you know, and people get the privilege of being treated a certain way because of color. Well, that doesn't cut it for me.

CONAN: Billy, thanks very much for the call. We appreciate it.

BILLY: Thank you.

CONAN: And Eddie Glaude, Jr., thank you very much for your time today.

Prof. GLAUDE: Well thank you for having me.

CONAN: Eddie Glaude, Jr., professor at Princeton University, a senior fellow at the Jamestown Project. Again, we have a link to his op-ed on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. You can also find information there on how to download our Opinion Page podcast. That's npr.org/blogofthenation, that last part all one word. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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